Pick-up Dogs How Two Rescue Dogs Save the West from Being Won

Pick-up Dogs
Murakami’s cats, Bolaño’s dogs, translation, and the next big thing

A while ago I became obsessed with a writer from Chile, who lived for a time in Mexico, and spent his last years in Spain: Robert Bolaño. I discovered him while living in Barcelona, and it turned out that the small village that he was living in, Blanes, was just a few miles north on the Catalonian coast. It’s hard to say what about Bolaño caught my attention. We had the same haunts on the Catalonian coast. I was much younger, but I had already wandered in a similar way as Bolaño, living the same peripatetic existence. There was something about the way he captured the darkness of the human soul and the dark history of humanity in a light way. After reading his novels, novellas, short stories and poems, I had this feeling that we’re all totally screwed, but at least it will be an interesting ride. Bolaño’s thirst for knowledge, his indefatigable curiosity about a variety of subjects made reading his works educational but fun. Equally at home writing about the life of a porn star, a soccer star, or his most common subject, failed poets, Bolaño was able to capture their essence in such a way that would make you think that he lived their lives.

We can suppose that the stories he tells come from the acquaintances he made in all of his wanderings. He worked as a campground manager for several summers in Catalonia and he must have met a number of people wanting to share stories of their travels. What was best about Bolaño is that there was a part of him that never seemed like a writer. With none of the pretentious air that some authors have or a need to show off his skill with putting words together, Bolaño’s  thoughts flowed seamlessly from one to another in such a way that after I’d finish one of his works, whether it be a short story or a thousand-page novel, I’d feel like I had just done battle with the world and come out like Don Quixote after his duel with the Knight of the White Moon. But in a good way.

Later on, I discovered Haruki Murakami. Like Bolaño, there’s something about the Japanese novelist that doesn’t seem to be very “writer-like.” Not very successful in school, Murakami owned a jazz club in Tokyo for a number of years before his writing career began somewhat accidentally. Although his characters don’t wander quite as much as Bolaño’s, they also seem to be lost on earth, living their last evenings, squeezed right up between one universe—this reality that we think we are living in right now—and another more profound and hauntingly strange universe. Much more surreal than Bolaño’s, Murakami’s writing is still very concrete. With no need to show off his prose, his writing just is. And the stories he tells are beautiful in and of themselves, which makes the language shine. Like Bolaño, Murakami is someone who has lived. He runs a marathon every year, has run one ultra-marathon (some 100 miles), and is working on triathlons. He’s translated to Japanese a number of masterpieces, his favorite being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. His knowledge of music is without par, and  music always seems to play a part in his work. His first work, Norwegian Wood, referenced the Beatles’ song of the same name. And his most recent novel revolves around Janáček’s sinfonietta. There is something about Murakami that is so unlike a “normal” writer and that’s what makes him good.

Once I got hooked on Bolaño, I ended up reading everything he had ever written—the good, the bad (if a bad Bolaño work exists, and I do believe they do), the immensely long and the all too short works of his youth. I became so obsessed that I went back to grad school and wanted to write a dissertation about him. He ended up featured in only one of my chapters, but his work lies behind my entire dissertation. Going back to get a PhD was probably the most un-Bolaño thing I did, as Bolaño never finished school and frowned upon academics, who lived in theoretical worlds while ignoring the reality in front of their faces. And maybe I should have tried to live a more Bolaño-like existence.

And then one day, right around the time of his death, I read in the New York Times that he was being translated into English and that he was the new “latest thing.” And it deeply disappointed me. Looking back, I was selfish. I wanted Bolaño to myself. I was even disappointed with the translated title of his most famous novel, The Savage Detectives. Somehow, I thought The Wild Detectives was a much better rendition, and I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time. I went into a long screed about how people should learn to read in the original, which is also a pretentious, shallow thing to say. Of course, the world is made richer when one is fortunate enough to know more languages and can read them. But I’m not going to have time in this life to master Japanese, and that’s not going to stop me from appreciating Murakami’s work.

Now it seems that Murakami has caught fire in literary circles. There were midnight release parties for the English translation of his new novel in places like London and New York. People are obsessed and rightly so. I bought my first hardback ever, and I’m cheap. But, we are living with a great one. And most certainly, people who are new Murakami readers will complain that all of the 12 to 30 plot twists in this 900+ pager aren’t resolved, and they will ask why all the hype. And that’s OK. Lots of people didn’t understand Bolaño when he was translated into English, and part of me wonders how could they understand Bolaño unless they had a background in Latin American history and culture. Lots of people who do understand Latin American history and culture and who can read in Spanish did not understand Bolaño. Or just thought he was another pretentious writer who wrote novels that were way too long and boring. Bolaño’s not for everyone. I won’t be selfish about him any longer. I’ll also be glad to share Murakami. His work isn’t for everybody either.

But why does a guy who just wrote a book supposedly about dogs blather on about a Japanese superstar author and a Chilean-born writer who made it big right after he died?

Does it matter that Time magazine had a review (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2096297,00.html) that put together a number of the sequences in which Murakami uses cats to tell his stories ? One of the more known of Murakami’s cats is the one that belongs to Toru Okada, protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel that twists the stories of Okada’s search for his cat and his wife in a quest that takes him to the bottom of a well in suburban Tokyo and to war fields of Manchuria with some of the most disturbingly memorable scenes of torture ever narrated.

My personal favorite cat is in Kafka on the Shore, still my favorite of the Murakami oeuvre, along with The Wild Sheep Chase. A character in Kafka… talks to cats and receives special messages from them, as the cats are like emissaries between this world and a realm of imagination. Kafka on the Shore is a book I can read over and over again, and never really fully understand, but nor can I ever grow tried of it.

While Murakami’s work hinges on cats, I don’t recall very many pets in Bolaño’s work, although he does have a collection of poems entitled Los perros románticos (The romantic dogs). Like all of his poems, they are confessional and more like anti-poems than poems, just as his narrative tends to borrow so much from verse. It’s hard to say just what the romantic dogs are,  but they appear to be part of Bolaño’s dream and his nightmare in his transition after leaving a Chile taken over by a dictator in the early 70s. This event makes Bolaño write as an outsider. As someone who is neither here nor there.

Like Bolaño, I am an outsider. I am an outsider to dogs, and it shows. And that’s what great literature potentially can do. Those who write sit on the outside observing the world. They participate in the world, maybe even living it more intensely than other people, by running ultra-marathons or escaping from the violence of Latin American politics in the cargo hold of a Transatlantic ship, like Murakami and Bolaño, respectively.

I am an outsider to dogs. I am not a dog person. Dogs drew me in with their power, which is maybe why I can respect the influence that dogs can have on us, and I can articulate dogs’ power over us with some depth because it is such a novelty to me and it amazes me every day. Dogs are not in my nature, and I struggle to make sense of them because I love them not because I understand them. If you’re looking for advice on how to deal with a Pomeranian that pisses on the couch, you won’t find it in my book.

Pick-up Dogs is not about dogs, but about people and our relationship with nature. It’s about how we find meaning in life by living with other creatures. It’s about healing ourselves with our relationships to others. And how animals can help teach us how to relate to the world.

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