The Summer of Bolaño: Q and A with Mark Haber of Brazos Books
Mark Haber of Brazos Books is one of the indispensable booksellers of the translation scene. If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen him pushing fantastic authors like Yuri Herrera and Enrique Vila-Matas, and if you’ve ever visited Brazos Books in Houston, you’ve probably seen his staff recs and thoughtful floor displays. Maybe he’s even handsold you a great title.
Mark is dear to us at Two Lines, and, in fact, he’s given our latest book, Trysting, a wonderful rave—”universal, yet utterly personal . . . beguiling and uncategorizable, it celebrates the joys and heartbreaks of being alive.” (We liked it so much that we printed it at the top of the back cover!)
In addition to all of those things Mark does to push great literature, he also runs Brazos’s book group, which recently finished up a multi-session reading of Roberto Bolaño’s massive novel 2666. Although 2666 is among Bolaño’s most popular works, even with that book’s great popularity, it’s no mean feat to get 40+ people eager to tackle it and produce remarkable conversations around it.
Our own Sarah Coolidge recently corresponded with Mark to find out about his experiences running the Bolaño book group and helping readers discover great works of translated literature.
Sarah Coolidge: Can you tell me about the book group at Brazos Bookstore? How long has it been going on and how long have you been a part of it?
Mark Haber: The Brazos book group has been going on for many years, I don’t now the exact number, but I inherited the group when our old book buyer left about two-and-a-half years ago. We meet once a month and we vote for the book we want to read next, so it’s very democratic. I cull the store and choose five or six titles for the group to vote on, almost always leaning toward fiction, but there’s always at least one non-fiction in the mix, memoir or something similar.
SC: What are some of your favorite books from the book group? Which generated the best discussions?
MH: Some of my favorite books and similarly, ones that generated the best discussions would be Stoner by John Williams, The Door by Magda Szabo, The Hare with Amber Eyes (surprisingly), The Infatuations by Javier Marías, The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda , The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, and lesser-known works like Dreamers of the Absolute by Anna Sun published by Sylph Editions. We actually were able to livetweet questions to Anna Sun when we had our book group.
SC: Did 2666 in particular draw a lot of attention? How many people took part in the discussions?
MH: 2666 drew a lot of attention. A lot more than I expected. We began choosing a big book for the summer months (June through August), three years ago. The first year we did Swann’s Way and last summer we did Don Quixote. I really wanted to try something a little more daring and contemporary. As anyone who knows me realizes, I’m a Bolaño fanatic, so any chance to reread 2666 and discuss his writing was welcome. The first meeting we had around forty people, which is just enormous, really, almost too big for an intimate discussion. And, unlike previous years, the book groups didn’t really get smaller as the summer wore on. July and August had about thirty-plus people. Unlike last summer; Don Quixote started out big but by the end of summer there were like eight of us.
SC: 2666 seems like a tough book to tackle in a book group. Bolaño is known for amassing details and leaving it to his readers to piece them together. And the book is made up of five very distinct sections, only loosely related. How did you deal with covering such a massive and intricate novel in a limited amount of time?
MH: Covering Bolaño, especially 2666, had its challenges. But we tried to tackle each third of the book as it came. Many people hadn’t read him before and, admittedly, it’s not the ideal starting point for reading Bolaño. What a lot of people in the group had to come to terms with, and they said this, was letting the story just flow, to stop caring about what details were and were not important. Because 2666 is packed with digressions and characters. If you give too much importance to a character, they’ll likely end up dying or disappearing. A lot of people in the group enjoyed the routes Bolaño would take the reader on, and just as many people resented it, I think! All that aside, each book group could’ve lasted another hour probably. We discussed a lot of the broad strokes and what we thought were Bolaño’s intentions. We discussed the role of dreams in the novel, as well as the sense of impending doom. We all agreed Bolaño must’ve been a huge David Lynch fan because 2666 feels a lot like a Lynch film. But, in all fairness to Bolaño, I find him to be an immensely readable writer, so even at its most difficult parts, the language is always stellar. I find Bolaño a pleasure to read, and that’s important.
