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Memory games with Bolaño, or Of what is lost

By Rodge Glass.

Hola 3:AM, and feliz año nuevo, Happy New Year. The last time we spoke my wife and I were crossing the Argentinian-Chilean border on Lago General Carrera. Now we’re two thousand kilometres north, in Bolivia, and speaking just for myself now I’ve travelled more in the last month or so than at any time in my life. The last leg of the journey has been worth it, but it’s been exhausting too. Via the breathtaking Atacama desert in Chile, then the Peruvian border, I arrived in La Paz damp, broken, confused, and wondering how much of our stuff had been ruined by the rain. That night we’d been thrown off a broken bus in the remote Bolivian countryside. During a storm. On New Year’s Eve. We just about made it here in the end, and in time to raise a glass for the bells too. Still, it might be the altitude, it might be the dizziness of having covered so much ground recently, but at times I’ve hardly been able to remember what I’m doing here or where I’ve been, never mind focus on my book. All of which got me thinking about what we remember of our experiences, why we remember it, and especially about trying to embrace what has been lost, the understanding of which is crucial for all writers of fiction. Allow me to explain…

On the road, the full spectrum of travellers exists. Business travellers on the move for a few days, locals enjoying time a week off work, also foreigners on short holidays, most of whom have flown in and will fly right back out when they’re done, back to their normal lives. These guys look pretty fresh. As for the travellers who measure their trips in months or even years, those who have no ‘normal’ life to go back to, a certain weariness might be noticed in some. A bedraggled appearance. Clothes that were bought en route perhaps, a tighter rein on budget, and maybe a better command of the language. (They’re also more likely to have taken the bus.) My wife is better at noticing the types than me, having spent longer in transit in recent years, but as our own trip lengthens I’m starting to notice some of the signs. Alongside the outwardly obvious evidence though, the weight that shows in bags under the eyes, there is also absence, that crucial element that seems to fascinate me more and more as we go: what has been lost on the way. Loss was a subject that preoccupied the great Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño, and at the moment my favourite quote is from his book Antwerp: ‘Of what is lost,’ he tells us, ‘irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.’ As a writer, I’m bound to like the sentiment, especially given there have been moments recently when I thought I was at the end of my strength. But then, the box labelled OF WHAT IS LOST isn’t just restricted to the written word. All of life is in there.

The box could contain anything – there are as many types of journeys are there are people. (Don’t let yourself get dragged into thinking that everything is cliché, everything’s been done, that everyone’s the same. If you find yourself at that cynical place, it’s time to go home.) Some travellers lose lovers when they move on to the next place, some lose friends, some lose prejudices, perhaps picking up new ones on the way. Some travellers are running towards something they’ve lost, or don’t quite know what they’ve lost yet. A few look too tired to remember what they’ve lost, or to care what it is any more. All of which is fine, it just makes them human. As I am. As you are. Still, I can’t help worrying for them, and wondering whether I’m the same. What I look like to those travellers crossing me on the street, perhaps late at night, perhaps in some border town where people only arrive to leave. Yes, on the surface my situation is unusual; for starters, I’m older than most of the international brigade we’ve come across out here. Not many get the kind of opportunity I have had – to escape the grim British winter for the excitement of Latin America at the age of 35, a time in life when such nomad behaviour is in the distant past for most and life is more steady and sensible. Also, I’m being paid to be here. I can go wherever I like, and write whatever I want. But then, perhaps I’m exactly the same as everyone around me and just haven’t realised it yet – after all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that I’m wrong about most things. Backpacks. Hostels. Cold showers. Night buses. Haven’t you grown out of that yet?

I may be deluding myself, but I don’t think I’ve lost anything essential. I live a fortunate life. I’m here to write my book and to keep my eyes open. I love learning about Latin American history, culture, politics, and especially the literature. (Aside from anything else, it’s a grounding force for writers on their sixth book to be reminded there is a universe of undiscovered knowledge out there.) Also, I know what I’m going home to, and I’m looking forward to returning to my job in England. So what have I really lost on the move? Anything? Hold on, let me think. Sometimes I move slowly, especially at 4000ft. These days and nights on the move have left me a little hazy when it comes to certainties, and the lashing rain in La Paz is giving me a headache. Okay, what have I lost? On reflection I’ve lost two things I think, one real and one imagined.

