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Books one should not miss

January 28, 2018

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is the first book I happened to read right after my mother died in Dallas and I helped bury her early last month, and it helped get me through the saddest time of my life.
I always imagined it as a postmodern romp, which it is, but it is really the most terrifying — and also perhaps the most liberating — thing I have ever read on death. The nameless narrator — a helpless, pseudo-scholarly orphan who is manipulated by his caretaker Divney — is trying to retrieve a cashbox from an old man, Mathers, he has killed, running around an impoverished, truly surreal, Irish countryside, with indecipherable policemen operating according to no known logic. Nothing is as it seems, with one of the great literary surprises awaiting us on the final pages. As the author’s letter to American novelist William Saroyan, included at the end of the book, notes: “When you are writing about the world of the dead — and the damned — where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) hold good, there is any amount of scope for backchat and funny cracks.” Also, it features bicycles a great deal, a personal obsession of mine.
The Third Policeman — and also what I’ve read of At Swim-Two-Birds, his better known novel — showcases O’Brien’s funniness in a stubbornly postcolonial way that I can deeply relate to, exploding as he does pedantism and good manners at every turn with his irreverent Irish wit. O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan) wrote The Third Policeman in 1939-40, but it was repeatedly rejected (the publishers wanted less fantasy, not more), greatly setting back his career. It was published posthumously, but this is a book that will live as long as we experience the delirium of death.
Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum is a prime candidate for the most influential book written since the Second World War. The trouble with writing about fascism is that it often doesn’t have a prequel or a sequel. This novel helps us understand how people’s characters can change almost imperceptibly, from being tolerant to authoritarian. Grass’s protagonist, the Kashubian/Polish boy Oskar Matzerath, chooses to be a dwarf and communicates only through toy drums, thus challenging the Enlightenment heritage of attaining physical and intellectual perfection. Oskar is a rejectionist, the only attitude possible amidst fascism. His relationship with his beautiful mother Agnes is profoundly touching, and when Grass kills her off early on we wonder how he will top it. But top it he does, especially with the circus dwarves Oskar takes up with as part of a travelling Nazi troupe.
I’m deeply unnerved by the dwarf Bebra, who counsels: “Oskar, never be a member of the audience! Never stand out front! The place for our kind is on the rostrum.” The final third of the novel, Oskar’s rehabilitation (or terminal sickness?) in post-war Germany, captures the total exhaustion of liberal ideology. The much-honoured 1979 Volker Schlöndorff film based on the novel skips the post-war part, but this doesn’t detract from its supremely faithful adaptation. The nausea of the eel killing scene on the beach has stayed with me, and throughout, the symbolism works better than in any of Grass’s ‘magical realist’ imitators; Grass was the original fount of this post-war style merging individual and collective history, and it is shocking to realise how slavishly this has been mimicked in Midnight’s Children. The problem of fascism is the problem of shame, or guilt. We cannot be ashamed enough, or guilty enough, in the light of all that we authorise as a society. No other character in modern fiction grasps this dilemma as deeply as Oskar Matzerath, responsible, as per his guilt-filled narrative, for killing both his fathers.
“When you are writing about the world of the dead … where none of the rules and laws … hold good, there is any amount of scope for backchat and funny cracks.”
Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives exemplifies what we think of as ‘world literature’ these days: giant books by Umberto Eco or David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami that seem to want to grasp our entire global condition — the horrifying fact of inescapable, total, engineered interconnection — all in one go and be done with it. I’m reading Bolano’s 2666 now, but I find The Savage Detectives, his career-establishing work, to be more energetic. It will completely revive your faith in writing, or, what might be the same, it will kill off all hope. I love how this book captures the 1970s, my favourite decade, the time when postcolonial consciousness — as much in Mexico (the central locale, though the story takes place in many European countries as well) as in Pakistan — began to crash head on with the first spurts of neo-liberalism. Forty years later, the postcolonial dream is dead and neo-liberalism, merging with neo-fascism, has won out everywhere.
The Savage Detectives bears the same threefold — before, during and after — application to neo-liberalism as The Tin Drum does to fascism. What happens to the dreams of the artist while society is collapsing? This hyperliterary novel takes the literary life itself as the key subject, a metaphor for all the ways that life is no longer experienced to its fullest. The two main protagonists, Arturo Belano, the Chilean exile in bohemian Mexico City (paralleling Bolano’s own trajectory as ‘infra-realist’ poet), and the Mexican poet Ulises Lima, remain unknowable idealists until the end, even after 700 pages have been expended on making biographical sense of them from a huge multiplicity of perspectives from their friends and lovers. Belano and Lima encapsulate everything — negating the taint of celebrity — that makes the writing life worth it, accepting poverty, tragedy and invisibility. The On the Road-like final section in Mexico’s Sonora Desert, along the Arizona border, in search of the elusive CesáreaTinajero — the disappeared “visceral realist” poet from the 1920s, who provides the slim narrative thread for the book — is particularly evocative amidst new definitions of the border, escape and invisibility. Bolano never gives us any of the content of the work of the multitudes of writers and artists who populate his now-extinct bohemia; that’s something to think about.

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