Putting together Tuesday’s post, I naturally spent some time skimming back through many of the narratives, especially the earlier ones. I wasn’t so much amazed at how much I’d forgotten, but at how little I’d realized the tightness and cohesiveness of the section. Tightness, ha, how many narrators are there again? Yet I’m serious.
Take Laura Jáuregui, probably most famous in the world of Savage Detectives quotes as the woman who describes “the whole visceral realist thing [as] a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.” Jáuregui certainly uses her interviews, conducted in January and May of 1976 and March of 1977, to lash out at her ex-lover Belano. But her comments on visceral realism and her telling of the story of their relationship and breakup foreshadow much of what is to come.
Before the visceral realists even exist, Járegui can tell their future—they will grow up. In January 1976:
And then other poets turned up, poets a little older than Arturo, none of them visceral realists, among other reasons because visceral realism didn’t exist yet, poets like Aníbal who had been friends with Arturo before he left for Chile and so had known him since he was seventeen. They were actually journalists and government officials, the kind of sad people who never leave downtown, or certain downtown neighborhoods, sovereigns of sadness in the area bounded by Avenida Capultepec, to the south, and Reforma, to the north, staffers at El Nacional, proofreaders at the Excelsior, pencil pushers at the Secretaría de Gobernación who headed to Bucareli when they left work and sent out their tentacles or their little green slips.
In the same interview, she also knows what will keep the group together for a while, and why their stories will intertwine for a while, but also why they will eventually drift apart and lose sight of each other:
[A]nd then we were together for several months…and then what happened happened, or in other words we broke up…and strange things started to happen to Arturo. That was when visceral realism was born. At first we all thought it was a joke, but then we realized it wasn’t. And when we realized it wasn’t a joke, some of us went along with him and became visceral realists, out of inertia, I think, or because it was so crazy that it seemed plausible, or for the sake of friendship, so as not to lose a whole circle of friends, but deep down no one took it seriously. Not deep down.
At the time I was beginning to make new friends at the university and I saw Arturo and his friends less and less.
By May of 1976, Jáuregui had moved far past being impressed with the visual realists (perhaps spurred on in this direction by her own outbirst at the end of her first interview?). At this point she openly derides them, but this passage is much more than just a knock on the group for acting childishly. The reason she notices their flaw, or the reason that it finally gets to her so badly, is because her own life is going in a completely different direction. Her new studies catapult her into “real adult” status several years before it happens to the others, but Jáuregui is just the first of the bunch to go down this road:
Why did I keep hanging out with the same people he hung out with for a while? Well, they were my friends too, my friends still, although it wasn’t long before I got tired of them. Let me tell you something. The university was real, the biology department was real, my professors were real, my classmates were real. …Those people weren’t real. The great poet Alí Chumacero…was real, do you see what I mean?, what he left behind was real. What they left behind, on the other hand, wasn’t real. Poor little mice hypnotized by Ulises and led to the slaughter by Arturo. Let me put it as concisely as I can: the real problem was that they were almost all at least twenty and they acted like they were barely fifteen. Do you see what I mean?
In March 1977, Jáuregui reports on her final meeting with Belano, when the two were already long broken-up. The two are clearly on separate sides of a deep chasm, on his side “countries like Libya, Ethiopa, Zaire, and cities like Barcelona, Florence, Avignon” and on hers studying and biology and money. Grown-up things.
At first I’d pretended I wasn’t interested in his plans, his talk, anything he had to say to me, but then I realized that I really wasn’t interested, that everything having to do with him bored me to tears, that what I really wanted was for him to go and let me study in peace. …I told him that when I was a biologist I would have the time to see those cities and countries, and the money too, because I didn’t plan to travel around the world hitchhiking or sleeping just anywhere. …I’ll travel when I have money. Then you won’t have the time, he said. I will have the time, I said, you’re wrong, I’ll be the mistress of my time, I’ll do what I like with my time. And he said: you won’t be young anymore.
This devastates Belano, and the encounter ends in one of Bolaño’s characteristic (it would seem) incidents of unresolved violence.
Jáuregui is not the only early narrator unimpressed with the young Belano’s travels—because, remember, these are some of the oldest stories about Belano too. Perla Avilés (the second narrator of the entire section; Amadeo Salvatierra is first and Jáuregui is third) is nearly as bitter as Jáuregui when she hears about “his latest adventures” from his sister after a chance meeting.
He had traveled all over Latin America, returned to his native country, suffered through a coup. …I imagined him lost in a white space, a virgin space that kept getting dirtier and more soiled despite his best efforts, and even the face I remembered grew distorted, as if while I was talking to his sister his features melded with what she was describing, ridiculous tests of strength, terrifying, pointless rites of passage into adulthood, so distant from what I once thought would become of him….
By this time, like Jáuregui’s, Avilés’s “life [had taken] a ninety-degree turn.” College, growing up—but you guessed that already.
Selena’s post on The Savage Detectives pointed me to this New Yorker Book Bench blog post, an alleged “user’s guide to Bolaño.” I’m not sure if I’d say so much I “disagreed” with the post as that it “depressed” me; is there a word for some mixture of the two? And it might seem hard for me to disagree per se because I’ve only read two of the books discussed, but I sort of do.
Putting aside the somewhat bizarre first paragraph, a necessary lede, at first I am almost taken in by this nice “For Completists Only” shelf idea. As a sometime-completist, I think these would be very sensible shelves to have. But then, Giles Harvey accuses Bolaño’s prose of being “often as flat as old seltzer water,” giving this as an example of such, from The Third Reich:
Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze, put everything else—my own daily struggles and the back-stabbing of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them
Am I dazzled? No. But wait. Let me go on before I justify this.
Harvey goes on to say that “prose-flatness is not atypical of Bolaño” and that he was “a great novelist who was not a great writer” with “little interest in the sentence” and “disdain [for] Jamesian refinement and polish.” Now, this Jamesian refinement and polish is, let’s not forget, a particular type of “good writing,” not some mathematical proof of it. He goes on to give an example, I suppose, of just this polish, but which Bolaño gives to a “moral toad” of a narrator, proof of said disdain.
But then as Harvey goes on to recommend five of Bolaño’s best works, you realize: gee, he keeps talking about narrators, and what the narrator is like. And what the books sound like—not just what they are about, but everything about what they sound like—completely depends on what their narrator is like. The Savage Detectives is great because the “ebullient” young narrrator “is at once comic and poignant,” and, well, that means he sounds good.
So back to that first quote above. I don’t know anything about The Third Reich (truly, other than what I read in this very blog post). But I immediately assumed that the narrator was not Bolaño, because it never is, I mean it always is, but it never is, and by never being him that’s part of how it’s always him. I’ve only read two of his books, but I’m pretty sure I know this. Anyway, point is: who the hell cares if it’s “flat”? It’s whatever it’s supposed to be.
And this idea that there is normally some link between fine, “prince[ly]” prose and moral propriety seems unfounded. It’s not Vladimir Nabokov who writes most of Lolita, after all, it’s Humbert Humbert, ephebophile extraordinaire.
Separately, I cannot help noting my extreme disagreement/depression/disappointment with Harvey’s final warning about 2666
. “The book is a desert of negative space,” he writes, “across which the panting reader will search in vain for the traditional pleasures of the novel: form, character, coherence, meaning.” It is what it’s supposed to be. Complaining about “The Part About the Crimes”: “The result is neither horror nor sympathy. It is exhaustion.” It is what it’s supposed to be.
What reader doesn’t long to be impressed by the effective?
Since I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly how the second section of The Savage Detectives worked—and who was reporting it, as discussed, for example, here, I decided to actually analyze the darn thing and try to figure some stuff out about it.
First, one possibly interesting observation that struck me as surprising but doesn’t seem super meaningful: other than the recurring presence of January 1976–vintage Amadeo Salvatierra, the interviews pretty much go in chronological order; there is exactly one non-Amadeo interview that is out of order (Joaquín Font, March 1977, page 222 in my Picador edition).
