Philosophy professor Oscar Amalfitano, unlike the critics of the first volume of 2666, is for me a highly sympathetic character. The first thing to note about The Part About Amalfitano is that it very quickly seems not to be about Amalfitano at all, but about his wife and her leaving him and their daughter. Right away we find that Amalfitano, who has no idea how he ended up in Santa Teresa, isn’t actually there after all—he’s in his own head. He lives in a world of memory and reminiscence, mulling his abandonment by Lola, the origins of old books, Duchamp readymades.
On the 2666 group read blog, Maria Bustillos describes Amalfitano thus:
Part of the trouble with Amalfitano is, he’s like Hamlet, kind of. He’s stuck, largely because he has no faith in the significance of his own actions, so it’s like he just can’t move. He is outside all these games everyone else is playing; he can’t understand them. For example, he is neither macho, nor is he gay. He likes Archimboldi just fine, but his head wasn’t turned by Archimboldi as the heads of the critics were. He’s not doing any of that stuff; he’s just a human being, just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.*
This is what makes him so much more likeable than the critics, who are only playing games. They have a brittle, opaque veneer, so that we can’t get at them at all or know what they’re thinking. We don’t know much of what they think about Archimboldi, except for the most superficial asides. And it’s only when the veneer is chipped away by some out-of-the-ordinary incident that we discover the machismo, say, bubbling within Pelletier and Espinoza.
From their perspective, in The Part About the Critics, Amalfitano appears to have a veneer too, albeit a strange one. Aside from their prejudices against him as a backwater professor, they perceive him as somewhat strange or off even as they begin to like him. Because they cannot understand him either. But in The Part About Amalfitano, the narrator (who I would argue is the same as in the first part) takes his point of view and we actually have access to his thoughts and feelings—including thoughts and feelings about books!
Archimboldi, the “obviously” failed European bumbling around in the dust of Mexico, is skeptical, thoughtful, ruminative, and brings more of value to 2666‘s direct discussion of literature than his illustrious professional rivals even in his wandering thoughts. He reminisces about a young pharmacist he saw often in Barcelona, who would read during his quiet night shift. Amalfitano once asked him about what books he liked: “The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol.”
…[T]here was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick. …What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
So for all that Amalfitano is not impressed with Archimboldi, he is impressed by “real combat”—and certainly we don’t get the impression that “blood and mortal wounds and stench” are what the Archimboldi critics are wrestling with back in Europe. They seem much too sterile for all that.
*Marco Antonio Guerra, the son of Amalfitano’s dean, is similarly stuck and ineffectual, but rather than daydream about geometric shapes and philosophers, he takes the fight club route out of this Sonoran malaise.