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My New Favorite Heroine

My new favorite heroine thinks in light and darkness, whether it’s the sunset “never touched me,” the television’s constant glow, or semen “like molten gold.” Her name, hardly mentioned, is Bianca, and actual light becomes the element of her despair, as she can’t shut out the blaring, even at night, a consequence of the tragedy summarized in a single sentence on page one of Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary last book, A Little Lumpen Novelita, recently translated into English by Natasha Wimmer:

Our parents died in a car accident on the first vacation they took without us, on a highway near Naples, I think, or some other horrible southern highway.

Thus, Bianca explains how she and her younger brother were orphaned overnight. It’s her dry tone, tinged with a tragic-hilarity that makes me feel so much—the way she makes us aware with her, that that first vacation “without us” turned into forever. These little insertions, i.e., “without us,” are subtle, biting, and funny simultaneously—comic relief in face of the unthinkable.

For instance, how lovely the way that some other horrible, regarding a highway, is akin to telling the world to shove it, with the understanding that yet, one will go on. Bianca does, and we follow her into a life of forced crime, and fear for her who is still so much a child; behind the fierce observations she harbors a heart that’s soft, and impossibly sad. From this perspective Bolaño generates some of the oddest, most wonderful and crushing sentences of all time, such as this couplet that encompasses two paragraphs, wherein the latter paragraph is a single sentence:

Sun and light and an explosion of windows.

     I began to think that we were going to die.

Several times in Novelita Bianca expresses a feeling of going to die, within the context of supernatural brightness that threatens, seemingly, to be her obliterator. The light becomes a substitute maybe, for all the awful real life circumstances she can’t escape. To back up for a moment: after their parents’ funeral, Bianca and her brother drop out of school, find shitty jobs, and take in two vague criminals (who are nonetheless polite and tidy). The criminals, who befriend her brother at the gym where he works, lead Bianca to prostitution with a reclusive, ex-heavyweight boxing champion and film star. The boxer is a blind man named Maciste (it’s his semen she lies is gold), and he lives in a rambling mansion where, post-sex, Bianca searches for a presumed hidden fortune:

I was flying high, I was hallucinating, but sometimes my feet were firmly planted on the ground. And then I thought about the safe and the money or the jewels that Maciste had hidden away and the life that awaited us, my brother and me (and also in a way his no-good friends), when we at last got our hands on the treasure, a treasure that was useless to Maciste, since as we saw it all his needs were taken care of and anyway he wasn’t young anymore, whereas we had our whole lives ahead of us and we were as poor as rats.

“We were as poor as rats,” gets my heart, as well as the fact that Bianca clearly is considerate to the degree that she can afford to be, of her forced-lover’s well being. I find this constant mashup of worldly awareness and child-speak enthralling, as in the following passage’s, “like the kind I knew”:  He came back with a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola and two mini-whiskey bottles, like the kind I knew people got on planes or in hotel minibars. I thought he had forgotten to bring glasses and I waited. When I saw him drink straight from the bottle, I did too. 

Mini-whiskey bottles are unfamiliar to a girl who doesn’t ride on planes or stay in hotels, and such observations reveal our heroine’s vulnerability. In the very next paragraph, however, Bianca reasserts her role as a visionary, fiercely defending her “condition,” to Maciste: “I don’t know whether it’s psychosomatic or supernatural, and I don’t care either…” While the light distresses her in its relentlessness, Bianca also clings to her powers to see it; this is interesting particularly in regards to Maciste’s blindness. He takes from her but he cannot see what she sees, literally or figuratively either. Consider the scene where Maciste asks what color his semen is: It’s golden, I said, “like molten gold.” Maciste laughed. “I don’t think you can see in the dark,” he said. “I can,” I said.

Here, it’s her defiance that wins me. “I can, I can,” to what nobody will ever believe, a clinging to the absurd under the weight of the absurd, which is our human lives. Bianca’s thoughts are laced with awareness of the absurdity, and they evolve quickly from odd humor to waves of terrible nothingness, as in the moment following the argument above:

Before dawn, on my way home in a taxi, I thought I was going to die.

Death, brightness, darkness, sex. They all have but the thinnest membrane in between them; Bianca knows this. Her character seems to embody something that Bolaño said in an interview in 2002:

Although we know, of course, that in the human scale of things, persistence is an illusion and reason is only a fragile railing that keeps us from plunging into the abyss.

Bolaño was talking about writing, but his comment is applicable to anything we do that requires persistence, or to any reason we embrace to keep us grounded, when the only other option is not mattering (or not feeling like anything matters).

At the risk of revealing too much, and with an encouragement to read this book, I will stop here, offering a final quote from our theme. Bianca:

By the time I got to Piazza Sonnino, I was thinking that I had to find a place to go, a place to live, a new job, I had to do things and not die.

To do things and not die: is this not all our quest, distilled?