Response to ‘Song of Roland’, by Garrin Bufo
The Bad Version
20 February 2013
In the medieval French epic La Chanson de Roland, Charlemagne’s Christian Franks battle Marsile’s pagan Saracens in Spain. The latter have feigned defeat to trick the invaders into leaving; the former must now avenge themselves. This is not simply a battle between kings or nations, but between competing world views. Allegiances and actions are clear; the world is full with meaning.
Turn now to the modern United States of Bufo’s story—an empty place, hollowed of significance. Characters communicate in sentences devoid of not only goodness but wit. They speak in present-tense conjugations of “to be”, as if even language has been stripped of richness. Every action seems petty, vengeful, corrupt, or—perhaps most horrifying—free of any significance at all.
I love that this story invokes the Song of Roland, if only immediately to invert it—probing and dissecting the diseased corners of a mind attempting to concentrate in itself all the meaning-seeking of the world. I love how time and perspective, as in the original epic, are treated as interchangeable fragments—how one is trapped inside the chamber of a gun, rattling between extremes, past and present and future compressed and explosive. I even love the way in which horror slowly accretes, genre-laced in Southern gothic detail—one sees the rictus grins, smells the decay—as Roland’s intentions become clear.
In a confusion (or profusion) of mythologies, we learn that Roland is controlled by some psychological version of the wendigo, a cannibalistic creature that takes possession of formerly healthy individuals and makes them crave blood. There is also a recurring suggestion that his trauma is linked to psychological scarring from his father’s suicide. These explanatory elements actually seem the weakest bits of the story—distractions from its real power in addressing the question. Devoid of the great context of epics, the universal orienting conflicts, what are one man’s actions worth?
Roland does retain beliefs, though not in any world system. He believes in his own narrative—his decisive voice, veering between childish (“I have tried to do as my daddy taught me”) and vengeful (“the proud bitch”), is well aware that someone is listening. He believes in his wife, whom he continues to love, despite a decade of separation, and contrary to his suspicions that she might be a drunkard or child abuser or whore. (A self-deception which may be honor, or cowardice. Without his wife, he would be completely and truly alone: and so he masks his misgivings in the imagined voices of others.) When these suspicions will not be murdered—the ending is a surreal tragicomedy of frustrated desire, as in old films when a gun shoots not bullets but flowers—he instead annihilates himself. And so we see that he believes, too, in this—in his own immortality, in the eternality of myth. Time ruptures, but this account somehow remains.
Suicide is too weak a word. But what will survive? I wonder often about the fate of this particular type of story—the kind treating the thoughts of a single, isolated character, battling an unstable reality. “Song of Roland” belongs to a recognizable genre in which one man longs to escape his own head and his own suburban drudgery, and has (only?) the rich recourse of art and myth. Whatever the larger limitations, by unsettling the ordinary, Bufo has managed the difficult job of capturing the strangeness and inside-out feeling that so often marks American tedium—in which reality can feel like a cipher, and only the fantastic feels anything like real.