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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Clara – by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

Natural Woman by Neide Brazil

Natural Woman by Neide Brazil

First: A note.

Before I begin talking about the story for this post, I just want to say that the New Yorker website is a marvellous resource. The New Yorker Magazine has had an incalculable influence on the modern day short story, and appearing in the New Yorker is still considered the height of achievement for many aspiring writers. On the New Yorker website, there are many short stories to be found and read for free (if, like myself you’re too impoverished to spring for membership). The publisher does not seem to advertise the free stories on the website though and they can be difficult to find. I came across three Roberto Bolano stories on there, but I had to go searching for them. There are links at the end of the post.

Now back to our regular feature…

Roberto Bolano is now a hot, hot writer. Too bad the Chilean born poet, novelist and short story writer is dead. His fame in the west has grown since his death in 2003. Some describe him as the South American Jack Kerouac.  Others say he is his own person entirely.

Personally, I am all for jumping on literary bandwagons. It’s good exercise and stretches the legs. I have been browsing some Bolano stories online and quite like what I have read. Clara, which is available on the New Yorker website, tells the story of the narrator’s relationship with Clara, a troubled eighteen year old girl who wants to be a painter, but doesn’t have the interest in it.

The narrator is romantically involved with Clara at first. Clara enters a beauty contest and comes second place in it. Unfortunately Clara lives in another city. When the narrator asks her to come and live with him in Barcelona, she breaks up with him.

Years later, the narrator comes back in contact with Clara and finds out the details of her life after she left him. She had a bad marriage that ended after two years and has suffered from a recurring dream about rats. The narrator has come back into her life as she is on antidepressants; they have inhibited her sex drive and she is trying to regain it. The narrator’s and Clara’s second attempt together is also a failure but they remain friends and keep in touch.

Clara marries again and has a child. She attempts to take up painting, but again she is unable to properly take an interest in it. The narrator learns after a number of more years that Clara has cancer. In the end of the story she doesn’t die, but goes missing. The narrator hopes that she will turn up at his apartment but she does not.

The plot, when I write it out like this doesn’t seem like anything profound, but it’s a wonderful story. The gently foreshadowing and use of parenthesis adds a lot to the story, lines like “(I was the first guy that Clara had slept with, which seemed incidental or anecdotal, but in the end it would cost me dearly)” add humanity to the narrative. Not much is said of the narrator himself, it might be Bolano himself, it might not be Bolano, nothing is provided. He does care about Clara, he loved her once; it is uncertain though if he still loves her at the story’s end.

I am on board the Bolano Bandwagon, and am happy to spread the word. It is just such a pity that Bolano passed away before his work really took off in the West.

Below are some Bolano related links, all on that excellent resource, the New Yorker website (and I say this under no duress, but because I keep reading the stories on there for free.) I don’t know for how long these links will remain active, so enjoy them while you can.

Clara by Roberto Bolano

The insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano

Meeting with Enrique Lihn by Roberto Bolano

A review of one of Bolano’s novels, but it starts with some good biographical information about the author

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in Bolano, Roberto

 

Hunters In the Snow – Tobias Wolff – From the best of collection: Our Story Begins

photo by Andy Arthur

photo by Andy Arthur

If ever you happen to find yourself in a Tobias Wolff story and one of the characters is carrying a gun – run. Any weapon in a Tobias Wolff story will eventually go off with devastating consequences.

In Hunters in the Snow, three friends: Frank, Kenny and Tub go on a hunting trip. Tub is always the butt of the jokes of the other two. He is overweight, and they are constantly ribbing him for it. Kenny is particularly malicious, when he and Frank go to pick up Tub for their trip, he mounts his pickup truck on the sidewalk and pretends he’s going to run him over.

The three are hunting for deer, but there doesn’t appear many about. In the end they find some fresh tracks that lead onto a farmer’s private property. Kenny is anxious to get the deer, so he decides they will go and ask the farmer permission to enter his land. As they approach the farm house, an old farm dog comes up and starts barking at them.

Kenny goes inside and speaks to the owner. He comes out with permission for the three of them to get the deer. They head out into the wooded area of the farm, and the old dog follows them. Kenny begins shooting at fence posts. He then turns around and shoots the dog. Tub and Frank think he’s reckless. Kenny than says he has a problem with Tub and acts as though he will shoot him too. Tub doesn’t think that he is joking and winds up shooting back. Kenny is hit, and falls down in the snow.

Going back to the farmhouse to call for an ambulance, Frank and Tub find that the farmer asked Kenny to kill the dog as it was sick and dying. They try to get help, but all the hospital’s ambulances are out; it will be faster for them to drive Kenny to the hospital themselves. The farmer gives them directions of how to reach it.

