2666: The Part About Fate (Book 3)


With the third section of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I started to feel a movement and symmetry in the novel as a whole. Moving away from the semi-insider Amalfitano's interior landscape, The Part About Fate returns to an outsider's perspective: this time, we see the crimes' fallout from the perspective of an African-American political reporter for the Harlem magazine Black Dawn. This sandwiching of Amalfitano's story of madness between two more exterior narratives made me feel like the middle story was a kind of tunnel through which I squeezed, emerging into a transformed reality on the other side.

The world of Oscar Fate, protagonist of the section, is certainly different from the jet-setting milieu of the four academics in The Part About the Critics. Before his editor sends him to Mexico to cover a boxing match (after the unexpected death of the magazine's regular sports correspondent), we see Fate's late mother's apartment in Harlem, and his travels to a run-down section of Detroit to cover a speech by Barry Seaman, a fictionalized version of Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. As a US reader, the mental atmosphere of this section was noticeably closer to home for me: racial identity politics were front and center in a way that wasn't true for the European intellectuals or for the Chilean professor working in Mexico. Suddenly, the familiar landscape of black versus white was in evidence. Fate is always conscious of certain people as black people: he goes to a film, for example, and notices how many black people and how many white people are acting in each scene. He thinks of his employer as "a magazine for brothers," and in one scene, where he unthinkingly identifies himself to a Mexican person as "an American," he later grills himself about why he hadn't said he was "African American":

Why didn't I say I was African American? Because I'm in a foreign country? But can I really consider myself to be in a foreign country when I could go walking back to my own country right now if I wanted, and it wouldn't even take very long? Does this mean that in some places I'm American and in some places I'm African American and in other places, by logical extension, I'm nobody?

I hadn't thought about identity politics in quite this way before, but it's an interesting point: it's obviously disorienting to feel that one's identity could be stripped away, or is more fluid than one anticipated. In Fate's particular case, that of an African American in Mexico, there is also a subtle layering of privilege going on. From the scenes in Detroit and Harlem, it's obvious that Fate is acutely aware of the racist structure of US society, and of what it means to be black within that structure. But south of the border, he finds himself transformed from an oppressed insider minority (African American) to a privileged outsider symbol of power (American). Not only does he suddenly find the economic and political might of the US behind him - just his ability to walk across the border whenever he chooses distinguishes him from most people he meets in Santa Teresa - but his press credentials open doors for him, despite his lack of experience as a sports correspondent and his inability to speak Spanish. Yet when he tries to exercise that power, by asking his editor for an extension so that he can stay in Santa Teresa and do some investigative reporting on the crimes being committed there, he again comes up against the racial politics of the United States: the editor refuses him the extension, arguing that none of the murdered women have been black. Fate, like Amalfitano with his madness-inducing geometry book, is caught in a double-bind, which spirals horribly toward the murders.

The style of this section was also different: whereas the first book feels to me, more than anything, like an homage to the novels of Vladimir Nabokov with a bit of David Lynch thrown in, the second two books describe a gradual slide into a more and more thoroughly Lynchian aesthetic. By halfway through The Part About Fate, this vibe was so strong that I was actually flashing to specific scenes from Inland Empire. (Indeed, the Lynch references are explicitly acknowledged a little farther along, in a postmodern assertion by a hotel clerk.) Take this passage:

The staircase ended in a green-carpeted hallway. At the end of the hallway there was an open door. Music was playing. The light that came from the room was green, too. Standing in the middle of the hallway was a skinny kid, who looked at him and then moved toward him. Fate thought he was going to be attacked and he prepared himself mentally to take the first punch. But the kid let him pass and then went down the stairs. His face was very serious, Fate remembered. Then he kept walking until he came to a room where he saw Chucho Flores talking on a cell phone. Next to him, sitting at a desk, was aman in his forties, dressed in a checkered suit and a bolo tie, who stared at Fate and gestured inquiringly. Chucho Flores caught the gesture and glanced toward the door.
    "Come on in, Fate," he said.
    The lamp hanging from the ceiling was green. Next to a window, sitting in an armchair, was Rosa Amalfitano. She had her legs crossed and she was smoking. When Fate came through the door she lifted her eyes and looked at him.
    "We're doing some business here," said Chucho Flores.
    Fate leaned against the wall, feeling short of breath. It's the green color, he thought.
    "I see," he said.
    Rosa Amalfitano seemed to be high.

