Scholars of Sodom

Argentina_jpg_470x429_q85Roberto Bolaño in the NYRB's blog:

Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul—a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way—won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.” The story began in Buenos Aires, where Naipaul had gone to write the long article on Eva Perón that was later included in a book published in Spain by Seix Barral in 1983. In the story, Naipaul arrived in Buenos Aires, I think it was his second visit to the city, and took a cab—and that’s where I got stuck, which doesn’t say much for my powers of imagination. I had some other scenes in mind that I didn’t get around to writing. Mainly meetings and visits. Naipaul at newspaper offices. Naipaul at the home of a writer and political activist. Naipaul at the home of an upper-class literary lady. Naipaul making phone calls, returning to his hotel late at night, staying up and diligently making notes. Naipaul observing people. Sitting at a table in a famous café trying not to miss a single word. Naipaul visiting Borges. Naipaul returning to England and going through his notes. A brief but engaging account of the following series of events: the election of Perón’s candidate, Perón’s return, the election of Péron, the first symptoms of conflict within the Peronist camp, the right-wing armed groups, the Montoneros, the death of Perón, his widow’s presidency, the indescribable López Rega, the army’s position, violence flaring up again between right- and left-wing Peronists, the coup, the dirty war, the killings. But I might be getting all mixed up. Maybe Naipaul’s article stopped before the coup; it probably came out before it was known how many had disappeared, before the scale of the atrocities was confirmed. In my story, Naipaul simply walked through the streets of Buenos Aires and somehow had a presentiment of the hell that would soon engulf the city. In that respect his article was prophetic, a modest, minor prophecy, nothing to match Sábato’s Abbadon the Exterminator, but with a modicum of good will it could be seen as a member of the same family, a family of nihilist works paralyzed by horror. When I say “paralyzed,” I mean it literally, not as a criticism. I’m thinking of the way some small boys freeze when suddenly confronted by an unforeseen horror, unable even to shut their eyes. I’m thinking of the way some girls have been known to die from a heart attack before the rapist has finished with them. Some literary artists are like those boys and girls. And that’s how Naipaul was in my story, in spite of himself. He kept his eyes open and maintained his customary lucidity. He had what the Spanish call bad milk, a kind of spleen that immunized him against appeals to vulgar sentimentality. But in his nights of wandering around Buenos Aires, he, or his antennae, also picked up the static of hell. The problem was that he didn’t know how to extract the messages from that noise, a predicament that certain writers, certain literary artists, find particularly unsettling.

Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made. If I remember rightly, in my story Naipaul had arranged to meet Bioy Casares at a tennis club. Bioy didn’t play any more, but he still went there to drink vermouth and chat with his friends and sit in the sun. The writer and his friends at the tennis club struck Naipaul as monuments to feeblemindedness, living illustrations of how a whole country could sink into imbecility. His meetings with journalists and politicians and union leaders left him with the same impression. After those exhausting days, Naipaul dreamed of Buenos Aires and the pampas, of Argentina as a whole, and his dreams invariably turned into nightmares. Argentineans are not especially popular in the rest of Latin America, but I can assure you that no Latin American has written a critique as devastating as Naipaul’s. Not even a Chilean.