I don't get it.
Was Visceral Realism supposed to be a passionate but ultimately empty movement, or was there supposed to be some kind of genius to works of Ceasera and Ulises and Belano?
And Sion too. I don't get it.
Lima and Belano offer an exegesis later on. Keep reading. Though there's more to Sión than they let on. Hint: recall Ulises Lima in Spain and in Israel, his constant comparisons to Christ ("Fisher of men", etc).
As for Visceral Realism, it's a parody of Bolaño's own infrarealism. Most of the Visceral Realists are Bolaño's fictionalized versions of actual members of the movement, most of them horribly obscure, but García Madero (completely obscure even by the foremost expert on them) is representative of both the best (he's idealistic and young and eager and talented) and worst (he's an insufferable douchebag) parts of the movement.
Bolaño doesn't really want you to either like or hate the Visceral Realists. He's not so much using them to make a statement about infrarealism any more than Hemingway was making a statement about the modernists in The Sun Also Rises. There's a lot to be gleaned, but exactly what you glean will depend on your analysis and opinions.
If you're having trouble understanding the text, you might want to try reading it in the original Spanish. Natasha Wimmer's translation is wonderful and is perfectly adequate for a first time Anglo's read, but eventually you should graduate to español.
So, when Belano and Lima explain the poem to Amadeo, they add to the poem to reach their conclusion. They stick a triangle on top of the boat to illustrate their opinion that it is, in fact, a boat.
But in the actual poem, there are no sails. The boats are adrift.
They also make a mistake in their analysis (intentionally, I think). They claim that Sión is just the last four words of "navegación", which is hilariously and transparently a lie, though that's less apparent in the English translation, where you can't see the discrepancy in spelling. This throws Amadeo for a loop and he starts thinking that Sión should be "Simón" -- slang for "yes", but that slang is supposed to postdate the poem.
Of course, Sión actually means "Zion". This is where the poem and its context within the novel start to make sense.
Recall Ulises Lima's trip to Spain and Bolaño's descriptions of his sea-sickness, and then compare them to the dream of either Lima or Belano (we aren't told which): "And then one of them said: when I was little, I couldn't have been more than six, I would dream about these three lines, the straight line, the wavy line, and the jagged line. I don't know why, but back then I slept under the stairs, or at least in a very low-ceilinged room next to the stairs. It might not have been my house, maybe we were only there for a little while, maybe it was my grandparents' house. And each night, after I'd gone to sleep, the straight line would appear. So far so good. The dream was even pleasant. But little by little the scene would start to change and the straight line would become a wavy line. Then I would start to feel sick and get hotter and hotter and lose my sense of things, my sense of stability, and all I wanted was to go back to the straight line." (Page 423) It's also heavily implied that Lima and Belano have had the same dream, or share it in some way.
And then on the next page, we get this: ". . . Captain Ahab's encephalogram or the whale's, the surface of the sea that for sharks is the enormous mouth of hell, the ship without a sail that might also be a coffin," -- ding ding ding. From the top: Bolaño brings up Moby Dick, specifically Chapter 79, wherein the brains and skull-structures and faces of Ahab and the whale are compared and contrasted, and are equated with genius and determination and the devil and evil in general (moreso throughout the novel). Okay, and then the sea is compared to the mouth of hell (also from Moby Dick). Then Bolaño focuses on the triangle, and we're bombarded with different interpretations, obscure and obvious, some more relevant than others. What's important is we get this association between the sea and death, evil, and sickness. (cont . . .)
A few chapters later, Lima stows away on a boat headed for Barcelona and almost dies on the journey (it's here that the sickness starts to return). But then Lima eventually sets out for the north of Spain and meets up with Belano. In Chapter 20, an amazingly annoying and pretentious Xosé Lendoiro shows us a Belano descending into an evil chasm called “the devil’s mouth” (Page 454). In Chapter 8, around 1978, you get this great comparison between Ulises Lima and Jesus Christ: “The Fisher of Souls of the Casa del Lago of Chapultepec,” (Page 277). This comparison is only expanded for the next few hundred pages, but reaches a height when Ulises goes to Israel, where his sickness becomes debilitating. He’s seen as a vagabond and a criminal, and is eventually thrown into prison with an insane Austrian. This narrative of hermetic lifestyle and persecution quite nicely matches the comparisons between Christ and Ulises.
The conspiratorial nature of the Israeli WMD storyline only enhances this.
So then what to think of Cesárea Tinajero? She dies saving Ulises life. Doesn’t that destroy the Christ narrative? I think it’s more likely that she’s condemning Ulises, but more on that later. And what of Arturo Belano? Is he another side of the same coin? Yes and no. If Ulises is Jesus Christ, is follows that there is a Father and a Holy Spirit. Based on what little we know of the first days of the Visceral Realists collected from Quim Font’s scattered accounts of the early friendship between Ulises and Arturo, we can see that Arturo functions easily as a father-figure. And who is the Holy Spirit. I don’t know. Could be Cesárea Tinajero, could by Laura Damien. It’s not important for our purposes.
So what does this mean for the poem? Well, Christ’s sacrifice was not his death, but his suffering, and so if Ulises suffers (and he does), then that is all the better. And so, adrift on the sea (read: hell), encased in a coffin, Ulises’ fate is to again and again experience that claustrophobia, that sea-sickness, as the line changes from straight to wavy to jagged, as the seas grow more turbulent on his way toward Zion.
I’m sorry that that’s not a very exciting interpretation. I’ve taken you all this way for a firework and have given you a fizzle. Oh well.
So what of the Visceral Realists? One way to think about them is as Ulises and Belano’s disciples (and that’s what they are). Have fun sorting out who’s who.
Would you rather I examined something other than the text? When offering an interpretation of a literary work, we should generally gather our information primarily from the book in question: its quotes, characters, themes, etcetera, and how those can be cross-referenced to find some deeper meaning (or lack thereof) in the work itself.
Excellent observation. Recall again the passage about Lima/Belano's dream, straight lines becoming wavy lines becoming jagged lines. So if the first line has no wave, and the second line is a sine wave (clearly), the third, jagged line approximates (but does not equal) a tangent function. What can this tell us about the process by which placidity becomes order becomes chaos? Recall that tan(x) = sin(x)/(cos(x). There may also be associations drawn between these trigonometric functions and the triangles that Belano and Lima later add to the poem in their exegesis, but at this point I may be stretching (not that geometry's significance can ever be understated in a Bolaño novel).
I'm halfway through the book and figured that out, do I have to continue? Watching these unsympathetic assholes bum their way around the world acting self important is making fall asleep every few pages.