Back to the “substance” of this post. Something surprised me over the past few days, reading over others’ entries and comments for the group read—remarks here and there about a multiplicity of interviers, writers, listeners, whatever, in “The Savage Detectives” section. The thought had simply not occurred to me when I read it. Knowing me and knowing Bolaño, there’s probably a nicely hidden reason why the same person cannot have conducted all the interviews, but I decided, for this post, to go under my initial assumption: that one person (or perhaps one very small group of people, say, a duo) went to all the places and talked to all the people him- or herself. I believe that if you make what Nero Wolfe might call a few reasonable assumptions about this interviewer an interesting picture begins to emerge, so let’s suspend our disbelief and do it for a bit of fun.
Here is the story of the interviews, broadly and in chronological order: a long, in-depth interview is conducted in January 1976 with Amadeo Salvatierra in Mexico City. Further shorter interviews were conducted with a variety of visceral realist–types in Mexico City from March 1976 through May 1977, interrupted only by an entry made in early 1977 from a university in the American Midwest.
Starting in May 1977, the interviews take place in Europe: First in Barcelona, then in Paris, then back to Barcelona before finally hitting London (and, somewhat anticlimactically, Port-Vendres, France). By March 1979 we are back in Mexico City, which becomes like a home base from which isolated trips are made to various places where visceral realist–types live or have lived: to Tel Aviv in October 1979, to Vienna in May 1980, to San Diego in March 1981 (where two people who live together are interviewed during the same month, separately—by a friend, perhaps, who has come to visit?), again to San Diego in fall 1982 (with Rafael and Barbara each interviewed separately again). Things settle down and by now the interviews, all in Mexico City, are coming in at two per year, slow compared with the several-per-quarter rate of the late 1970s. Is the interviewer losing interest? Is it harder to get people to talk about the boys? Are the visceral realists harder to find? Does he just have too much else to do now—a real job, like Xóchitl, or a family?
Things are quiet, and the late 80s and early 90s are told in a few of the longer entries from characters we will never hear from again, like Andrés Ramírez, Edith Oster, and Daniel Grossman. Then there’s a trip back to Spain: starting with Mallorca in June 1994, and hitting Barcelona and Catalonia that same month, and later a book fair in Madrid that’s a whirlwind of tragicomedy. Then there’s nothing for over a year, followed by five months with an usual amount of travel: from Barcelona to Mexico City back to Spain then to Paris and finally back to Mexico, back to the graduate student in Pachuca who has never heard of Juan García Madero.
Note the fury of work in the early years. Mexico City is home, and the gang is almost all still here, with fresh memories. It’s easy to get hold of people who will talk for a few minutes about Belano and Lima, and the interviewer wants to talk about them pretty frequently.
The interviewer slows down around the same time as the rest of the gang, growing up, getting jobs, maybe selling out, or simply no longer caring about visceral realism. Barbara Patterson might get nostalgic, wish her life had turned out differently, and talk to the narrator about the romance she still feels for the 70s, but by 1982 she can only really focus on how much she despises Rafael Barrios. People have moved on.
In many cases, then, it simply seems like the interviewer is one of the group, or a hanger-on—perhaps a younger fan of theirs. But these jaunts here and there suggest purposely seeking of information about the boys—or do they? They are typically to universities or to cities with plenty of universities. Perhaps the interviewer has simply sold out by going into academia; the July 1994 Madrid Book Fair scene certainly helps suggest the possibility of a writer–academic. So perhaps he just makes the most of his opportunities at conferences to find the right people to ask about Belano and Lima—but that seems awfully convenient, doesn’t it?
When I look at the section like this, I see a pattern so similar to the one Belano and Lima followed: a wild youth in Mexico City followed by a move to Europe, all around Europe, because that’s what wild youths do. Then of course you eventually ended up home, became somewhat stable. For Belano, that happened in Spain, and for Lima, perhaps in Mexico City (but perhaps nowhere). But the interviewer doesn’t stop seeking—in fact he finds more and more disparate people to talk to.
