The Insufferable Gaucho | Chapter 11 of 15 - Part: 1 of 4

Author: Roberto Bolano | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2508 Views | Add a Review

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Literature + Illness = Illness

for my friend the hepatologist Dr. Victor Vargas

Illness and Public Speaking

No one should be surprised if the speaker loses his thread. Let us imagine the following scenario. The speaker is going to speak about illness. Ten people spread themselves around the auditorium. The buzz of anticipation in the air is worthy of a better reward. The talk is scheduled to begin at seven in the evening or eight at night. No one in the audience has had dinner. By seven (or eight, or nine), they are all present and seated, with their cell phones switched off. It’s a pleasure to speak to such a well-mannered group of people. But the speaker fails to appear, and finally one of the organizers of the event announces that he will not be coming because, at the last minute, he has fallen gravely ill.

Illness and Freedom

Writing about illness, especially if one is gravely ill, can be torture. Writing about illness if one is not only gravely ill but also a hypochondriac is an act of masochism or desperation. But it can also be a liberating act. It’s tempting—I know it’s an evil temptation—but all the same it is tempting to exercise the tyranny of the ill for a few minutes, like those little old ladies you meet in hospital waiting rooms, who launch into an explanation of the clinical or medical or pharmacological aspects of their life, instead of explaining the political or sexual or work-related aspects. Little old ladies who give the impression that they have transcended good and evil, and look for all the world like they know their Nietzsche, and not just Nietzsche, but Kant and Hegel and Schelling too, not to mention their closest philosophical relative: Ortega y Gassett. They could be his sisters, or rather his cronies, although actually they’re more like the philosopher’s clones. The resemblance is so striking that sometimes (as I reach the limits of my desperation) it occurs to me that Ortega y Gasset’s paradise, or his hell—depending on the gaze but above all the sensibility of the observer—is to be found in hospital waiting rooms: a paradise in which thousands of duplicates of Ortega y Gasset live out the various episodes of our lives. But I mustn’t wander too far from what I really wanted to talk about, which, in fact, was freedom, a kind of liberation: writing badly, speaking badly, holding forth about plate tectonics in the middle of a reptiles’ dinner party—it’s so liberating and so richly deserved—offering myself up to the compassion of strangers and then dishing out insults at random, spitting as I talk, passing out indiscriminately, becoming a nightmare for the friends I don’t deserve, milking a cow and pouring the milk over its head, as Nicanor Parra says in a magnificent and mysterious line.

Illness and Height

But let’s if not get to the point at least approach it briefly, where it lies like a seed deposited by the wind or a pure chance bang in the middle of a vast bare tabletop. Not long ago, as I was leaving the consulting rooms of my specialist Victor Vargas, among the patients waiting to go in I found a woman waiting for me to come out. She was a small woman, by which I mean short; her head barely came up to my chest—the top of it would have been about an inch above my nipples—even though, as I soon realized, she was wearing spectacularly high heels. Needless to say, the consultation had not been reassuring, at all; the news my doctor had for me was unequivocally bad. I felt—I don’t know—not exactly dizzy, which would have been understandable after all, but more as if everyone else had been stricken with dizziness, while I was the only one keeping reasonably calm and standing up straight, more or less. I had the impression that they were crawling on all fours, while I was upright or seated with my legs crossed, which to all intents and purposes is as good as standing or walking or maintaining a vertical position. I wouldn’t, however, go so far as to say that I felt well, because it’s one thing to remain upright while everyone else is on their hands and knees, and another thing entirely to watch, with a feeling I shall, for want of a better word, call tenderness or curiosity or morbid curiosity, while those around you are suddenly reduced, one and all, to crawling. Tenderness, melancholy, nostalgia: feelings befitting the sentimental lover, but hardly appropriate in the outpatients’ ward of a Barcelona hospital. Of course, had that hospital been a mental asylum, such a vision would not have disturbed me at all, since from a tender age I have been familiar with—though never obeyed—the proverbial injunction, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and the best way to behave in an asylum, apart from maintaining a dignified silence, is to crawl or observe the crawling of one’s partners in misfortune. But I wasn’t in an asylum; I was in one of the best public hospitals in Barcelona, a hospital that I know well, because I’ve been a patient there five or six times, and until that occasion I had never seen anyone on all fours, although I had seen some patients turn canary yellow, and others suddenly stop breathing—they were dying, which is not unusual in such a place, but crawling, I’d never seen anyone do that, which made me think that the doctor’s news must have been much worse than I had initially realized, in other words, I was in seriously bad condition. And when I came out of the consulting rooms and saw everyone crawling, this sense of my own illness intensified, and I was about to succumb to fear and start crawling too. But I didn’t, because of that little woman: she stepped forward and said her name, Dr. X, and then pronounced the name of my specialist, my dear Dr. Vargas—my relationship with him is like the marriage of a Greek shipping magnate who loves his wife but prefers to see her as rarely as he can—and Dr. X went on to say that she knew about my illness or the progress of my illness and that she would like me to participate in a study she was conducting. I asked her politely about the nature of the study. Her reply was vague. She explained that it would only take half an hour of my time, if that; she had a series of tests for me. I don’t know why, but I ended up saying yes, and then she led me away from the consulting rooms to an elevator of impressive proportions, in which there was a gurney, with no one to push it, and no one on it, of course, a gurney that lived in the elevator, going up and down, like a normal-sized girl alongside—or inside—her oversized boyfriend. It really was very large, that elevator, large enough to accommodate not just one gurney but two, plus a wheelchair, all with their respective occupants, and the strangest thing was that we were alone in there, the tiny doctor and myself, and at that point, having calmed down or become more excited, I’m not sure which, I realized that the tiny doctor was not at all bad-looking. No sooner had I come to that realization than I found myself wondering what would happen if I suggested that we make love in the elevator, since we had a bed at our disposal. And then, inevitably, I remembered Susan Sarandon, dressed up as a nun, asking Sean Penn how he could think about fucking when he had only a few days left to live. In a censorious tone of voice, of course. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve forgotten the name of the film, but it was a good film, I think it was directed by Tim Robbins, who’s a good actor and maybe a good director too, but he’s never been on death row. When people are about to die, all they want to do is fuck. People in jails and hospitals, all they want to do is fuck. The helpless, the impotent, the castrated, all they want to do is fuck. The seriously injured, the suicidal, the impenitent disciples of Heidegger. Even Wittgenstein, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, all he wanted to do was fuck. Even the dead, I read somewhere, all they want to do is fuck. Sad to say and hard to admit, but that’s the way it is.

