“Illusion and imagination are as true as the reality which is as fictitious as any imagined illusory story,” a quote from Roberto Bolaño never found in any of his papers.
This story starts with Roberto Bolaño, not because Bolaño is its main subject or that he was the starting point for it all, but simply because I admire him and because the piece is a creature with a Bolañoesque nature.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. He notes in an article that it was the same year that Stalin died and the same year that Dylan Thomas died. Perhaps many other well-known people died in 1953, so why Bolaño chooses those two particular figures we’ll never know. What matters to the piece, however, is that Bolaño mentions them. That’s all.
I know a lot about Bolaño, but so what? The world, too, knows a lot about him at this point. Or at least the literary world. But even to that, one could say, so what? If Bolaño were alive and to comment on this, he would either react by saying, “Who cares about being known by the literary faggots?” or “One should throw himself into the abyss instead of into the arms of his admirers.” Whether he likes it or not, he is today a literary star. A dead one, however, whose light is shining on us over the light years of distance between him and us. His year of death: 2003. Death takes away writers, poets, politicians, all alike. Bolaño loved that theme.
As for Stalin whose death Bolaño mentioned: I don’t know much about him, but perhaps I and the world know enough not to like him, and even this much presence of him in the piece is more than enough.
As for Dylan Thomas: he was born in the Uplands area of Swansea in 1914 and died on November 9, 1953 at St Vincent's Hospital, New York. He is the one I want to tell you about here. I want to tell the story of how I came to know him in the first place, which was long before I found out about Bolaño referring to him here and there.
Late one evening, sitting at my computer in my efficiency in Washington, DC, where I’m going to school, I am bored and homesick, and the only thing I desire is a simple stroll in the familiar alleys of my city, Tehran, with the familiar sense of the asphalt of my childhood alleys underneath my steps, the smell of home-cooked eggplant and chicken stew from the neighbor’s house, the sound of water from a hose left underneath the bushes alongside the high walls of another neighbor’s, and the sound of the wheelbarrow of the hunched man collecting the plastics from among the garbage left at the doors of the houses…. But instead, I’m stuck inside this one big cube with disgusting wall-to-wall beige carpets that has no architectural identity or character whatsoever, except for its huge window that opens onto the bell tower of a stone church on the other side of the street. The church is considered an old heritage here but in Iran it would not be old enough to attract any attention whatsoever. The window lets lots of light in, but with it comes the constant sound of the police and ambulance sirens driving by. The sky of the autumn night is a mix of gray and orange and the air smells of imminent rain. Staring into and beyond the view, even into the abyss of my imagination, I find no solace whatsoever here. I decide to lose myself in some web searching. One thing leads to another, and out of nowhere I walk into the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in New York in the 50s and 60s. I’m reading about its history when E. buzzes me on Yahoo Messenger.
E. is a writer and an ex-lover who is sitting at his computer in Tehran. This means he has already lived eight and a half hours more than me because of our different time zones, but since he is actually two years younger than me, I’m not sure how the eight and a half hours really count. I could of course tell you more about him at this point, other information that could be of interest, but I feel this much suffices for the sake of the piece at hand. The rest about him will perhaps appear someday in some other story, or even later in this piece. For now, E. is as bored as I am and is fooling around on the web as well. I can picture him, using proxies to be able to surf some porn sites, smoking some hash and enjoying it along with his late-into-the night coffee to keep awake to read while the rest of the house goes to sleep. I am envious of him right now, both for the hash, and for the fact that he can leave his room and have the stroll that I so need in the familiar alleys of our city.
“Do you know about this hotel in NY?” I ask him.
“Which hotel? Tell me. No, wait. First take off your blouse and adjust the computer camera. I want to see your breasts while you tell me…. Okay, that’s better. Now, I’m all ears.”
This is one of the things we still keep doing together, not the virtual voyeurism, although that too, from time to time, but more so sharing things we learn about and know the other would for one reason or another find amusing as well.