Why would someone do such a thing? From the August 1976 interview with Manuel Maples Arce in Mexico City:
Do you think anyone is interested in stridentism these days? I asked Arturo Belano. Of course, Maestro, he answered, or words to that effect. My opinion is that stridentism is history now and as such it can only be interesting to literary historians, I said. It interests me and I’m not a historian, he said. Well, then.
Well, then, indeed. I find it interesting that the last interview, after the interviewer has really managed to nail down as much as could possibly be expected of Belano’s life (with María Teresa and Jacobo Urenda; Lima’s life, as always, has been harder to nail down but he does what he can with Clara Cabeza), is with student of the Mexico City–visceral realists García Grajales. That is, with the literary historian (or is he?) who is the only person in the world interested in exactly what the interviewer has spent his life interested in in his own way (as a friend? hanger-on? low-grade participant? bad poet? childhood friend?).
And here I think García Grajales’s denial of García Madero becomes a bit interesting, too. The interviewer somehow knows something about García Madero (like Belano and Lima somehow knew something about Cesárea Tinajero when they met with Amadeo Salvatierra). And García Grajales, who can have all “their magazines, their pamphlets, documents you can’t find anyplace” that he wants, hasn’t actually been there, known about any of it—he’s too young; it’s 1996, and he’s calling the interviewer “sir.” Why should García Grajales know anything at all about what happened in 1975–76?
This post’s title references, as I lazily did here, a line from Charles Kinbote’s foreword to the poem “Pale Fire,” advising the reader on how best to make use of his footnotes: “I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table….”
Since I didn’t wrap up reading The Savage Detectives until last night, I’ve stayed away, so far, from most other participants’ posts. One of the few I did read, because I could tell right away that she had stopped before the point I had already reached, was Dolce Bellezza’s lament that the second part of the novel, “The Savage Detectives,” put her off. In the comments to his own post on The Savage Detectives, Rise suggests that in some sense this middle portion is the novels version of 2666‘s “The Part About the Crimes”:some people will not make it through.
There was never any question of whether I would make it through “The Part About the Crimes,” though it did start to wear me out, and there was little question whether I would continue my race (compared to War & Peace, at least) through to the end of The Savage Detectives, either, but in the present case things seemed to get much easier as they went along. This is because the narrative surreptitiously changes from one, as Bellezza put it, about “the wild antics of teens who know no boundaries and have no goals” to one about a subtly different group of people, ones who have grown up and realized in many cases that “youth is a scam.”
The first part of the novel, which is really solidly about those wild kids and the crazy things they get up to, ends at New Year’s of 1976, when most of the principal characters are in their teens or early twenties (there are a few of an older generation as well, but this is the age of the core group of second-generation “visceral realists”). Then “The Savage Detectives” begins its stream of interviews or anecdotes: dozens of people, some recognizable either by name or by action from the first part of the book, recount their interactions with Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the two visceral realist ringleaders, and their various friends and hangers-on. So, for events that happen pre-1976 we have two sources: Juan García Madero’s first narrative and those of the interviews that cast back to memories that old. For events that happen post-1976 we have one source: the interviews. And for events during that year itself we have again two sources: the last part of the book, another García Madero narrative, and those interviews that recount events of that year.
And for a while, the interviews seem to be concentrated right around the same time that Belano, Lima, García Madero and the prostitute named Lupe run off toward the Sonora Desert, the trip they make on New Year’s Day. Amadeo Salvatierra, 1976; Perla Avilés, 1976; Laura Jáuregui, 1976; Fabio Ernesto Logiacomo, 1976…1976, 1976, 1976, 1976…all different months, and not necessarily in order, unti finally in chapter 5 of this part of the book we get a January 1977. In my Picador paperback edition it takes from page 143 to 209 to go from ’76 to ’77, and until page 314 to reach 1980. The hold of youth is strong, and Bolaño arranges these narratives so that the creep of time is slow and subtle. It changes the gang—some of the original second-generation visceral realists stop writing poetry, stop hanging out, disappear from sight, or die. As they do, visceral realists who had seemed less important before are suddenly among the few remaining. No one cares about quite the same things they did back in 1975, though some might wish they did, and some might like to look back at those times as on fond (or at least bittersweet) memories.
Soon it becomes clear that many of our formerly wild teens have jobs—some even have “real jobs” and almost begin to settle down.
It is when the narrative reaches the 1990s that the aging process is more stark. Arturo Belano has been married and separated or divorced; he has a son; he is ill, probably terminally. Daniel Grossman is long back from Israel and now in a position to evaluate which of the young talents he and his friends worshipped in their teens amounted to much of anything, artistically speaking. Ulises Lima makes peace with Octavio Paz. And the current crop of younger writers is not the same as those born in the 1950s:
I’m not saying they don’t work hard. They work much harder than those earlier writers! But they’re also much more vulgar. And they act like businessmen or gangsters. And they don’t renounce anything, or they renounce what’s easily renounced, and they’re very careful not to make enemies, or to choose their enemies from among the defenseless.
There is one thread that keeps the second section constantly anchored not just to 1976, but to an elusive explanation of what Belano and Lima went searching for when they went to Sonora: Cesárea Tinajero. The interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra*, all taken in January 1976 and probably part of one very long conversation, interspersed throughout the novel, describe the first generation of visceral realists, of which Tinajero could be called the mother. Salvatierra was part of the Mexican avant-garde of the 1920s—a stridentist, it would seem—and he knew Tinajero in Mexico City, long ago. She’s like a ghost: she had exactly one poem published, in a magazine that seems to have only one surviving copy, Salvatierra’s. And Salvatierra is probably the only person left who can tell Belano and Lima about this woman, and show them her poem. He spends an entire night doing so, over mezcal and tequila, and explains a bit of what she was like and how one day she up and left for Sonora. Belano and Lima must find her, and the flight with Lupe makes for an excuse to do so—but no one knows who she is, there is no written record of her, no more poems. The trail is difficult to pick up.
Now, by the 1990s, just as Belano and Lima were interested in researching (and somehow paying homage to) the previous generation’s avant-garde, so is at least one contemporary Mexican interested in the second generation of visceral realists. Ernesto García Grajales, interviewed in 1996 at the Universidad de Pachuca, explains that “[i]n all humbleness, sir, I can say that I’m the only expert on the visceral realists in Mexico, and if pressed, the world. God willing, I plan to publish a book about them.” And he can give us a rundown of so many people who have dropped out of the narrative at one time or another, some of whose fates we know, some whose are less sure: Jacinto Requena, María Font, Ernesto San Epifanio, Xóchitl García, Rafael Barrios, Angélica Font, Luscious Skin, and so on. He’s even met Ulises Lima, who is officially back in Mexico City, although he’s never met Belano, and doesn’t even know what’s happened to him.
The interviewer, whose identity I will leave aside for now (this post is too long already), asks about Juan García Madero, who hasn’t yet come up.
Juan García Madero? No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. He never belonged to the group. Of course I’m sure. Man, if I tell you so as the reigning expert on the subject, it’s because that’s the way it is. They were all so young. I have their magazines, their pamphlets, documents you can’t find anyplace. There was a seventeen-year-old kid, but he wasn’t called García Madero. …The Mexico City visceral realists. Yes, because there had already been another group of visceral realists, in the 1920s. The northern visceral realists. You didn’t know that? Well, they existed. Although talk about undocumented. No, it wasn’t a coincidence. More like an homage. A gesture. A response. Who knows. Anyway, these are labyrinths I prefer not to lose myself in. I limit myself to the material at hand and let readers and scholars draw their own conclusions.
This interview is one of two contained in the last chapter of the second section of the book; the other is the final installment with Amadeo Salvatierra, the first line of which is: “Everyone forgot her, boys, except me, I said. Now that we’re old and past hope maybe a few remember her, but back then everyone forgot her and then they started to forget themselves, which is what happens when you forget your friends.”