Frank and Tub set out with Kenny on a makeshift stretcher in the back of the pickup truck. The two start to bond in the cab, talking about their lives outside of the moment. They make Kenny keep repeating ‘I’m going to the hospital,’ so he won’t lose the mental battle and let himself slip away into death. Frank and Tub think they are following the directions to the hospital correctly, but this is where Tobias Wolff delivers a master stroke. I will write out the last few sentences of the story to illustrate how clever it is.

“’I’m going to the hospital’ Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.”

As a technique, this is superb. The ability to provide the ending of the story in such a simple way, but it’s describing something that would take hours to happen.

Hunters in the Snow is a great story, the characters are interesting, especially the duality of the way that Kenny and Tub are meant to be friends, but Tub can genuinely believe Kenny would try to kill him.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2011 in Wolff, Tobias

 

Walker Brothers Cowboy – Alice Munro – from the collection: Dance of the Happy Shades

Romance by Kevin N Murphey

Brunswick Public Library and I are locked in a bitter debate. They claim that the copy of ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ with the Brunswick Public Library stamp on it is theirs, however, I claim that it belongs in my possession. Every three weeks after I borrow it, they always send me a polite (librarians can be nothing but polite) reminder that they want their book back. I humour them by returning it, only to borrow it out again. Perhaps we have a shared custody arrangement; they have the book on weekends and holidays, while I look after it during the week, making sure it gets to school properly and is in bed by the right time each night.

I wanted to talk about one of the other stories in the collection for this blog, but I just can’t get over the first story ‘Walkers Brothers Cowboy ‘ This story is usually cited as the must read one by Alice Munro. There’s good reason too.

The story is written in plain language, but is told from the perspective of a young girl who, along with her even younger brother, accompanies their father as he sells products for Walker Brothers. Walker Brothers is a company we are told, which “sells almost entirely in the country, the back country.” The father makes up an ironic song which he sings to himself when the customers aren’t around. “And have all liniments and oils, for everything from corns to boils…”

It is apparent the mother is not very happy with the father’s new line of work. The family used to have a farm were they raised foxes, but they had a run of bad luck, and were forced to sell up. This fall in society has seemed to affected the mother much more than the father, who seems to have taken their new circumstances with a grain of salt. He doesn’t seem to mind his work as a Walkers Brothers man; his line of work almost amuses him.

One day they are out, the father seems to be having a bad run of luck visiting the old farmsteads. He knocks on one door, and no one comes to answer. He knocks on the door again, and someone empties a chamber pot from one of the upstairs windows.

The father tries to take it in good humour in front of the children, most of the stuff had missed him, but when he gets in the car, he drives past all the other houses on his route, and keeps travelling out into the country.

There he drops into a house belonging to a woman from his past. They haven’t seen each other in a long time, the woman is surprised to meet the man’s son and daughter. The father and the woman reminisce. The daughter asks her father to sing the Walkers Brothers song he has made up, the father is reluctant but he does so anyway.

The woman puts on a record, and teaches the daughter to dance. She then dances with the father. The three leave, telling the woman to come to visit the family one time, but the daughter realises the woman will never come.

Driving back, the father stops and buys the children liquorice. He doesn’t say anything, but  the daughter knows there are certain details of the visit, like the dancing, that she can never tel her mother.

I love this story. It is such a fine example of New Yorker style naturalism. The buried meanings in the work are fantastic, and yet, at the end, you can’t really pin your finger on what the visit actually meant. Characters are wonderful when they are hiding things. The father appears to have handled the family’s change in circumstance much better than the mother, but there seems to be another layer beneath his optimism.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2011 in Munro, Alice

 

Reading Raymond Carver at night in the pillow factory

I have been unemployed at numerous times in my life, but only twice, unpleasantly so. Once was when I was young, the other after I had moved cities.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t planned for the move, I’d been considering it for a long time and had made contact with the Melbourne branch of the place I worked with in Sydney. They assured me that there would be work when I headed South. However, on arriving, I found the company branch in Victoria was a small, two person operation, and the promise of work had been exaggerated for reasons unknown.

I couldn’t return to Sydney. I was running from a situation I had created for myself, and had no desire to return. Not that I could anyway. I’d spent the last of my money on my car engine so it could handle the drive along the Hume and even so, had to stop at a small town called Yass along the way to buy two new tires.

On finding that my employment had fallen through, I set about for applying for whatever I could. My lifetime of avoiding any meaningful skill or qualification factored against me though. I had no special licenses, tickets or certificates that I could draw on. There was nothing that I could do, that couldn’t be done just as easily by someone who wasn’t me.  Added to this, I didn’t know anyone in Melbourne, which though that was part of the reason I had chosen to move there, it did make it harder for me, not having some kind of support network.