Illness and Dionysus

To tell the truth, the honest truth, cross my heart and hope to die, it’s something I find very hard to admit. That seminal explosion, those cumulus and cirrus clouds that blanket our imaginary geography are enough to sadden anyone. Fucking when you don’t have the strength to fuck can be beautiful, even epic. Then it turns into a nightmare. But what can you do? That’s how it is. Consider, for instance, a Mexican jail. A new prisoner arrives. Not what you’d call handsome: squat, greasy, pot-bellied, cross-eyed, malevolent and smelly into the bargain. Before long, this guy, whose shadow creeps over the prison walls or the walls of the corridors at an exasperating, slug-like pace, becomes the lover of another guy, who is just as ugly, but stronger. It’s not a long, drawn-out romance, proceeding by tentative steps and hesitations. It’s not a case of elective affinity, as Goethe understood it. It’s love at first sight; primitive, if you like, but their objective is not so different from that of many normal couples or couples we consider to be normal. They are sweethearts. Their flirting and their swooning are like X-ray images. They fuck every night. Sometimes they hit each other. Sometimes they tell the stories of their lives, as if they were friends, but they’re not really friends, they’re lovers. And on Sundays, their respective wives, who are every bit as ugly as they are, come to visit. Obviously, neither of these men is what we would normally call a homosexual. If someone called them homosexuals to their faces, they’d probably get so angry and be so offended, they’d brutally rape the offender, then kill him. That’s how it is. Victor Hugo, who, according to Daudet, was capable of eating a whole orange in one mouthful—a supreme test of good health, according to Daudet, and a sign of pig-like manners, according to my wife—set down the following reflection in Les Misérables: sinister people, malicious people know a sinister and malicious happiness. Or that’s what I seem to remember, because Les Misérables is a book I read in Mexico many years ago and left behind in Mexico when I left Mexico for good, and I’m not planning to buy it or reread it, because there’s no point reading, much less rereading, books that have been made into movies, and I think Les Misérables has even been turned into a musical. Anyway, the malicious people in question, with their malicious happiness, are the horrible family who adopt Cosette when she is a little girl, and not only are they the perfect incarnations of evil and a certain petit bourgeois meanness or rather the meanness of those who aspire to join the petit bourgeoisie, they are also, at this point in history, thanks to technological progress, emblematic of the middle class in its entirety, or almost, be it left- or right-wing, educated or illiterate, corrupt or apparently upstanding: healthy individuals, busily maintaining their good health; they may be less violent, less courageous, more prudent and more discreet, but basically they’re just the same as the two Mexican gunmen living out their idyll in the confines of a penitentiary. There’s no stopping Dionysus. He has infiltrated the churches and the NGOs, the governments and the royal families, the offices and the shantytowns. Dionysus is to blame for everything. Dionysus rules. And his antagonist or counterpart is not even Apollo but Mr. Uppity or Mrs. Toplofty, Mr. Prissy or Mrs. Lonely Neuron—bodyguards who are ready to cross over to the enemy camp at the first suspicious bang.

Illness and Apollo

Where has that faggot Apollo got to? Apollo is ill, seriously ill.

Illness and French Poetry

As the French are well aware, the finest poetry of the nineteenth century was written in France, and in some sense the pages and the lines of that poetry prefigured the major and still unresolved problems that Europe and Western culture were to face in the twentieth century. A short list of the key themes would include revolution, death, boredom and escape. That great poetry is the work of a handful of poets, and its point of departure is not Lamartine, or Hugo or Nerval, but Baudelaire. Let’s say that it begins with Baudelaire, reaches its highest volatility with Lautréamont and Rimbaud and comes to an end with Mallarmé. Of course there are other remarkable poets, like Corbière or Verlaine, and others of considerable talent, like Laforgue or Catulle Mendès or Charles Cros, and even a few who are not entirely insignificant, like Banville. But, really, with Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, there’s plenty to be going on with. Let’s begin with the last of the four. I don’t mean the youngest, but the last one to die, Mallarmé, who missed out on the twentieth century by two years. He wrote in Brise marine:


The flesh is sad—and I’ve read every book.

O to escape—to get away. Birds look

as though they’re drunk for unknown spray and skies.

No ancient gardens mirrored in the eyes,

nothing can hold this heart steeped in the sea —

not my lamp’s desolate luminosity

nor the blank paper guarded by its white

nor the young wife feeding her child, O night!

I’m off! You steamer with your swaying helm,

raise anchor for some more exotic realm!


user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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