I love Bolaño for his games and for his creativity, similar to my reasons for loving Nabokov, but it doesn’t make me any more able to unravel those games. It will surely take at least one more read (someday!) to continue working out the connections between the elusive Cesárea Tinajero and the elusive Juan García Madero, to come up with ideas about who has been doing all this research from 1976 to 1996, even to decide if there’s anything to decide about what Belano and Lima were up to all this time. Not to mention what’s outside the window.
Thanks to Richard and Rise for hosting this group read!
*His name means “God’s love saves the earth,” right? Now how’s that strike you?
I have read a lot of brilliant posts about 2666 over the past 15 weeks, but like Maria Bustillos, I have only felt quieter and quieter as I went through it. She ends her last post on the Bolaño group blog thanking the author for “the ice cream, which is absolutely first-class ice cream, and which I hope to enjoy (if that is the right word) many times in future.” The metaphor is strange but not at all wrong.
The Part About Archimboldi was in some ways fated to disappoint me, capping as it does such a big novel. As the fifth of five parts, its job is to pull everything together; not to answer every unanswered question, but to draw a circle around the novel, so you can say this is in, this is out, and not deal with the overwhelming impression that everything is in. I didn’t expect Archimboldi’s connection to Santa Teresa to be such that I’d be satisfied with the strength of that circle, but I was.
I was also satisfied with Archimboldi, I think, though for a while it was touch and go. His experiences on the Eastern Front in World War II left me cold. What new thing could any writer make of that? So Bolaño takes us out of the front lines and to the past in Moscow for Ansky’s story. That is good, but it’s not amazing. It does have the effect of piling on the stories, just like we have been in every part up to now, getting somewhere and then doubling back to tell yet another character’s life story. But when Archimboldi comes out of the whole thing disdaining “poor fools convinced they’ve been present at a decisive moment in history, when it’s common knowledge…that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness,” I feel reassured that the project is working for me. This is what I got out of things up till then anyway. The real key idea for me comes later, when Archimboldi’s sister dreams of talking to him in the desert:
“It’s unfathomable and hostile,” she told him, and only then did she realize that she was a girl again, a girl who lived in a Prussian village between the forest and the sea.
“No,” said Archimboldi, and he seemed to whisper in her ear, “it’s just boring, boring, boring…”
Many readers find 2666 very outward-facing, almost a call to action. I don’t see it as unengaged, but I perceive it much more as a bringing together of the tropes and ideas of a lifetime, in the form of a great, imperfect and torrential work. That means I have a lot of work to do before I’ll be ready to come back to this particular Fürst-Pückler-Eis.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how The Part About the Crimes was easier to read because of its form, and was surprised to get pushback on that idea. Perhaps I should have said that the form makes it deceptively easy to read; as Steve Brassawe notes, the just-the-facts approach to the crimes “is a Hitchcock technique in the sense of making what we do not see much more horrific than anything that we might have been shown.” That is certainly true of not only the femicides but of all the crimes in the section, including those of the Penitent and the killings of the Caciques.
By the end of The Part About the Crimes, though, one notable thing about its form has more to do with deviation from tradition. The dispassionate descriptions of police procedure do not extend much further than finding the bodies; the forensics don’t lead anywhere or reveal much, the investigators muse for a few moments on the M.O. of the murders, but they don’t do much to really analyze the crimes either individually or as a group. They reflect on the crimes, but impotently. They lament the state of the city, but hopelessly. They don’t take the cold analytical mind of detective fiction to it.*
Lalo Cura is one exception to this trend. Plucked from a small village to work as a teenage bodyguard for a narco’s wife, he becomes a policeman after saving her from assassins. He finds piles of untouched textbooks on investigative technique at the police station, which he takes home to read since no one will miss them. He makes a few noble—but yes, still quite impotent—attempts to analyze motives, noting that a body must have been dumped in a particular location because the murderer wanted it found, for example. Far from being fostered by the police department, his initiative is frowned upon, and Lalo Cura is in no position to solve the crimes.