Almost every element of this scene could be straight out of Twin Peaks: the dark hallway with the faint light at the end, the sinister green light, the checkered suit of the forty-something stranger, the stares of the room's inhabitants as Fate approaches, the beautiful woman with her legs crossed, smoking, who seems to be somehow impaired. It's a great atmosphere, and also, perhaps, reinforces the American-ness of 2666's third part, evoking a particular kind of bizarro LA noir that originates squarely north of the border. This Americanized lens eventually brings up the question of just how the hulking presence to the north of Santa Teresa is related to the crimes being committed there. Someone - or multiple people - are treating the lower-class women of Santa Teresa as disposable sub-human matter, murdering them and throwing their bodies in empty lots. But if the feminists of Santa Teresa are protesting corruption outside the police station, and Fate's Harlem editor doesn't view these women as worthy of notice because of the color of their skin, it starts to look like the killer isn't the only one whose ability to value human life is skewed. Amalfitano tells Fate toward the end of this section that "they're all mixed up in" the killings, and it's unclear whether he is referring to his daughter's group of friends, or to a more general "they."

Equally disturbing, on the Amalfitano front, is that as Fate is walking away from the house with Rosa, we see Amalfitano leaning against the sinister black Peregrino, chatting amicably with its driver after having just denied ever having seen him before. Is the owner of the Peregrino Marco Antonio Guerra? If it is, why does Amalfitano deny knowing him? And does this familiarity with the car's owner imply that Amalfitano himself is a member of the "they" who are "all mixed up in" the murders"? Sitting in a coffee shop just north of the border, Fate overhears a conversation fragment that reminded me strongly of Amalfitano's mental refusal to address the murders:

That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn't tell you.

What is revealed by Amalfitano's avoidance of the crimes? And does this scene shed new light on Guerra's strange declaration in Part 2 that "You have nothing to fear from me, Professor?"

I found The Part About Fate somewhat less funny than the first two books, but just as engaging. The sense of sinister foreboding builds in intensity throughout, delivering the reader to the threshold of The Part About the Crimes with an unnerving gasp. I keep waiting for the point at which I'll feel like taking a break from 2666, but it certainly hasn't happened yet.

Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About The Critics


  • I very much enjoyed reading your review, even though at the moment I have no interest in reading the books. Was there something in particular that attracted you to this tremendous undertaking?

  • This post of your is excellent, Emily, particularly in regards to the identity politics and to the way the crimes are perceived by different people. I dwelled more on Bolaño's continuing narrative sleight of hand in my own comments, but there's so much going on in Bolaño's amazing piece of work, I'm sure there's no shortage of topics or approaches to be pursued by anyone who's read the thing. Anyway, once again, a fine, fine post: you should feel pretty proud of yourself right now even if you're the humble type! Cheers!

  • Emily, brilliant post as usual! I can only hope to "get" even half as many allusions as you've seen. I feel lacking in knowledge about all the goings-on, but am so grateful you and Richard are here to educate me, lol.

    I love how you articulated Fate's transformation "from an oppressed insider minority to a privileged outsider symbol of power."

    I certainly feel the Lynchian atmosphere, but didn't touch upon it as, really, the only Lynch I've seen was Twin Peaks. Bolaño is an utter genius in juggling his story around pop culture and history, politics, sociology, etc.

    Richard, you're right, there will be no shortage of topics or approaches to the book. I still can't fathom how multi-layered and complex this piece of work is. It can never be completely critiqued, differing with every reading like a kaleidoscope.

  • Oh boy, I feel really dumb.

    I don't feel that I got much out of this book - until I read your and Richard's takes on it! I think I may need to go back and re-read it.

    I especially liked your commentary on the difference between Fate's social status in America and in Mexico. Here, he's part of a still-oppressed minority group; there, he's a privileged American. I really should have written more about the racial aspect myself, because the international dymanics of race really are very interesting. I've heard that the United States is, first of all, thought of as a "white" country. A friend of mine - a tall blond-haired, blue-eyed "stereotypical" American - teaches English in Taiwan. She was actually told by the principal of her school that he was glad she wasn't Asian-American because he doesn't see Asian-Americans as "real" Americans! She also told me that when she traveled in China a couple years ago, she learned that even white Americans sometimes had a hard time convincing Chinese of their national identity simply because they didn't have that "Aryan" look! Sad, huh? Oh, well, hopefully the election of Obama will go a long way towards changing that. . .

    Your post was so full of great stuff, especially the part about Lynch and the "American-ness" of this section and the possible role of the US in the Santa Theresa murders. I can't wait to read your analysis of "The Part About the Crimes." I'm halfway through it and . . . whoa.

  • Oh, BTW: my friend's blog is called Terrific Times in Taiwan. Before that, it was Silly Times in China. She does a great job talking about culture shock and her sightseeing adventures.

  • Cynthia - Thanks so much! And yes, there was a particular event that motivated me: Claire and Steph decided to have a readalong starting a few months ago, which is why my reviews of this book have been so drawn out (the next two will go up at the ends of August and September!).

    Richard - I agree; this is truly one of those works that a hundred people could write about and pick out a hundred different aspects on which to focus. I think the decision to write about each part individually really helped me not to feel overwhelmed by the richness of the text.

