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I’m writing this from a motel room in Banff, Canada.

Roughly three weeks ago I quit my job. Over the next six months I will be travelling through Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

And so this blog will come to an end. Or maybe not. Certainly an indefinite hiatus. Ideally I’d like to update when I can over the coming months, but more than that I’d like to keep writing several projects as I travel – short stories, longer pieces, as well as general impressions and observations along the way. It’s going to be hard enough for me to devote time to that.

I’d like to thank those who have regularly read my posts on here, especially those who have taken the time out to give feedback, positive and negative. And perhaps some of you will still be around if/when I do come back.

All the best,

Nick

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Photograph taken by Andy Schwetz. See more of Andy’s work on his website here.

The crowd grew restless. They had been waiting a long time for tonight’s performance. But the speaker was late. It was quarter past nine, with the speaker due to start at eight. It was a warm evening and in an attempt to keep the noises of the city out, all windows had been sealed, and the hall was already at full capacity, so the doors had been locked, and in these conditions the atmosphere was fevered and close and the audience began to foam at the mouth. Any spark threatened to ruin them all.

Half past nine: several people get to their feet, and are followed by the rest. They climb onto their chairs, they shout obscene chants. A member of the entourage emerged from behind the curtains. She reached for the microphone and began to apologise, but programmes and plastic cups and even chairs themselves were thrown onto the stage, and the entourage and venue staff soon retreated. In anger the audience swept into the aisles and stripped the wood panels from the floors, the padding from the seats, the paintings and the light fittings from walls. Like a rising tide they engulfed the stage and tore down the decorations and the displays. The curtains were set alight and burned down as ashes in a matter of minutes. Howls and roars erupted from the mouths of the protesters. A brick was hurled through a window. The doors were hacked open. In their frenzied hysteria they ran down the steps of the theatre into the streets, where onlookers stopped and watched in bemusement. Feeling somewhat sheepish the protesters fell silent. Their anger dissipated into the starless night sky and they walked away the streets. The damage was done and the accused speaker forgotten.

Several years later, the accused, a tall old man of lean build with dark glasses, tottered forward onto the stage, using a stick for guidance. Shattered glass cracked beneath his feet as he went. There was debris strewn over all. Animal droppings covered the aisles and splintered chairs. Graffiti decorated the walls and doors. He found a square tile of carpet and stopped, knowing he was stood in the centre of the stage, but as he reached out ahead of him, the microphone stand was not where he expected it to be. He got to his knees to feel for it, but all he could pick up was trash, and he dropped his stick to kneel on the ruined stage. The sound startled a bird in the mezzanine above, which cried and flew out one of the holes in the ceiling, and the old man looked up and smiled. He gave up looking for the microphone and sat himself down, cross-legged, on the tile of carpet, allowing his hands to rest gently on the glass shards and rotting flyers.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. I want to apologies for the circumstances surrounding this evening, most notably my lateness, but also the troubles we’ve had with seating arrangements. I trust you are all now seated comfortably. Now,” the speaker paused, tilting his head as if straining to interpret something inexplicable in the air. He thought he heard footsteps, but it could have been the echoes of his own words. Or perhaps the bird had returned.

“We can begin.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

Roberto Bolaño’s dreamlike prose is something I adore – I’ve made no attempt to hide the impact his sprawling classic 2666 has left on me, along with the compelling short story collection The Return, containing some incredibly dark and saddening tales. The ‘floating’ feeling Bolaño’s words can elicit is in plentiful supply in Last Evenings on Earth, published in 1997 and translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2006.

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The collection of stories written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, found within Last Evenings on Earth, are profoundly character – rather than plot – driven, focussing on the thoughts and fears of the protagonists. These narrators are often struggling poets or writers (and seem to me like imprints of Bolaño himself) and frequently speak in the first person as if confessing, or re-examining, their actions and thoughts, trapped in a paranoid and tortured void between Europe and their various (Latin American) homelands.

The titular Last Evenings on Earth is one of the highlights, in which B (presumably Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego) and his father go on vacation to a beach resort in Mexico, which ominously builds to a violent climax. Dance Card‘s narrator returns to Chile in 1973 to help rebuild socialism, is arrested and imprisoned and accused of being a terrorist, only to be released by a pair of detectives he knew from school (the class mates from Detectives, the story within The Return). 

A quote from Gómez Palacio, where a 23 year old poet takes a position teaching creative writing in the titular town, and goes on an unusual car ride with the writing director.

…at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two… And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light, that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road – a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground – but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

In Dentist, the narrator visits an old friend, a dentist, who introduces him to a poor Indian boy who is a literary genius and whom the dentist appears to be in love with. A fantastic quote from Dentist on the nature of art in one of many tequila-inspired conversations:

That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.

Bolaño is, here and throughout his body of work, evasive, elusive, transparent, but also observational, coherent, inspirational. The dreamlike quality of his texts blend surrealism, wit, political and philosophical analysis, and I will continue to study and enjoy as many of his stories as I can.

What’s the hurry, son?

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Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.