SC: Several sections of the book take place in the fictional, crime-ridden Mexican city Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juárez. And the section “The Part about the Crimes” deals specifically with the city’s epidemic of female murders in the 1990s and early 2000s. What was the discussion like about this section? Did people have trouble talking about it? Did you reach any kind of consensus about why Bolaño wrote this section the way he did?
MH: I warned the group before we started “The Part about the Crimes” and was almost apologetic when we met to discuss it. However, not a single person was offended by the section, even though a lot of people wondered why it had to be so long. Many argued its length was the point. Murder and violence perpetuated and never solved has to be given scope. It can’t simply be an article or two from a newspaper. Also, we repeatedly returned to the quote from Baudelaire at the beginning of the novel, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” There are a thousand ways to decipher that quote. Is Santa Teresa the desert? What is the oasis? Are the murders so frequent that they’ve become numbing and boring? I think our overall consensus was that the style of the writing, cold and detached like a police report, was the only sensible way to express the lack of sense in all of these murdered women.
SC: Do you think that living in Texas, as opposed to anywhere else in the country, had any effect on how the group related to this part of the novel? Were people familiar with the real life murders over the border?
MH: Geography had a vital part in how we discussed the novel. Here in Houston, the sheer number of Spanish-speaking people is enormous. One of my favorite people in the book group, whom I consider a friend, is a medical student who grew up in Northern Mexico. All of his immediate family still lives in Monterrey. He read the book alongside us, but in the original Spanish, and we’d often ask him questions about maquiladoras and large-scale corruption and lots of the slang or expressions used in the book. We asked a lot of social questions. One thing he said that I doubt I’ll forget is that when he was finished with the book he simply cried. He cried because he said the causes of all of this are too manifold to consider solving or even fighting a single way. It’s not a serial killer, it’s not corrupt police or corrupt politicians or a corrupt society, that’s all too easy, he said. It’s all of it. There were also a few members of the book group who knew people affected by the murders in the ’90s or knew of people that were.
SC: How did you prepare to discuss this book? Did you do any research on Bolaño? On Ciudad Juárez? Did you search for a real Archimboldi? Do you think context adds anything to the reading of this novel?
MH: Honestly, I didn’t do a lot of research. My real research was reading the novel. I already know a lot of personal details about Bolaño’s life that I’d share with the group if they were relevant. But mainly the book, I think the book is the thing. I did a little research into the real-life murders, but Bolaño wrote this book while living in Spain, he hadn’t been back to Mexico in decades, so even though his research was deep, it was still a work of fiction.
SC: Did you find that talking about the novel as a group clarified anything? Or did it only generate more unanswered questions?
MH: For me, and I think I can speak for everyone else, talking about the book as a group helped immensely. Even when you’re confused by something, isn’t it always nice to find another person who’s as confused as you? Plus, we were able to answer people’s questions, give one another context for the novel’s setting as well as what Bolaño was trying to do in the canon of large-scale books like Moby-Dick or Infinite Jest.
SC: Do you read many books in translation in the book group? Have you noticed a growing interest in translated literature at Brazos Bookstore and/or nationwide?
MH: We read a lot of books in translation in the book group. Mainly my personal tastes (and luckily the group’s personal tastes) run that way, so when we choose from a group of 5 or 6 books, at least half are probably translated. In fact, our past three summers, all the “big” books have been translated: Proust, Cervantes, and Bolaño. In the three-plus years I’ve worked at Brazos I have seen a huge interest in international/translated literature. It seems more accepted in general, but also a deeper interest in writers from other countries seems to have emerged. Magda Szabó’s The Door, a book written by a Hungarian woman and originally published in the 1980s (I think) was this runaway hit for the store, months before The New York Times named it one of their top 10 books last year. I mean, we’re a small independent bookstore in Houston and we’ve sold almost 350 copies of this book! But yes, in general, the interest in translated literature only seems to be growing stronger. People will come in and ask for books by Valeria Luiselli or Elena Ferrante, and that’s really encouraging. Plus, the things that Open Letter, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Two Lines Press, and Seagull are doing are really exciting.
SC: What books are you reading next in the book group?
MH: We were reading Pale Fire by Nabakov, and then Walker Percy’s classic, The Moviegoer. I’m not sure about November yet since we still have to vote.