Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two Tales of Woe

by Pa Rock

I have recently finished reading two books, both of which have the word "woe" in the title.  And while these two works of fiction are by widely divergent authors who bear no outward resemblance to one another in writing style or the types of stories they convey, both authors are true masters of their craft.

Actually, the first author, Roberto Bolano,  was a master writer.  The Chilean born Bolano, a novelist and poet, lived throughout much of Latin America and died at the age of fifty in 2003 while still writing - in Spain.  The novel of his that I just finished, Woes of the True Policeman, was a largely finished effort that his children put together and published after his death.  The storyline had an aggravated sense of unity that might have been better achieved if the author had lived longer, but it followed on the heels of Bolano's award-winning opus, 2666, and contained characters and elements from that novel that provided some appreciated clarification to the earlier work.

If someone is preparing to read Roberto Bolano for the first time, I would recommend beginning with The Savage Detectives - a tale of writers living and working in Argentina, and a crazy quest and road trip through the state of Sonora, Mexico.  Mastering The Savage Detectives will lead into a fuller understanding of the second recommendation, 2666, which again focuses on Latin American writers, particularly poets, and the serial murders of the women working in the American factories of Juarez, Mexico.    (In 2666, the hundreds of murdered women are depicted as living in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa.)   That book also features quite a bit of travel through the cities and villages of Sonora.    After finishing those two novels, Woes of the True Policeman will fit itself nicely into the landscape of the other two and fill in some pesky gaps in the storyline.

Roberto Bolano was in the process of making Santa Theresa a very believable community, though not necessarily a desirable place to live, at the time of his death.  It was a place where his tales all had room to flourish and grow.

The second tale of woe that has been occupying my evenings is Woe to Live On, a fictionalized historical account of the lawless fringes of the American Civil War as it played out on the Kansas and Missouri border.   Author Daniel Woodrell is a highly skilled novelist who lives and writes full time in the Missouri Ozarks.  He has a growing reputation and significant resume of highly-praised published works, but is best known for writing the novel, Winter's Bone, which has been made into a motion picture.

Missouri, being a border state, saw more than its fair share of violence during the Civil War.  Mr. Woodrell explores that bloody vengeance by following a group of bushwhackers who were sympathetic to the South.  These men created their own system of justice and dealt it out without remorse as they wreaked havoc and revenge along the border.  Their  counterparts were the Jayhawkers, a northern group that plied their equally severe system of justice in the border towns of Kansas and Missouri.

This novel was easy for me to get into because I have spent time in almost every community that Woodrell mentions.  Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kansas, was especially intriguing - leaving me to wonder at the ability of a hundred-and-thirty men on horseback to travel forty miles from Missouri to Lawrence, mostly at night, through Union-occupied territory, and arrive at daybreak in the town completely unexpected.  There, amongst the blood and flames, one of their primary objectives that morning was finding breakfast.

Daniel Woodrell depicts the Civil War, and especially the action along the Kansas-Missouri border in a brutal and highly realistic fashion.  His characters lived hard and often died ugly.    Death was usually seen as a mercy, and in that regard, the title made a great deal of sense.

Roberto Bolano and Daniel Woodrell are are two of the finest wordsmiths of this century.  Woe unto readers who fail to make their acquaintance.

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