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Photograph by Marco Ferrarin, who captures a wonderful sense of space and being in his work. You can find more of Marco’s photography on his Flickr photostream here

He awakens – some realisation of consciousness, the beginnings of awareness of his surroundings and situation – at five thirty that morning, so says the clock on the wall. It’s exceptionally bright. A single, naked halogen bulb hangs from the ceiling and illuminates the white room, with white tiles and white walls and the small frame bed he climbs out of, withs its tangled sheets and covers, is white. Approaching the window and poking through the blinds, darkness still consumes the streets below. No moving vehicles, no street lamps, no slow rising sun, and only the white light of similar windows, bearing occupants rubbing weary eyes just like his, confirms he is still in the city and not banished in the night to a deserted, inhospitable moon.

The silence ebbs away in a series of subtle steps. First, the birds, singing. He hears them before he sees them. Not long after this the sky begins to turn a lighter shade of grey, with a dull orange glow to the east. This seems to signal activity within the building. Doors open and close, pipes and valves creak. He can hear running water in the room next to his. Voices and muffled laughter. The day appears to be picking up pace. He returns to the window and the streets are visible in the half-light of the morning. Far below large shapes drive through lanes and queue up on long pieces of concrete. Some begin to honk, a harsh, impatient tone, and the longer they wait the louder they honk. But they never go very far anyway.

He looks towards the clock. It is eight-thirty, which alarms him, without fully understanding why. He stands in front of a tall mirror. The hair on his head is tufted and needs washing, the hair on his face has grown and needs to be trimmed, he smells of sweat and he is still nude, so he walks into the bathroom and has a cold shower. The mirror now portrays him in a suit, hair slicked back, his face shaved and smooth. Before leaving he discovers a portable computer on his desk. A window informs him that he has received twenty seven emails overnight. He puts the computer into a case along with several other paper documents of varying importance, and walks out of his apartment.

The walk along the landing is a short one and he soon reaches the lobby of elevators, one of which will take him down to the ground floor. He is going to be late, he thinks, and is perspiring steadily, but is glad of a light breeze coming from above. Where did the morning go, he mutters to himself, as he punches the call button, and steps back to wait for the elevator’s ascension to his floor. But, that step back, that solitary step, rings out around the lobby, again and again, softly echoing away from him, further than he could have ever believed, as if he had dropped a stone down a well that had no bottom. What on earth, he wonders, and he looks upwards to what should be a low white ceiling.

Instead he discovers a void above him. A huge circular space with pulsating lights, flashing colours he has never seen before, leading ever upwards to a celestial platform. The incomprehensible scene defied all logic. Spatially it was impossible, and the colours and grandiose structure were at war with the white and traditional high-rise building he had thought he was standing in. The only concept of the void even remotely recognisable  was a staircase that wound up the inside of the chasm towards an unknown destination. Somewhere high above there was a churning, a low but powerful buzz that sounded like a generator, growled in trembling shudders that shook him to his core.

The elevator doors open with a chime. He looks around the lobby for anyone else who could bear witness to this, but he is alone. At eye level there was little perceptible different in the lobby, but he raised his eyes once more and the spiralling staircase lit up with foreign illuminations was still there. Gazing up in awe at the distant, surreal beauty of it, he stood for some time, several seconds or several hours, he couldn’t be sure. Something wanted him to ascend the staircase. The rhythmic pounding of the machinery above matched the beating of his own heart. He walked towards the beginning of a staircase, which fused perfectly to the tiles of the lobby. He grasped the banister – it was hot.

No, he said. I must get to work. He released the banister and the growling upstairs intensified. But he ignored it, walked back to the elevator, which had patiently waited for him. He was thinking how he could possibly explain this to the boss as he stepped through the doors, and by the time he realised there was no floor, and no elevator waiting for him, it was too late. The lift shaft was dark, and as he plummeted down the machine at the top of the staircase quietened to little more than a purr. From the top of the high-rise, an elevator began to descend to the ground floor. It was nine o’clock and there was work to do.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is a monstrous creation of twentieth century literature, a harrowing and sprawling massacre, biblical in scale and tone. The majority of the book takes place in the borderlands of southern United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of conflict and war for land, boundaries and culture. Irregular US army outfits push into Mexico to claim land for America, encroaching on the regions of Native Americans who hunt, and are hunted by, mercenaries in the thriving market for indian scalps. More closely, the narrator follows ‘The Kid’, a young adolescent who leaves home and becomes entangled with a group of depraved scalp hunters, led by John Joel Glanton. Together, the ‘Glanton Gang’ carve a bloody swath through the borderlands, initially hunting Indians for the bounties on their scalps, before turning their guns and knives towards any living being in their path, peaceful indigenous tribes and innocent citizens, to fulfil their desire for sadistic pleasure or senseless nihilism or something else entirely.

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On criticism of McCarthy’s Western odyssey, there is none more discussed than the use of violence. Brutal, gratuitous, humiliating, terrifying, nauseating. Blood Meridian chronicles the murder of men, women and children, the rape and destruction of entire communities and towns, the scalping and mutilating of corpses who even in death cannot rest. The Wild West is a nightmare world and bloodshed is its currency, it is the. But more unsettling than any of the countless encounters which end in death and desecration, is the presence of one man throughout, Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is full of terrible characters, and all men in this tortured land can be considered villains. McCarthy heavily researched and based the Gang’s sordid exploits on the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, and Chamberlain confirms he rode with John Joel Glanton and his outlaws between 1849 and 1850. The Glanton Gang’s penchant for violence is nauseating, but the role of a true antagonist in the novel is slowly but surely filled by the Judge Holden, arguably one of literature’s greatest. Shall we start with appearance? “Immense and terrible”, the judge stands at seven feet tall, massive in frame, extremely pale white flesh, and a giant dome of a head, completely bald and lacking any body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. He stands out of any crowd and is instantly recognisable. Holden is first encountered by the Kid early on in the novel, at a tent revival in Nacogdoches, where he incites a crowd to physically attack a preacher, and whom before being engulfed by the crowd, calls the judge out as the devil. An early glimpse that this man is capable of easily influencing the minds of men.

The reader comes to know Holden as a professional scalphunter in the Glanton gang, when the Kid and Toadvine are recruited by Glanton from a jail in Chihuahua, and while Holden’s talent for violence and killing is clear, it becomes evident that the judge is successful at anything he puts his hand to. As Tobin the expriest says, ‘a dab hand’. And through late night conversations around campfires or in darkened taverns in foreign lands, Holden displays preternatural knowledge and skill for paleontology, linguistics, law, philosophy and more. He is articulate and persuasive. His strength and movement is unnatural (he is an excellent musician and dancer) with fast reflexes and a skilled marksman. Several of the gang refer to meeting Holden at some point in the past. All agree, he seems not to age a day.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Some scholars have highlighted ‘gnostic’ elements present throughout Blood Meridian. By no means an expert, I’ve understood Gnosticism to refer to religious beliefs and systems which understand the material/physical world and the human body to contain the Divine spark, which can be translated as knowledge or knowing, and the judge represents a demiurge, the ruler of the material world, often malevolent or an archon, a kind of demon. Certainly, the nature of the judge’s chilling views suggest he holds some higher status over the human race, particularly when he explicitly expresses to want to be a ‘suzerain’.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Whether or not McCarthy intended Holden as a gnostic archon or not, the first time I read Blood Meridian, I had a theory that the judge was,  if not the Devil himself, some other demon or evil incarnate, with whom Glanton struck a deal. The Glanton gang are gifted – miraculously talented – at killing, becoming an almost unstoppable force of merciless savagery. And for the scalps they take from men, woman and children they are rewarded with currency, food, liquor. Glanton is despicable and the undisputed leader but he seems to listen to the judge, and values keeping Holden with the gang, as evil and unsettling the presence of the judge may be. Once Glanton died, the ‘deal’ was broken, and this lead to the harrowing pursuit by Holden of the Kid and the expriest through the desert, to collect debts. Of course, this might have made sense if the judge did kill Toadvine and David Brown, but it is revealed they died the following year, hung publicly in Los Angeles. In subsequent readings the theory seems a little heavy handed, but it did make some sense when the judge returns at the end of the book to confront the Kid. Regardless, it’s clear to me the judge is not merely a man.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

There is plenty of speculation of the fate of the Kid, now a man, at the end of Blood Meridian. The judge appears to ambush the Kid in the jakes outside a saloon, naked, and ‘gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh’. The narrator chooses not to reveal the kid’s fate, and the only words an onlooker can mutter when witnessing the scene is “Good God almighty”. In a book which graphically depicts shocking violence throughout, something happens in the jakes that is indescribable in its horror. A haunting ending, one where the judge returns to the saloon to dance into the night, boasting that he never sleeps and he will never die.

kalopsia invert

The crew are excited. She’s in the building, she’s on her way up now. She’s somehow famous, although I’m not familiar with her work. The presenters meet her first, show her around the studio, take her to the sofas. On her way past our eyes meet. What must she think of me?

We begin. Welcome, it’s a pleasure to have you. Oh please, the pleasure’s all mine. For those of us who don’t know who you are, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? Oh, she’s so humble. She talks with such grace. And look at them. Lapping it up. Am I the only one? The real world. Did I see her smoking outside earlier? No.

The questions are fluff, her answers trite. She shines under the studio lights and her smile is hungry and white.

We lose sound for a second. We’re out of sync. But the world kept spinning and now we’re trying to catch up. In my ear, the director screams. What the fuck happened? I fix it, I always do. But she knows. She’s smiling, and she flicks her hair, and that smile, the danger it holds, that hair, those eyes, that smile.

She looks for me. Blame the soundman. She doesn’t find me immediately but she knows she will, and she does. When our eyes meet again I shudder. She’s talking, she’s carrying on, but she’s staring at me.There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And one by one, heads turn, and now I’m stood in front of an audience, all eyes on me. But not the camera lens.

The questions are fluff, her answers trite. She shines under the studio lights and her smile is hungry and white.

Goodness, she’s perfect.