Bolaño’s Cave

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” said Amalfitano. “It’s an old story, the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power. I’m not saying they’re all the same. There are some notable exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who surrender do so in bad faith. Or even that they surrender completely. You could say it’s just a job. But they’re working for the state. In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches over him in silence. And it puts this giant cohort of essentially useless writers to use. How? It exorcises demons, it alters the national climate or at least tries to sway it. It adds layers of lime to a pit that may or may not exist, no one knows for sure. Not that it’s always this way, of course. An intellectual can work at the university, where the literature departments are just as bad as in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get a late-night call from someone speaking in the name of the state, someone who offers them a better job, better pay, something the intellectual thinks he deserves, and intellectuals always think they deserve better. This mechanism somehow crops the ears off Mexican writers. It drives them insane. Some, for example, will set out to translate Japanese poetry without knowing Japanese and others just spend their time drinking. Take Almendro—as far as I know he does both. Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club, if you follow me. The weather is good, it’s sunny, you can go out and sit in the park and open a book by Valéry, possibly the most read by Mexican writers, and then you go over to a friend’s house and talk. And yet your shadow isn’t following you anymore. At some point your shadow has quietly slipped away. You pretend you don’t notice, but you have, you’re missing your fucking shadow, though there are plenty of ways to explain it, the angle of the sun, the degree of oblivion induced by the sun beating down on hatless heads, the quantity of alcohol ingested the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain, the fear of more contingent things, a disease that begins to become apparent, wounded vanity, the desire just for once in your life to be on time. But the point is, your shadow is lost and you, momentarily, forget it. And so you arrive on a kind of stage, without your shadow, and you start to translate reality or reinterpret it or sing it. The stage is really a proscenium and upstage there’s an enormous tube, something like a mine shaft or the gigantic opening of a mine. Let’s call it a cave. But a mine works, too. From the opening of the mine come intelligible noises. Onomatopoeic noises, syllables of rage or of seduction or of seductive rage or maybe just murmurs and whispers and moans. The point is, no one sees, really sees, the mouth of mine. Stage machinery, the play of light and shadows, a trick of time, hides the real shape of something behind the veil of camouflage, not the real shape, but at any rate it’s the shape of something. The other spectators can’t see anything beyond the proscenium, and it’s fair to say they’d rather not. Meanwhile, the shadowless intellectuals are always facing the audience, so unless they have eyes in the backs of their heads, they can’t see anything. They only hear sounds come from deep in the mine. And the translate or reinterpret or re-create them. Their work, it goes without saying, is of a very low standard. They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they strive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only deafening and hopeless silence. They say cheep cheep bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal. Meanwhile, the stage on which they work is very pretty, very well designed, very charming, but it grows smaller and smaller with the passage of time. This shrinking of the stage doesn’t spoil it in any way. It simply gets smaller and smaller and the hall gets smaller too, and naturally there are fewer and fewer people watching. Next to this stage there are others, of course. News stages that have sprung up over time. There’s the painting stage, which is enormous, and the audience is tiny, though all elegant, for lack of a better word. There’s the film stage and the television stage. Here the capacity is huge, the hall is always full, and year after year the proscenium grows by leaps and bounds. Sometimes the performers from the stage where the intellectuals give their talks are invited to perform on the television stage. On this stage the opening of the mine is the same, the perspective slightly altered, although maybe the camouflage is denser and, paradoxically, bespeaks a mysterious sense of humor, but it still stinks. This humorous camouflage, naturally, lends itself to many interpretations, which are finally reduced to two for the public’s convenience or for the convenience of the public’s collective eye. Sometimes intellectuals take up permanent residence on the television proscenium. The roars keep coming from the opening of the mine and the intellectuals keep misinterpreting them. In fact, they, in theory the masters of language, can’t even enrich it themselves. Their best words are borrowings that they hear spoken by the spectators in the front row. These spectators are called flagellants. They’re sick, and from time to time the invent hideous words and there’s a spike in the mortality rate. When the work-day ends the theaters are closed and they cover the openings of the mines with big sheets of steel. The intellectuals retire for the night. The moon is fat and the night air is so pure it seems edible. Songs can be heard in some bars, the notes reaching the street. Sometimes an intellectual wanders off course and goes into one of these places and drinks mezcal. Then he thinks what would happen if one day he. But no. He doesn’t think anything. He just drinks and sings. Sometimes he thinks he sees a legendary German writer. But all he’s really seen is a shadow, sometimes all he’s seen is his own shadow, which comes home every night so that the intellectual won’t burst or hang himself from the lintel. But he swears he’s seen a German writer and his own happiness, his sense of order, his bustle, his spirit of revelry rest on that conviction. The next morning it’s nice out. The sun shoots sparks but doesn’t burn. The person can go out reasonably relaxed, with his shadow on his heels, and stop in a park and read a few pages of Valéry. And so on until the end.”

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