Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Magyarország - Hungría

Hey team. Well, right now I am feeling a little bit under the weather because I've spent too many days out in the Eastern European SpringWinter (between 25 and 35F everywhere I've been). This means that instead of writing you wily witticisms I'm just going to post photos!

Laziness is the best business.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I am in Romania

I'm not going to lie: when I first got outside the airport in Cluj-Napoca, I was a little apprehensive. Really apprehensive. The airport in Cluj, like many around the world, is not located in the area of the city that we'd call the "happenin', cosmopolitan downtown." Totally fine. There's not that much space in the city center. However, the difference is that those other inconveniently located airports are not situated in places that could be readily described with the adjectives "frighteningly-dilapidated", "Dracula-esque", "gyspsy-shantytownish", or "stray-dog bedecked".

You can't really bedeck with stray dogs. Can they be festooned? 

OK, it wasn't THAT bad. It wasn't what I'd call, for example, "post-Communist, crumbling housing-block-strewn", or "rife with shifty, grizzled, faded-Cosby-sweater-wearing drifters." No, it was none of those things. But there were a lot of people milling about. They were looking at me. Staring at me with my big, "I-am-a-gullible-tourist-from-somewhere-that-is-not-here" backpack. Luckily, I found some dudes from Madrid who also had cumbersome rucksacks and we scrounged our way onto a bus.

 As we drove along, things did not quickly improve. The crumbling, Vlachian cabins made way for huge apartment blocks, bedecked with cracks and festooned with litter. More Cosby-sweater-wearing bedecked drifters-

OK, wait wait wait. Wait a minute. I'm getting a little carried away with the descriptions. I've said bedecked twice, maybe even three times now. Fuck it. I'll cut to the chase: the airport was in kind of a shitty part of town. The bus went through an equally shitty part of town. But in about 20 minutes we got into the historic downtown center of Cluj and it was actually really, really nice.

Check it out:

I met some awesome cats at the hostel. They were actually human beings, not cats. It's just a manner of speaking. We went to a bar where everything was made out of cardboard. And everyone was smoking. I'm no fire marshal, but I don't think tenuously holding burning embers and drinking Romanian whiskey in a room made out of cardboard doesn't really say "safety" to me.

Ray don't mind though.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Battle of the Book / La lucha del libro

In a convenient twist of fate, in each language the two nouns in this post's title start with the same letter.

Aliteración al azar.

But is the alliteration really so random?

This book, whose title lacks any kind of alliterative charm, has been to me both bane and benison since I started reading it. It's called Los detectives salvajes ("The Savage Detectives"), and it was written by a Chilean/Mexican/Spanish poet named Roberto Bolaño. It's one of those books that's in right now. I think the New York Times made the English version their book of the year. It was originally written in Spanish, and it is about, more or less, the trials and tribulations and flights and fiascos of two poet/detectives (that's a thing) named Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. These two dudes, and almost every other character as well, are based on Bolaño and his friends, and one can only assume that a lot of what happens in the book actually happened. More on this later.

A few years ago I was in Smith Family Bookstore in Eugene (an incredible and glorious place for bookheads) and I saw a copy of it in the original Spanish-language edition. I had had to read another of Bolaño's novels in a Spanish class a few years before and I liked his style. Hard to read, very poetic language, but cool stuff. Kind of like a Spanish-language beat poet. I had heard that this book was similar but that it had an engaging yarn, wrapped in mystery and intrigue. Christ, it was the New York Times' book of the year! How could it not be intriguing?

I knew that I was going to live in Spain so I thought my castellano vocabulary and syntax could use a little brushing up.

It was the classic "I'm going to read this to make myself a better human being"-personal-challenge-type-of-book. So of course, it sat collecting particulates on a bookshelf for the first year or so. Every time I glanced at its immaculate yellow spine, I felt awash in shame for not having even cracked the bastard open.

One day.


About a year ago, maybe less, I decided to tackle the tome. At 600-some pages (the English edition is more; must have bigger type!), it was a daunting task to begin reading Bolaño's "obra maestra". But you know, sometimes when books are so damn long, you don't even count pages at the beginning because you're so far from the end. It's like comparing a 12 hour drive with a three hour one. The shorter drive is always more difficult because at any point you can almost taste the end. With 12 hours to go, then 11, you aren't even thinking about the end. You're just thinking about the pines and desert passing you by. And trying to keep your foot off the gas.

This was a long, at times boring, drive on a Spanish highway, like The Savage Detectives

In the same sense, the book wasn't too hard at first. I kept a Spanish dictionary at my side at all times, whether on my laptop, my smartphone, or an actual, real dictionary (with pages!). And because I'm a little maniático, I actually looked up almost every single word I didn't know.

 The book itself is imposing. It's split into three sections: the first is a diary of a young poet; the second, which is the longest at about 400 pages, is a frenetic collection of about 27 different narrators' personal accounts of what happened to Lima and Belano throughout their "savage" journeys, across five continents and about 25 years; the third section goes back to the original diary format to finish off the novel.

When I first started the book, I was gung-ho, like I said. I was killing it, crushing at least 25 pages a day, and in Spanish, too! But by about page 200-something, things were starting to fall apart. The question that had been there since the beginning at about 50 pages in, was starting to come up more and more:

"What is going on? Why are these people talking about this stuff?" It was reminding me of another book I never liked and never finished.

I pushed on, waiting for a point to be brought up. Apart from some really well written and beautifully illustrated passages, nothing seemed to be happening. People kept recounting times they got drunk with some other people, talking about their forays into painting and poetry. And then the chapter would end. The next person would describe a love affair with someone who had never been mentioned before, and then they would get drunk and maybe smoke some weed. End of chapter. More drinking, more drugs, more crying, but this time in Paris instead of Mexico City. End of chapter.

Months went on. I picked up the book less and less, but it was always in the back of mind.

By page 300-something, I was almost legitimately angry at the late Bolaño for this book. How could people have thought it was a classic? Nothing was happening. OK, maybe once or twice every 25 pages or so something ostensibly important happened, but nothing more. The writing was of course beautiful, ephemeral, poetic. But it was basically a bunch of spoiled hipster kids complaining, having sex, smoking weed, drinking, and writing poetry. They were supposedly searching for a lady poet who mysteriously disappeared in the 1920s, but she was almost never mentioned.

What the fuck?

This YouTube video basically sums it up:

It had been about six months now, at least. Despite my frustration-cum-anger, I was determined to finish the book. It was going to make me a better person. The New York Times had loved it!

One day, I was on the bus trudging through a particularly pointless-seeming passage of the book, when it hit me: this book is about life. It's not really about any particular plot. Sure, they're looking for this lost poet chick, but that doesn't really matter. It's sort of like the pissed-on-rug in Lebowski - it's a MacGuffin. It has no real importance, except to give a reason for the characters to exist. And while we, the diligent and doting readers, do just that and read, we see their lives. We are treated to their Sisyphean machinations, the ins and outs of their pretty much pointless existences as rich "real visceralist" poets, looking for a lost teenage poet in the deserts of Mexico.

This case has a lot of ins and outs, man, just like the Sisyphean workings of Bolaño's characters.

Then, like that, the book became beautiful and well written, and I actually tengo ganas to read it. And now, about eight months after starting it, on page 550, I can almost taste the end.

I will soon be a better person.