The Chelsea Hotel of New York would interest E., I know, not necessarily because of Leonard Cohen and the former lover from the hotel whom Cohen doesn’t love the best and doesn’t even think of that often, whom he addresses by saying, “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.” E. of course loves Cohen a lot, but I feel he uses the Ladies’ Man more as a tool to be a better player at the role of the Ladies’ Man, rather than enjoying Cohen per se. The Chelsea Hotel would interest E. more because the Beats and Bob Dylan stayed there.
E. has a long time ago told me an interesting story about his attachment to the Beat Generation. We were sitting in a small amphitheatre where a group of students were to perform a play by E. called Madagascar. Not excited to be there, wanting to escape even to a dungeon to undress and fuck, he kept brooding over how stupid students or professors could be, and I, the forever hopeful bourgeois believing in the power of academia, kept arguing with him. To prove his point, he told me, as the actors were coming to the stage, that he did his MA thesis on the Beats and for a long while into the project, his thesis advisor, ignorant as he was, presumed that the Beats were one and the same as the Beatles.
“The Beats, not the Beatles, and Bob Dylan stayed there,” I tell him. A year and a half later, I will be staying in the Chelsea too, just for a night, on a short trip I make to NY to attend the concert of an Iranian traditional music master at Carnegie Hall. But that’s beside the point. On this night, it’s then E.’s turn to tell me something new he has learned. He tells me about this poet, Dylan Thomas.
“Bob Dylan has taken his name from him.”
Bob Dylan’s lyrics are also used by E. in his pursuit of women, but Dylan is E.’s true hero and inspiration, his songs the background music for his depressed and joyous times. E. illegally downloads Dylan’s Theme-Time Radio programs on Sirius-XM and treats himself to one program per weekend night, the nights he prefers to spend alone, reading and writing. Put together the Beats and Bob Dylan and Henry Miller and Saul Bellow as a few examples of E.’s pastime choices and I guess it wouldn’t be hard to understand why despite living in Iran, E. is considered by many more an American at heart than an Iranian.
“Let’s do something. An assignment,” E. suggests. “We have ten minutes to find something interesting either about the Chelsea Hotel or Dylan Thomas and get back to each other here on the Messenger.”
By the time the ten minutes are finished and E. buzzes me, it has already started to rain in Washington, DC and the following is what E. and I have come to find and share with each other. I don’t remember which parts I came upon and which he did, but that doesn’t really matter:
In January/February 1951, Dylan Thomas visits Iran to write a film script for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that was at work in the southern provinces of the country which was and is still rich in oil. That, the story of oil and internal resources and foreign exploitations, is a story on its own, an entirely different story, about which, if Bolaño were to comment, he would say, “Not an entirely different story but the core story to this and to all the other stories that need to be narrated before we are all devoured by the darkness.”
Now, this particular discovery about Thomas might not be of much interest to you, but even if it is not, probably you can understand why it is of great interest to me, an Iranian who on this particular night, for no good reason at all feels strongly nostalgic for the homeland and whatever related to it. Even though I, like Bolaño, don’t consider myself an exile, the issue of homeland has, like Bolaño, been of great interest to me. To be able to deal with being away, I’ve tried to adopt different definitions of what a homeland is. A few suggestions from Bolaño: one’s country, continent, and language; one’s loved ones and memories; loyalty; courage; and in a sense, none of these, since Bolaño believes a writer’s homeland depends a lot on what the writer is writing at the moment when he is asked about the homeland. Alas. None has helped alleviate my pain of this physical removal from Tehran.
On this night, even though E. and I do not understand the real connection between a poet, an oil company, a film script, and our homeland, we find an understandable one between Thomas and the Chelsea Hotel: a connection in death. Dylan Thomas collapsed due to pneumonia in the Chelsea Hotel, where he was staying, on November 5th, four days prior to his death in a hospital in NY.
As to the Bolaño-Thomas affair, about which I found out some time later after this particular night, the connecting dots are not just those marked in the specific year of 1953, the year which one picked for his birth, in April, the other for his death, in November; although I’m not sure that pick is the right word, since neither of them had any choice in those dates. “It’s a choice, a choice made by fate or destiny,” Bolaño would correct me here.
