Archive for February, 2010
February 8th 2010
On page 89 (in the UK Picador paperback edition) of Roberto Bolano’s huge novel 2666 there is a passage in which three literary critics - one Italian, one French, one Spanish – are visiting a painter called Edwin Johns in a Swiss lunatic asylum. One of the critics notices that the nurse is reading an anthology of modern German literature that includes a story by Benno von Archimboldi, the fugitive writer whom the critics are seeking. He remarks on this happenstance lead to a discussion on the nature and meaning of coincidence – a discussion that could be read (albeit reductively) as a manifesto for what Bolano is attempting in this brilliant, diffuse novel.
“The whole world is coincidence,” says Johns. “Coincidence isn’t a luxury, it’s the flip side of fate, and something else besides . . . Coincidence . . . is total freedom, our natural destiny. Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don’t know what they are. Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion. The communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us.”
I can’t envisage an “osseous implosion” (perhaps there is a Spanish reader looking at this who can let me know whether it is less opaque in the original), but aside from that the importance of the passage for rest of 2666 is clear. In its 900-page span the narrative moves from a rarefied world of literary conferences to random murder in the slums of a Mexican border town, then back to Europe in the Second World War, taking in innumerable other episodes (the American Black Power movement, for example) along the way. Binding all this together (apart from the page-turning verve of Bolano’s writing – but that’s another story) there is no conventional plot (though the search for Archimboldi is surely the ghost or evolutionary vestige of one), but rather a series of coincidences and chance encounters. As my teenage children would say (admiringly) it’s “really random”.
I came to Roberto Bolano’s 2666 by chance – browsing in a bookshop. His publishers are pushing it hard (and also reissuing Bolano’s earlier books) but it hadn’t made an enormous splash in the press, and I hadn’t seen any reviews. (Bolano is both dead and foreign – two almost insurmountable obstacles to artistic worth in the eyes of the British media.) I came to it soon after reading Haruki Murakami’s stories, and also soon after the coincidence after that strange coincidence of Fenton Gray and “Fenton Gray” that had manifested itself while I was making the radio documentary about Victorian music hall. “Coincidence,” says the artist Edwin Johns in 2666, “is the flip side of fate.” I think I now have a clearer vision of the meaning of that coincidence. (No coincidence, of course, is meaningless.)
Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don’t know what they are . . . Jung attempted such an investigation in his Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle – a book which I have not read yet, but will now . . . Globalization; increased mobility of people, images and ideas; the internet; greater understanding of the connectivity of the 100 billion neurones in our brains – all this will stimulate a greater interest in coincidence (an interest already manifest in what might call a new kind of literature, whose representatives include Bolano, Murakami and the English writer David Mitchell).
Perhaps we shall see a new science – Synchronology. Chairs of Synchronology will be established at leading universities (at one, controversially, the winning candidate will be chosen by lot). The different categories of coincidence will be analysed and randomised. From the Departments of Synchronology students will pour out – some (the radicals) to found new religions and new political movements; some (the conservatives) to become advisors to government and business on how to manipulate and control man’s most powerful and abundant metaphysical resource – coincidence.