If you were looking at my laptop just now, you’d laugh – there are plasters holding together my screen. (It slammed onto the floor on the notorious Carratera Austral road when the bus crashed a few weeks back, and we had to patch it up.) I’m using a second keyboard, attached to the laptop through a USB port, because I spilt water on it in Santiago. (The new one cost me the equivalent of $12 – a dent in the daily budget, but better than having buy a fresh laptop.) This half-dead machine was the first thing I feared losing back in September, as I‘ve always written in patchwork, editing and adding and deleting as I go, a style which can only really work on computer. When we found ourselves walking in that thunderstorm on New Year’s Eve, thumbs out for a lift to La Paz, our bags drenched, I really thought the laptop was lost for good, and was already getting used to the idea of having to write in notebooks for the rest of our time here, that’s if we ever escaped the lightless Bolivian countryside. But no solvent Western writer these days has an excuse not to back up their files. Even if the laptop died, the novel would not have been lost to the winds. Get over yourself, Glass! Come on, is that all you’ve lost?

Okay then, perhaps the real things I’ve lost out here are the things I have forgotten, misremembered, distorted in my mind. The exact mixture of colours of the desert sunsets we saw over Christmas in the mining town of El Salvador; the numb sensation in my back after walking for hours, wondering if a truck was ever going to come along and give us a lift; the buzz of holding a cold beer in my hands when we were celebrating catching that bus, the last one for several days, to our next stop. What else? Well, I’ve definitely lost memories of how to get around certain cities and towns, if I ever truly knew where I was. (I have a terrible internal GPS, and rely on my geographer wife for directions.) I’ve lost slang terms explained to me by locals which flew right out of my head straight after they’d gone in. I’ve lost memories of certain smells in those places, of certain sounds, and especially I’ve lost that fully formed, perfect, coherent thought about the future that jumped into my head for a few seconds one night in Valparaiso, before disappearing for good. It might have changed everything! There might have been wisdom in there! Well, probably not, but still. It always feels like the thing that has been lost is the most important. We do not value so much the things lying in our hands.

I admit to lamenting these little losses sometimes, in quiet moments, though I know there’s no other way – you can’t remember everything. Many details have to be lost from all human brains in order to give clarity to the ones that linger, hanging around for years, suggesting something but never quite stating it. The few that demand to be remembered, the worst horrors perhaps, the greatest pleasures, must by definition crowd other memories out. Besides, so many of these are unique to the moment in question anyway, they’re useless out of their context. The mix of the remaining remembered things is forever reshaping itself, creating a simplified, artificial straight line, a way of understanding the past, an idea recently explored in Charles Fernyhough’s book Pieces of Light, fragments of which I remember. And perhaps all this is okay. We all have to construct a narrative of our own lives in order to keep ourselves sane, no matter how little it might bear to the truth. Again, that shorthand is perhaps no tragedy. When this journey is finished, and we’re home, and someone asks me, hey, how was it out there, I’ll need an answer which takes less than ten days to deliver. Sometimes, when I’m drowning in detail, my brother will say to me, ‘Give me the headlines’. Which is not something I’m good at doing. If I remembered everything, the task would be impossible.

Aside from this airy fairy, vague sense of what has been lost, the only real things of value I’ve lost out here are my books. And even those are mostly virtual.

My Kindle contained 40 of the books I’ve read since I got here (plus many more I wanted to read here in Bolivia), and now it’s sitting on a bus somewhere in Northern Chile. (Sorry Dad, I know, it was a present. I was tired and forgetful, okay?) And there were others too. My physical copy of Garcia Marquez’s stylistically unique political masterpiece The Autumn of the Patriarch is also on a bus somewhere, God knows which one. (I had a hundred pages to go.) The most important book for my own novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, my hard copy full of notes and ideas, circlings and exclamation marks, underlinings and turned over pages, is languishing where I left it on a ferry. It had a message inside from my friends back home which can’t be replicated, and though I know it’s weak, I miss it. In fact, in amongst all these losses, I only have two books left with me, in that sodden rucksack – the classic history of this continent The Open Veins of Latin America, and a hefty hardback of Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003, also by Bolaño. Which is hardly the library of the mind I imagined I would have at my fingertips when trying to write a book about here. All I have left of these lost books are my pieced together memories of what they meant to me, and what I wanted to use them for. Lines and phrases that have somehow remained, keeping me company in the moments when I’ve been trying to write, have become more important because of all I’ve forgotten and can’t look up any more. Oh God, I think, in some self-pitying moments in the dark. I can’t get by without that biography of Simon Bolivar! I have absolutely no access to the history of the War of the Pacific! It’s a modern problem. It’s an indulgence. I look around the streets of La Paz, the capital of the poorest nation in this continent, and feel pathetic for feeling like I ‘need’ anything at all. And anyway, what is it that’s so essential for my book that has really, truly been lost here? I have always worked with what is in front of me. The books, the people, the experiences, the culture. Which is infinite. And which I have an abundance of right here in Bolivia, regardless of what is gone. Surely I can’t be short?