I managed to get interviews with some labour agencies. This turned out to be a bitter pill. They would offer me work, and I would take it, but it would never last longer than a couple of days. Factories would be behind in their quotas, and would hire an extra person for a day until the numbers were back on target. I would unload shipping containers in warehouses, pack bags of onions, ready dental supplies, but once the work was done, that was it. This was different to what I was used to in Sydney where I would go to a place for a day, and wind up being there for six months.

The worst place was a factory that made pillows and quilted mattresses. I went out there numerous times, but never for more two days in a row. The place had three shifts, and stayed open twenty four hours. Apart from one occasion though, I was only ever called out to work the night shift. This started at 11:30pm and ran through the night until 6:30am. This would have been fine, but I would only get the call to go in for the shift around 9pm when a machine broke down, or they were behind their quotas. Sometimes I hadn’t worked in a week, and would jump at the chance of something. Other times I’d have spent that day working for someone else, but felt I couldn’t refuse because of all the loadings that were added to the wage.

Loadings, the government required an employer compensate someone for coming in at such hours. That was because of the havoc it wrecked on someone’s family’s life. I always wondered how many union workers had to get their skulls busted to get that law through. It was at times like that I was thankful to all unions had done, and felt the most guilty that I had never joined one.

I was never prepared for the night work, always getting the call out of the blue. I would work in a haze. The machines were noisy, and I had to wear ear plugs. The workers came from a mix of nationalities, many didn’t have English as their first language.  Conversation was impossible over the din anyway, and the machine operators would communicate to us through a series of whistles and hand gestures, such as a thumbs up.

The work was brutal only in that it was repetitive. Sometimes, we would have to sticker bags the entire time. You would put on sticker after sticker, your mind would go numb, but checking your watch, you’d find only five minutes had passed.  You’d have to control your mind like a Buddhist. Count the minutes to the next break. You got ten minutes at 1:45am. Half an hour at 4am.

It was then I could read my copy of ‘Where I’m calling From’ by Raymond Carver. I’d sit in the lunch room reading as a game of football played on the tv on the wall. Outside the air would be still. While I read, I drank instant coffee so I’d be alert enough not to crash my car into a pole driving home at 6:30.

I had read Carver before, but there was something about reading him at 4am in a factory, that let the work loom larger than it ever had before. ‘Where I’m calling from’ covered the span of his life’s work. It takes in the famously, tightly edited works from collections such as ‘Will you please be quiet, please,’ through to a series of stories that featured in the New Yorker and were not included in any other collection.

Each one of those stories was perfect, at least viewed through the sleep depraved, tired brain of someone working through the night.

There is considerable debate in writing circles, whether Carver’s early editor, Gordon Lish was correct in his heavy editing of the stories he was given. For an example of the depth of the cuts, one need only look at the New Yorker before and after version of ‘what we talk about when we talk about love.’ I don’t know myself how to feel on the debate. What exists is what exists. I love the heavily edited stories, but I also love the stories that came later, when Carver was such a force that no one could dictate to him what to leave in and out.

It’s hard to pick favourites in the collection. I used to have favourites. ‘Collectors’, where a man who is unemployed is visited by a vacuum cleaner salesman who has come to speak to a Mrs. Slater. Though it is clear that the man is unrelated at all to the former occupant, and is unable to buy a vacuum cleaner, even if he wanted to, the salesman proceeds to go through the complete demonstration. Another which I have read so many times, that I have worn the shine off it, is ‘Nobody said Anything’ where a young boy skips off school to go fishing in a creek.

These two stories were both from his first collection, ‘will you please be quiet, please,’ and one would think that I was biased towards his early work, but a night shift in a pillow factory is a great leveller. I fed off each and every story there, particular the later ones, some of which I’d never read before.

They say Carver’s work descends from Chekov, I don’t know exactly what this means, I think it means how Carver presents short scenes from lives without trying to pass judgement on them. His characters have lived tough lives, and often find themselves in tough situations, but they are normal people. In a ‘small, good thing,’ a baker who works sixteen hours a day, harasses a couple with crank phone calls after they fail to show up to collect a birthday cake, only to find that their son was killed in a hit and run, and they had been at the hospital by his side until he finally lapsed. In the titular story, two alcoholics talk on the veranda of a drying out clinic.

I don’t know what it was, but I held onto that book like a raft during those shifts at the factory. No matter how tired I was, how much my shoulders started to hurt, I would have the comfort of those stories to reach for.

Just as no good time lasts forever though, no bad time lasts either. I was eventually able to find a better situation. My love of Carver however, never dimmed. He only lived to 50. I wonder if he ever knew how great a story teller he was. There is no great honour in being post humous recognition. I can only hope that somehow he tweaked to the fact that he would join the ranks of the great 20th century short story writers.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2011 in Uncategorized