As to the further connections: In 1940 Dylan Thomas published a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, inspired by James Joyce’s title, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Bolaño’s first book to win an award of small recognition for him was entitled Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic and he has a poetry collection called Romantic Dogs.
Bolaño, moreover, has a story that is literally a list of some events and trivia information of a life put together seemingly haphazardly. Number 33 on the list reads: “I was imprisoned in Concepción for a few days and then released. They didn’t torture me, as I had feared; they didn’t even rob me. But they didn’t give me anything to eat either, or any kind of covering for the night, so I had to rely on the goodwill of the other prisoners, who shared their food with me. In the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn’t sleep and there was nothing to read except a magazine in English that someone had left behind. The only interesting article in it was about a house that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas.”
Whether this story in a list is autobiographical or fictitious, there is no way to know. The story is in the first person and Bolaño was, according to his own account, imprisoned and freed by accident at the time of the Chilean coup d’état, but that account has been brought under question by some of his friends and people who were in Chile at the time. But even if the prison incident is untrue, he could still have read the article about Dylan Thomas somewhere else, or even if the prison incident is true, there might never have been an article about Dylan Thomas.
So back to Thomas once again: Now I am not anymore in Washington, but in Tehran. E. and I are walking in some unfamiliar alleys of my always familiar city, heading to an art gallery to see a group exhibition of photographs and paintings entitled “Military Service.”
“Have you heard about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?” I ask.
“BP was once called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.” I have just watched a feature on BP on an illegal satellite international news channel.
“So?” he asks, adjusting his fedora that is his latest attempt at bringing an odd element into a familiar environment. “Why should I care?” He thinks I’m going into one of my talks either about Iran or the environment and he apparently is in no mood.
“The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was the company that sent Dylan Thomas to Iran to do the film script.”
“Ha!” he says, glancing at my body covered in an Islamic manteau and a scarf. “Now listen to this…. You can’t find this on any news channel.
“Dylan Thomas, at the time when he was working for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, had met and lived for a while with a prominent Iranian writer/director. The Iranian was greatly surprised by Thomas’ diverse and deep knowledge of his country, its culture, history, people, etc.”
And then E. tells me who the Iranian writer was. He is famous not only for his works but because of his mysterious affair with the most famous female poet of Iran, Forough. Admired by some and criticized by others even today for her courageous/outrageous feminine poems and lifestyle, Forough was killed in a car accident at the age of thirty-two, her death considered suspicious by many of her admirers. The prominent writer, who changed forever after her death, has been living in exile for many years now, in exile of all places in England.
To what extent this story of Dylan Thomas staying with the Iranian writer is true cannot be known. The more important question that arises with this information, as it did on our first night of learning about Thomas visiting our country, is: Was Thomas in truth an agent for a foreign government? This to you might sound stupid; believe me, even to us Iranians it has become one of the oldest jokes in the country, this infiltration of agents and foreign forces; but we are not to blame, because there is ample evidence in the course of our history of people turning out to be agents for foreign governments, and that doesn’t even come as a surprise anymore, as we are a Third World country and a Third World’s country’s destiny has never been and will never be solely formed by its people.
This new dot is not the last one to find its way into this; and whatever this is, simply a list of dots connected, or an attempt at finding meaning, or a story woven around some reality, it seems to keep growing into an endless uncontrollable myriad of interconnected coincidences.
As to Bolaño: When I finish writing the first draft of this, which is in reality the tenth draft, I, still in Tehran, email it to a friend, an old classmate, in Baltimore. A few days later he sends me an email back introducing me to an old-time series by the BBC, entitled “Connections.” I read about it on the net and in the middle of a page, there is a list of the titles of the episodes with a short synopsis for each. I pick one randomly, and oddly enough, a few words into the synopsis, my eyes get hooked on one word, Antwerp. At the time I am reading a book by Bolaño, and the book is none other than Antwerp, a collection of intense, seemingly unrelated short pieces which Bolaño himself called the only novel of his that doesn’t embarrass him.
