Saturday, March 27, 2010

Not You, Gringo

[This post began as a response over at Las Obras de Roberto Bolaño (although as of yet it hasn’t made it through the moderation queue).  I’ve slightly edited it to stand alone and made a couple of additions at the end.]

Maria Bustillos has begun a conversation about the mysterious and creepy Klaus Haas in part four of 2666.  The thread raises an important question about Haas’s authority within the Santa Teresa prison.  While, as Steve points out in the thread, part of this authority has to do with his immediate willingness to use violence as a warning to others, I was also reminded of a moment when Haas speaks to something less tangible in his ability to remain untouchable.  When Haas speaks with Sergio González over the phone, he reflects on why he hasn't been killed in prison, and a conversation he’s had with a prisoner who seems fairly disinterested in the murders or in accusing him:

Then I asked him if he thought I had killed them and the bastard said no, not you, gringo, as if I was a fucking gringo, which inside maybe I am, although I'm becoming less and less of one.  What are you trying to say to me? asked Sergio González. That here in prison they know I'm innocent, said Haas.  And how do they know it? asked Haas.  That was a little harder for me to figure out.  It's like a noise you hear in a dream.  The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious.

Now I think, to an extent, Haas's description of the contagious dream holds some truth to how the inmates have come to perceive him.  But why does the dream take hold?  It seems to have to do with the fact that he hasn't been killed, and it has to do with some other kind of authority than what he has attained by violence.

And I wonder if this is where the seemingly innocuous aside about being called a "gringo" comes in.  Klaus is a foreigner, and a white foreigner at that. Does his exotic whiteness give him a kind of power in the prison (and maybe explain some of his power in relation to the media as well)?  Keep in mind, as well, that our first physical encounter with him has come from Fate (extremely conscious of race, but usually in the context of his blackness in a white-majority country), who sees him as "an enormous and very blond man," which mimics in turn the description of Haas that Guadalupe Roncal gave Fate.  In fact, Roncal uses his blue eyes, blond hair, and height as a lead-in to stating "he has the face of a dreamer."  I want to say she's romanticizing Klaus in just the way the prisoners do.  It seems like there might be something of a racial fantasy going on with everyone’s fascination with Haas—he’s not just a suspect, he’s always the blond-haired, blue-eyed suspect, the gringo. 

And Haas himself is playing into this fantasy that no gringo could ever be guilty: “inside maybe I am [a gringo], although I’m becoming less and less of one.”  In other words, his time in the prison drives him more and more insane and his realization of that takes the form of thinking that he is “becoming” one of the local Mexicans who are, by his estimation, naturally insane and violent.  I’m not saying this racial (mis)perception suggests he did or didn’t commit any of the crimes (although I tend to think he may be responsible for a few, or perhaps just the one that drew attention to him).  Rather, the people of Santa Teresa in the prison and outside of it are too caught up in the racial mystique to make a real effort to find out.  Racial fantasy is another one of the distractions keeping much real investigation from happening. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

An Introduction

I hope the hardest thing about blogging turns out to be coming up with a title. I have been on the verge of starting this blog for a couple of years now—with some increased desire to get underway since about a year ago—but coming up with a title I could imagine living with for an indeterminate amount of time kept stymieing me. Perhaps that indecisiveness is a mark against the chances of this blog’s survival.

I am starting this record for reasons similar to many other book bloggers—certainly those I’ve read who give some sense of why they began. First and foremost is the desire to write more about what I read (in particular, outside of teaching). I am by trade an academic literary critic, but that by and large means writing in specific ways about a limited range of material. I mean the scope of this blog to be much larger and to encompass the reading I do outside of a particular project: not only books in my field that I am not actively researching, but well outside my period and national focus. Since finishing my dissertation in particular I have been able to keep up a little more with current releases and literary translation. And there always seems to be a backlog of “classics” I should have read years ago (every literature PhD has their embarrassing—even humiliating—gaps in knowledge). At the same time, while I have more opportunities to get out of my narrow academic shell, I need a way to keep a better record of my thoughts in reaction to books. Something to ground memory. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” ends in reference to entities “self-made from elements least visible.” I hope this blog, at its best, will make visible (for myself and anyone who wants to read along) some of what goes on in the shaping of the texts I read. Or, at least, I hope to make clear the icebergs I’ve imagined them to be, as perhaps inevitable any time you attempt to intuit the unseen. While I am an academic by training, and thus less antagonistic to academic modes of reading than even some of my favorite book blogs occasionally are (or so I sense), I am not using this as blog as an academic exercise. I want to write differently here, and to have different kinds of conversations with other readers.

I’m also hoping that this blog will serve as a useful home base for my responses at some of the book blogs on which I’ve been lurking, but not replying, for too long. So look for me in comment threads elsewhere, including those blogs listed in the soon-to-be-added blogroll.

The blog title’s allusion to Bishop might be a little misleading in that most of what I write about will probably be fiction, and sometimes nonfiction or film. Poetry, though, is always a possibility: I find my poetry reading runs in fits and starts, so it may pop up, albeit unexpectedly or short-lived.

First up? I’ve just finished Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I had planned to read it this summer, but when the group read began over at Las Obras de Roberto Bolaño I couldn’t resist. I am a little over a month ahead of schedule in finishing, so I hope to have a couple of posts spread out at the appropriate times. It’s a long book, with much to be discussed. In the meantime, you should also see posts on other reading.

N.B.: Since I’m learning the Blogger software and dusting off some pretty old HTML skills, expect consistent (I hope small) changes for while.