Albert Kessler seems poised to be another exception, and it’s he who somehow managed to get my hopes up and make me think somehow (even though it would be impossible) something would happen when he came to Santa Teresa. Billed as an American Sherlock Holmes, he could be the one they are all waiting for, someone from the outside who won’t be powerless to find the root of the femicides. And he seems so different, right from his arrival, more purposeful. He sneaks out the backdoor of the police station so he can ride a taxi around the slums of the city, figuring out where all the industrial parks are and where the bus routes go and imagining how some of the crimes may have happened. He asks questions and makes notes. But just as Kessler sparked those hopes, he took to drinking bacanora and it turned out the Mexican police had been following him all the time. His failure to realize he was being tailed by these good-for-nothing cops is one of the more depressing signs of impotence in the whole section. There can be no hope to solve these crimes.
*Of course, this manifests itself as another notable deviation from genre: there is no single main detective. There are several we are very familiar with, like Juan de Dios Martinez, as well as other characters with an investigative function, like Sergio Gonzales. But we don’t stick with anyone, following their steps to solve the mystery of the crimes, for very long and they certainly don’t take us very far.
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.
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.
Last week, 2666 project contributor Maria Bustillos wrote about the passage in The Part About the Critics where a taxi driver is badly beaten. The scene is jarring. Three sophisticated, middle-class university professors are one moment in a taxi on their way home from a fancy restaurant; the next moment they are involved in a brutal street fight, unleashing a violence we didn’t even notice under the surface before. According to her post, “it is no surprise whatsoever that the first blows administered (predictably, by Espinoza) are described as ‘Iberian.’”
I hadn’t really thought of that myself, but that post immediately came to mind as I finished The Part About the Critics, which concludes with three of the critics making a trip to Mexico, to a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez. We’re not into The Part About the Crimes yet, which I expect to be beyond jarring, but there is a definite undercurrent of this violence the whole time the critics are in Mexico.
The first night they spend there, Liz Norton looks out her hotel room window in Mexico City and sees a taxi driver beaten by hotel employees. Their guide, El Cerdo (who has dirty fingernails), explains that there is a “war between taxi drivers and doormen”; this is an exotic place. In Santa Teresa, Pelletier finds a chunk missing from his toilet bowl: “It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.” The critics can feel the change, that “something strange was going on,” but eventually:
…[T]hey lost the sense of being in a hostile environment, although hostile wasn’t the word, an environment whose language they refused to recognize, an environment that existed on some parallel plane where they couldn’t make their presence felt, imprint themselves, unless they raised their voices, unless they argued, something they had no intention of doing.
Bustillos notes of the earlier violent incident, “I think that Bolaño is saying, here, that machismo is a literally uncontrollable source of violence; that no matter how ‘civilized’ a man is, he will always be in some danger of a catastrophe like Espinoza’s.” The critics may have no intention of raising their voices, but they’re in a strange and tense place, where so many women have been killed over the years that a native boy “had to repeat it two or three times because neither Espinoza nor Pelletier could believe his ears.” The cool English Norton leaves Pelletier and Espinoza in Mexico to continue in debauched style.
As he is good at everything else, Bolaño is good at dealing with this violent undercurrent. There is great brutality and control, and it has me both worried and reassured about what I know is coming up further on. The ambiance is already intense, but I trust that it’s part of something, in service to the whole.
I’ve read the first chunk of 2666 for the read-along and let’s just say Frances was right: I don’t think I will look back. I can’t yet say much about the narrator; my ideas are only murky and need more than 51 pages to develop. But I can already tell he’s going to be a favorite, and I’d say with at least 85% certainty that I’ll be reading not just more Bolaño but, um, all of it. (Can she really be saying this after 51 pages of a single book? Well, you never do know what will happen, but so far I love it.) The narrator is the main thing for me at this point, though I’m also loving the story about the critics. But how can you have this story without the critics without this narrator?
With such a slow schedule, I probably won’t post about this every week, only when I’ve really got something to say. But I’m looking forward to the forum and blog discussions and very pleased I decided to go ahead with this. (Clearly, you should listen to Frances about everything. She was right about Virginia Woolf, too.)