I picked up the book of essays in Santiago, and Bolaño’s voice instantly became essential to my novel. Every page seemed to contain a gem that seemed to make life clearer, more worthwhile understanding. I joked that it could act as my Bible out here – and now it has to be. So I ask Bolaño, what do I really need? And he tells me to return to the quote from Antwerp, hidden in Between Parentheses, between the introduction and Chapter One. Antwerp is one of Bolaño’s lesser known works, I haven’t read it, and I probably would have lost it by now even if I had read it – but none of that matters. Only what I have access to matters. Once again: ‘Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.’ It might be translated as – don’t feel sorry for yourself, cling to what you can remember, and create something new from the three tools at your disposal: imagination, experience, and research. At least that’s how it seems to me as I read it over again. And it has me thinking about how I don’t actually need Bolaño’s books with me in order to write my own. Perhaps all I need is one clear memory of what his work means to me, and what I think it can teach.

Memory is a subject I’ve always been interested in, given that every character you invent needs to have one, either reliable or not. In trying to build up convincing characters in my work, I have increasingly focused on the question: what does this character feel sure of? It’s come to dominate what I do, and in the novel I’m writing out here, Once a Great Leader, it consumes my protagonist to the extent that she becomes paralysed, unable to feel sure even that her mouth is part of her face. It’s a theme I’ve been exploring for seven or eight years now, since I became less sure of myself. In the process of writing my biography of the great Scottish artist and writer Alasdair Gray, I became fascinated by the idea of how memory distorts, also how forgetting sows seeds of doubt. (Try interviewing ten people about the same event from fifty years ago and you’ll see what I mean.) And all this, I noticed when I read Bolaño for the first time, is the one thing that concerns both Gray and Bolaño as very different masters of fiction: they both deal almost exclusively in the theme of doubt. Which is partly about lack of knowledge, something I’m acutely aware of here in Bolivia. (Every day I feel stupid and ignorant and incapable and confused.) But it’s also about memory and forgetting.

I can’t tell you exactly, I can’t quote from the books of course, but what seems to unite Bolaño’s works is that all the characters are uncertain. For example, in The Skating Rink, no one can understand or explain their own behaviour, no matter how bizarre it becomes. In Bolaño’s early novella Monsieur Pain, the protagonist is not sure whether he is being followed and no longer knows who to trust – also, the crime at the centre of the story goes unsolved, so uncertainty wins out in big ways as well as small. All Bolaño is the same, it’s doubt doubt doubt, and no more so than in 2666. I could pick many examples from his most revered work – at least, I could paraphrase – but the mystery of the Santa Teresa murders is front and centre in the story. And it is famously is not wrapped up in the novel, all characters are united by their lack of knowledge about them, wondering about this or that, imagining the world might be one way, then seeing another point of view. Everyone has limited understanding in 2666, even the omniscient narrator. In fact, the primary thing I remember about Bolaño’s alter-ego, the narrator Arturo Belano, is that he occasionally draws back from the action to address the reader, doing so to admit ignorance. And if the God-like voice telling five different stories can’t even be sure of something, then what chance do we readers have? It’s enough to make you want to give up!

Which is exactly what happens to my protagonist in my book Once a Great Leader, though giving up is not an option for her. Already a sufferer of acute Imposter Syndrome, she is forced to doubt the few things she was sure of in the world. How does this all take place? One day a ticking bomb is left on her desk: inside the bomb (which never detonates) is a copy of 2666. The unknown present giver has written a message in the front: EL PAIS SIN MEMORIA ES UN PAIS SIN HISTORIA. Which means A NATION WITHOUT MEMORY IS A NATION WITHOUT HISTORY. My protagonist reads the book, and reading it reminds her of everything she has lost, challenging her to find a way to continue living, in the knowledge that sometimes what is lost can never be regained.

Rodge Glass is the author of six books, most recently LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the Easyjet Generation, as well as the biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, and he is co-author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s War. He is supported by the Edge Hill University REF Investment Fund, and by Arts Council England. [Pic: Georgie Glass]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 9th, 2014.