A phrase from number 33 of Antwerp reads: “… maybe at some point she imagined that the furniture in the room and even her lover were empty things that she had to invest with a meaning…”
As to Dylan Thomas and his Oil Company (if only Dylan Thomas owned an oil company!): One morning, I open my email and someone has sent me a link from Time magazine, an article entitled “Sleeping with the Enemy.” It’s about BP and how despite having cut back on its deals with Iran due to the sanctions, it remains a major company engaged in joint-venture projects with the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum outside of Iran. BP has partnered with the Swiss-based NaftIran (meaning Iranian Oil) and the secret story is that the company has strong ties with the Iranian government behind the scenes. But as Bolaño says, “The secret story is the one we'll never know, although we're living it from day to day.”
A few days after I read the article, with the oil spill not yet under control, I read in an Iranian newspaper that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, the military entity said to be running the country after the much-disputed Presidential election of 2009, involved in all major investment and business deals around the country, has offered BP help in controlling the leak and stopping the disaster. Hearing this, many people, myself included, laugh out loud. How could a system unable to deal with its own problems and inadequacies offer help to one of the most developed companies in the world? But then I remember the article from Time and rereading it, I see possible links; I see shadows hovering between the lines, behind the scenes, at the very threshold of understanding. “Without the shadows nothing could even start to make sense; and that’s why we need the undercover writers and poets, to help bring the shadows out onto the stage,” Bolaño would have reminded us at this point.
Or perhaps all this thinking about the shadows and the existing links is simply the result of constantly thinking and writing about connections and dots; and trying to make sense of it all, I can’t even share these with E. to know what he thinks, because there is no Dylan Thomas and Chelsea Hotel involved in this part to grab E.’s attention. My next round of dots and connections that I want to bring in, however, are once again E.-related:
A while later I start reading the journals of Anais Nin. It was actually E. who, at the very beginning of our relationship in Tehran years ago, introduced me to Nin through the movie Henry and June. And for me, Nin gradually became Forough and Forough became Nin; I became them and they became me; I found my life in Forough’s words: “Life is perhaps the lighting up of a cigarette in the narcotic repose between two love-makings,” and myself in Nin’s words: “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don't work.” A year or so later, when I left E. and was living in Washington, another lover, without knowing about my interest in Nin, bought me the Tropic of Cancer and he also suggested that I read The Alexandrian Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I devoured every word of Durrell’s and fell in love with Justin and Alexandria. Today, Nin, Forough, Miller, and Durrell are all close to my heart and to my writing. Along with Bolaño, of course.
Reading Nin’s journals, I find out that she also knew Durrell and admired his work. Then at some point in the journal, I come upon the name Cesar Vallejo. I am at the time also reading another book by Bolaño, Monsieur Pain, whose main character is called Vallejo. Nin in her diary mentions that the poet Vallejo is a friend of a friend of hers and the friend is grieving, yes, the death of the poet Vallejo. The Vallejo of Monsieur Pain is dying too, in a labyrinthine clinic where the attempts of a mesmerist fail to cure him.
And leaving behind Nin and Vallejo… now, months later…The date is Tir 24, 1390 in the Iranian calendar, which makes it July 15, 2011. Bolaño died on July 15, 2003. I have still never read anything by Dylan Thomas. E. and I have just shared rough sex on the cool stone floor of my apartment, and he, before leaving to go back to his computer and to his latest novel about the city of Tehran, rolled a joint of hash for me on the hard cover of Antwerp which I’ve taken out to take a look at while working more on this piece. The song on my iPod suddenly permeating through my apartment is The Chelsea Hotel. I’m reclining on my light green couch, I’m smoking my hash, and surrounded by several books by Bolaño scattered on my hand-woven colorful flowery carpet, I am browsing in and out of stories filled with characters and events that all breathe the air of illusion….
© Raha Namy 2011
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