It’s no secret that 2666 is long. So long that my edition comes in three volumes, that I’m participating in a months-long group read of it, and that I’m through the first three parts and still have no idea what it’s about.
I mean, I can tell you that it’s about the femicides in Ciudad Juarez, but that’s not saying very much. What was The Part About Fate about? Something about how there are no Mexican light heavyweights, I think.* But because of the stature of both Bolaño and 2666, I have put myself into his hands entirely. I don’t know what he’s doing yet, but I’m willing to assume he does and it will be something in the end. Of course, I do this to some extent with almost all books, but only to some extent. Sometimes you’re working on a big one where you have to just close your eyes and not look down…for several hundred pages.
And that’s great. But it leaves me fixating most of all on passages where you know that, in whatever indirect way, the writer is saying something about his own book, his own writing. When I caught that breeze in The Part About Amalfitano, it alluded to novelistic structure and ambition. In The Part About Fate, my ears perked up at an interlude regarding the novel and society.
A “white-haired man” eating at a diner with a young man is discussing death, and how “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words.” He gives the young man a history lesson, on how “[r]eading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime…yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings.” But the society that didn’t want death to intrude on it closed its eyes, like a child—and that meant that it closed its words.
The old man, perhaps a professor, speculates that this was possible because of how very small polite society was “back then.”
I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations.
What was different about those who were part of society: “What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible.” The old man again refers to “back then” when he says that words were used mostly to avoid rather than to reveal. What about now? What about coming right up, in The Part About the Crimes?
An anecdotal data point: the femicides were, presumably, known to everyone who began reading 2666 with our group, yet several people seem to have been quite affected already by reading a novel that’s not yet anywhere near as intense about making these women legible as it’s going to be (or so I understand).
*I am (only slightly) joking here. Note that I have really not read much of the group discussion over the past week, or much on other people’s blogs; I’m posting this before I get a chance to, which I should later today. But that’s not the point here.