    Claire - Thanks for hosting, lady! Gosh, other people are putting together more connections than I feel I did; I think it's all in the eye of the beholder! I agree that Bolaño interweaves pop culture & historical references in a way I've never quite seen before. I find it intoxicating!

    El Fay - Wow, the racism your friend has encountered is so intense! That must be extremely awkward to deal with, especially in a professional situation. Also, speaking as a white liberal American, it seems bizarre to encounter a culture where that kind of assumption would be admitted up front, rather than kept in the back of peoples' minds but not uttered out of politeness, as I'm sure is the case with some folks from the US. Hopefully both kinds of attitude will start changing. I'll check out her blog!

  • You are so insightful! Your analysis and writing often makes me greedy for more. I'll check in every day here, and wonder why you aren't writing that day.

    "I started to feel a movement and symmetry in the novel as a whole." Exactly how I felt. And your points on identity politics also resonated in my head. But... The Lynch bit here really got to me. I mentioned on Richard's post (I hope you got it Richard - it kept booting me out) that the cultural/counter cultural references in this book are enough to keep us all writing and chatting for a very long time. Loved the whole Richard Rodriguez bit here too. One of the few funny parts in this less amusing section. And not looking forward to many laughs in part four. I'm rambling....

  • Aww, thank you, Frances! You're making me blush. :-)

    I was intrigued by the Rodriguez parts as well, but not being as familiar with his work (we're a bit Lynch-obsessed in my house) I didn't really know where to go with it. There's that part where Chucho (or one of that gang) says "That asshole is one of ours," meaning Mexican, so it occurred to me that the Lynch/Rodriguez dichotomy could be a kind of battle of lenses through which to see the story: American vs. Mexican. I wonder if someone who knows Rodriguez's work would pick up on just as many homages to him as I found to Lynch?

  • I haven't seen too many of Rodriguez' films since he went Hollywood, but I loved some of his early stuff and the energy of even some of his not so good stuff. His book Rebel Without a Crew, about how he shot El mariachi solo with borrowed gear on an extremely low budget (financed by personal credit cards!) was hugely entertaining to me back in the day as well. But I digress. Since you've got two months before most of the rest of the group finishes, Emily, I figured you'd be in as good a position as anybody to start thinking about the next read-along title! What do you think? I'll throw out Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities as a discussion starter, but I'm open to other ideas if nobody else wants to tackle an unfinished 1,800 page modernist classic! Love your blog, so I hope you'll pardon this rather rambling "comment" addressed to all the Bolaño peeps out there!

  • Richard, I don't know who you think doesn't want to read an unfinished 1800-page modernist classic, 'cause it sure as hell ain't me. Seriously, the Bolaño readalong is such a great group; I'd be psyched to read something else together!

    A couple other tomes I've been avoiding, but for which a readalong might motivate me:

    • Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavrandatter trilogy. I am massively weirded out (and for completely snobbish reasons) that these books are so acclaimed/popular. They're historical fiction about medieval Christian Norway...not exactly my usual cup of tea. Yet people whose opinions I respect RAVE about them, and they won Undset the Nobel Prize. They are sitting on my bookshelf in omnibus, 1121-page form. I can never quite motivate myself to dive in.
    • Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. This seems like the kind of rollicking picaresque novel I could really get into, but for some reason I'm hesitant about starting it. Frankly, I think it's that I just don't like the mouthfeel of the name "Augie."
    • Also! I'm planning to read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow for the first time later this year.
  • Ha ha! I think we're off to a good start then idea-wise! Of the three titles you mentioned, I'd be way more interested in the Pynchon than the Bellow. However, the Sigrid Unset trilogy's probably the most intriguing of all to me early on: how could one not want to read an author whose name sounds like a warm-up act for Sonic Youth?

  • This is a really excellent post! I am so sleepy right now, and thus will be back to add a comment with substance.

  • What a wonderfully close reading. I just read that section, although six months after you. As a person who is neither in Europe or the USA, but Australia, both of the section 1, and 3 were equally as engaging, although I probably could have lived without some of the black panther recipes. And although I love the weird, parrallel universe of the scene where he goes to Charly Cruz's house with Rosa and Chico Flores (one of the best names i've come across in literature. I guess latino names are not that uncommon in the states, but, just that name conjours up such a great image of a well oiled operator) I couldn't help feeling he overplayed his hand just a touch by having Oscar take Rosa away in such a film noir fashion. I still liked it though. Anyway, it's fun to know other people are actually engaged with this thing, cheers Clint

  • I loved this part - I found it so much easier to read than the first two. This section reads much more like a normal novel and I now have a fuller understanding of what is happening - although I guess you can never really tell what Bolaño is up to!

    mutuelle santé

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography