Bolaño, Roberto Entries

2666: The Part About Archimboldi (Part 5)


My readalong friends! Even though I turned the last page of 2666 and wrote the following post several months ago, I've been putting off publishing it because of my sense of loss at this fantastic readalong finally ending. The book alone would have been a great ride, but meeting all of you and having our discussions...let's just say, I feel lucky to have stumbled into such a special reading experience. And I'm psyched that so many members of our group will be meeting again for Kristin Lavransdatter, yet it's still a little sad to be saying goodbye to Bolaño. But enough sentimentality! Here's what I wrote after finishing 2666 all those months ago.

There's a lot of talk, in bookish circles, about "circular narratives": stories that take the reader on a journey, only to return, in the end, to the point of departure, imparting in the process a new perspective. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 also returns to the point of departure, to "the scene of the crime," as one character puts it. In many ways, The Part About Archimboldi deposits the reader back in the world of The Part About the Critics: a European world, insular, preoccupied with the struggle between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and preoccupied with literature - preoccupied, in particular, with Benno von Archimboldi, the elusive novelist pursued by the critics of the first part, and here followed from his seaweed-obsessed boyhood, through his service as a soldier during the Second World War, and into his old age. Toward the middle and end of the fifth part, we even find ourselves back behind the scenes of the literature machine manned by Mr. and Mrs. Bubis, as we witness interactions at the publishing house and in the salons of literary critics. Once again we are treated to the light, satirical touch that characterized The Part about the Critics. (One of my favorite satirical passages of the fifth part concerns a woman at a dinner party whose unhappy expression escaped no one

"except Willy, the other literary critic, whose specialty was philosophy and who therefore reviewed philosophy books and whose hope was someday to publish a book of philosophy, three occupations, if they could be called that, which made him especially insensitive to indications of the state of mind (or soul) of a fellow diner."

There wasn't too much of this kind of high-brow ribbing in The Part About the Crimes.)

Nevertheless, I wouldn't describe the structure of 2666 as circular. In fact, I'd say it looks more like this:


The first three books tighten into an ever-more tense and surreal vortex, narrowing uncomfortably toward the mysterious wrongness in Santa Teresa, Mexico, which is related to the sexual homicides being committed there. Just as the third part reaches a climactic pinhole, the narration suddenly widens, becomes a stark, straightforward descent through a pile of dead bodies, the hardboiled chronicling of the female corpses of Santa Teresa, and of the inability of police, private citizens, detectives and seers to stop the perpetual appearances of more. As opposed to the increasing tension of the first three parts, I experienced the fourth part to be even throughout, tension released and stark reality confronted. Then, in The Part About Archimboldi, the narrative turns a sharp corner into something more like a traditional bildungsroman, in which a young boy grows up, lives his life and finds his calling: a calling which gradually curves toward the literary world of the first part, and a life which, even more tangentially, intersects with the Santa Teresa killings.

I can't decide to what extent I feel the loose ends are tied up as 2666 draws to its close - nor am I sure to what extent I want them to be. Surely, given the still-unsolved nature of the Juarez crimes on which those in Santa Teresa are based, it would seem wrong to provide an easy answer to the central, unanswered questions: what is the truth behind the killings? Who is responsible for them, and what has gone so horribly wrong in this person's mind and the world outside it? Maybe it's not possible to answer this last, despite the tidy endings of most detective novels: how to locate the ongoing sickness that makes humans engage in extreme violence, whether the atrocities of war, the mutilation of female factory workers, or the savage beating of a sexist taxi driver?

The whole of 2666 brings the world of reading and writing into contact with the world of violence, and it seems to me that they coexist, without negating each other. It doesn't seem to me that 2666 is asking "What is the point of art in such a fucked up world?" Often, this is the way the debate is framed, as if art must somehow overcome the world's darkness in order to validate itself. Bolaño, on the other hand, lets them exist simultaneously, each on its own terms. It doesn't seem to me that literature or art, in Bolaño, can rescue a person from violence or explain the violence away. Art doesn't even necessarily engage with the violence - the book that alleviates the tedium of Barry Seaman's jail time, for example, An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire, has little to do with the race-motivated violence that landed him inside. In fact, the title of this book is so odd-seeming that Oscar Fate remembers it later and laughs about it. But Seaman argues that reading - reading just about anything, he seems to mean - is an inherently useful activity:

Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other peoples' ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.

In other words, reading is a way of living one's life, a way of bringing oneself into contact with the vast vitality of existence. And some way of being present in one's life is necessary for survival, regardless of the rest of one's environment. Or maybe I should say it is an indicator of survival. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that The Part About the Crimes, the only section of the novel in which nobody seems to read anything (policeman Epifanio is even amused when his young protegé Lalo Cura asks if he can bring home some outdated detection manuals lying neglected in the Santa Teresa police station), owes its plethora of corpses to the conspicuous absence of books. But the two could both be symptoms of that underlying wrongness. And the underlying wrongness could be a lack of presence on the part of some person or some group of people - people who are not, to use Seaman's language, thinking, praying, talking to friends, expressing their thoughts, listening to other peoples' ideas, listening to music, looking at the view, walking on the beach, or, indeed, reading, but existing without presence in a void of destruction. Indeed, one of my favorite passages in the entire novel contrasts this destructive void with a compassionate, imaginative act not unlike reading:

"His name was Dmitry Verbitsky," said the one-eyed man from his corner, "and he died fifty miles from Warsaw."
        Then the one-eyed man shifted in his chair, pulled a blanket up to his chin, and said: our commander's name was Korolenko and he died the same day. Then, at supersonic speed, Ansky imagined Verbitsky and Kerolenko, he saw Korolenko mocking Verbitsky, heard what Korolenko said behind Verbitsky's back, entered into Verbitsky's night thoughts, Korolenko's desires, into each man's vague and shifting dreams, into their convictions and their rides on horseback, the forests they left behind and the flooded lands they crossed, the sounds of night in the open and the unintelligible morning conversations before they mounted again. He saw villages and farmland, he saw churches and hazy clouds of smoke rising on the horizon, until he came to the day they both died, Verbitsky and Korolenko, a perfectly gray day, utterly gray, as if a thousand-mile-long cloud had passed over the land without stopping, endless.
        At that moment, which hardly lasted a second, Ansky decided that he didn't want to be a soldier, but at that very same moment the officer handed him a paper and told him to sign. Now he was a soldier.

There are so many details in this epic tome on which I would love to focus, which I'm sure would prove fruitful, but I'm overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of them. I'm intrigued, for example, at the prevalence in The Part About Archimboldi of people talking to themselves (a preoccupation of mine ever since reading Woolf's The Years). It's described as "a common sight" to see people talking to themselves in post-war Cologne, and, later on, Archimboldi is driven by a taxi driver who talks to himself. Merely examining the roles of taxi drivers in this novel could produce an intriguing study, as would contrasting Bolaño's portrayal of reading with his portrayal of writing. And of course, the sexualization of violence would be a fertile theme as well (taken, I thought, in an interesting direction by the naked crucifixion of Entrescu). So too, I would love to examine The Part About Archimboldi through the lens of all the references to detective novels (writing as similar to "the pleasure of the detective on the heels of the killer," for example, or the old woman's insistence that Archimboldi not "return to the scene of the crime") in light of the soul-numbing reality of the Santa Teresa murders outlined in The Part About the Crimes.

But alas, it's not going to happen in this blog entry. I look forward to many re-reads of 2666, and now that I have some experience of the novel, I can pick and choose what to focus on when I revisit it. MANY thanks to Claire and Steph for suggesting this readalong; I've benefited enormously from the book itself, and the act of reading it with so many other smart, perceptive people. Ciao for now, everyone!

Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About the Critics
Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Archimboldi
Thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate
Thoughts on Part 4: The Part About the Crimes

(2666 is my eighth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Chile.)

2666: The Part About the Crimes (Book 4)


For better and worse, the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 was, almost universally, not what I expected.

There were three things that did line up with my expectations: The Part About the Crimes was thought-provoking, well-written, and dealt, as the title implies, with the hundreds of sexual homicides committed against women in Mexican border-town Santa Teresa (Bolaño's fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez). But the ways in which these things were true greatly surprised me, and I thought I would organize my thoughts around all those surprises.

First of all, after the slow, Lynchean tension and (as I said in my thoughts on Part 1) "bizarre, semi-surreal wrongness" of the first three parts of the novel, the reader suddenly finds herself, in Part 4, deposited instead in the the clipped, no-nonsense language of a police procedural. Most scenes in The Part About the Crimes are more reminiscent of Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy than than Vladmimir Nabokov, more suggestive of L.A. Confidential than Mulholland Drive:

The woman was wearing a white dress and she was barefoot. She was about five foot seven. There were three cheap rings on her left hand, on the index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. On her right hand she was wearing a couple of bracelets and two big rings with fake stones. According to the medical examiner's report, she had been vaginally and anally raped and then strangled. She wasn't carrying any identification. The case was assigned to Inspector Ernesto Ortiz Rebolledo, who first made inquiries among Santa Teresa's high-class hookers to see whether anyone knew the dead woman, and then, when his questioning yielded scant results, among the cheap hookers, but no one from either group had seen her before.

I found this sylistic shift to be disconcerting, but ultimately quite effective. All along, I had assumed that the root of the wrongness, that intangible thing that was nightmarishly "off" in Santa Teresa, WAS the murders. I had subconsciously assumed that to see the crimes themselves would be to come face to face with the mysterious wrongness - and I think that this is the assumption around which most police dramas revolve. The Part About the Crimes deconstructs this assumption in just about every way possible, and its first method is to remove the sense of mystery, of intangibility, as soon as the crimes are revealed. It's as if the reader has been walking down a long hallway, as Oscar does in The Part About Fate, with a mysterious, tinted light at the end of it. Perhaps there is some distorted music playing in the distance. The reader brushes away veils, distractions, grotesque strangers met in the corridor, and eventually reaches out her hand, pushing the door inward to reveal the mysterious contents of the room...and right at that moment, someone flicks on the switch. The light is no longer sickly green, but plain, everyday white. The occupants of the room are not a sinister pair of businessmen and a femme fatale, but a team of bored cops performing a routine investigation. One of the cops walks over and hits a button on a boom box, and the atmospheric music clicks off. Everything is factual, mundane, even tedious. And yet...there are still hundreds of unsolved murders. Something is still very wrong, but merely looking at the discarded bodies of the murdered women can bring no enlightenment. The wrongness dwells elsewhere.

In a standard police drama, the mysterious horror of human crime is made "okay," neutralized, by the way in which it's solved and explained in the course of the story. I think this is the reason so many readers find murder mysteries to be a comforting genre, even when the crimes involved are horrific. The plot is formulaic and the action, in the abstract, predictable: the reader is presented with the description of a crime scene, sometimes multiple crime scenes, and tries to absorb all the details in order to "solve the mystery" later on. Soon the cops arrive. Sometimes the initial wave of police are corrupt or lazy, inclined to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Eventually, though, the reader is introduced to the main character, who, due either to professional integrity, a personal vendetta, or sheer cussedness, is invested in "getting to the bottom" of the crimes. He (for it is usually a man) strikes out on his investigation, uncovering relevant secrets and overcoming various obstacles. If the story began with multiple, seemingly unrelated crimes, the protagonist usually comes across evidence that connects them. He convinces himself of the true culprit, then runs various risks gathering enough evidence to prove his suspicions. In the end, whether he apprehends the criminal, witnesses the criminal's death, or is forced to let the criminal go, he has at least explained the sequence of events to his own and the reader's satisfaction.

Bolaño turns all this on its head, and toys gleefully with the expectations produced by the crime-writing quality of his language. In the first place, the sheer volume of the Santa Teresa murders would quickly overwhelm any reader stubbornly attempting to process each crime scene in the traditional way, much as it overwhelms the resources of the Santa Teresa police department itself. Whereas, in a traditional cop drama, we are hardly ever treated to descriptions of crimes truly unrelated to the main action, The Part About the Crimes summarizes the discovery of every single female victim of violent death between 1993 and 1997, including those which are proved - or not proved - to be isolated incidents, usually family violence on the part of boyfriends, husbands, or fathers. Presenting this unfiltered, yet clinical, view of the violence against women in Santa Teresa creates a kind of background noise - the constant reports of dead women are like a skipping record against which the reader comes up again and again, always expecting, in vain, to progress to the next bar, the next phase of the mystery plot. Bolaño refuses us a beginning, middle, and end, and gives us instead a perpetual beginning, crime piling on top of crime in a way that obscures them all and confuses any attempts at forward progress.

So too, unlike the neat and tidy, identically "signed" serial murders featured in many crime plots, the Santa Teresa murders are messy, illogical: there are too many specific linking elements to be coincidental, yet many seemingly connected murders lack some or all of the "signature" ingredients. Many women are found anally and vaginally raped and then strangled, but many others are found stabbed, and some are not raped. Many of the victims have long hair, but, as another character points out, this is a trait shared by most of the female population of Santa Teresa. Many witnesses report having seen the victims coerced into a black Peregrino (like the one parked outside Amalfitano's house in Part 2), but on the few occasions the cops manage to catch up with such a car, those who possess it are thieves, who just stole it and don't know its history. Most victims are murdered elsewhere and transported to the place where their bodies are dumped, but this is not always true. As one police inspector tells a reporter toward the end of The Part About the Crimess, it seems futile to apply any organized logic to the pattern of attacks: "It's fucked up, that's the only explanation." This is not the message the reader is left with in a traditional police drama, but it may be a more honest one.

I spent a long time thinking about the presentation of "the crimes" in this section, and how I feel about it. For some reason, I had expected The Part About the Crimes to deal with the murders as they happened, from the perspective of a third-person narrator who would probably have access to the victims' thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, I'm relieved that this wasn't the case, because I don't think I could have made it through that many rapes and murders at such close quarters. Examining what's left over afterward is much easier, and can be much more concise. On the other hand, the decision to present not so much the crimes as the evidence of the crimes, seems to depersonalize the victims in the same way their attackers did. It makes the police the protagonists of the story, rather than the women. To a certain extent this is probably inevitable - as I said, detailed descriptions of the actual crimes would quickly become too disturbing for most readers, including me. And I do think Bolaño's decision to chronicle each specific dead woman, rather than merely stating "That month a dozen more bodies were found," accords each victim some degree of individuality, as well as developing the messiness and confusion of the investigations.

Bolaño confronts the reality of misogyny and classism in Mexican society - especially within the police force - in a way that definitely doesn't condone it. He makes it clear that, despite the overwhelming volume of murders confronting them, the police would be more motivated to solve these crimes if most of the victims were not lower-class maquiladora workers, and female. Many of the cops share, to some degree, the killer's (or killers') view of these women as disposable trash, as evidenced by their joking conversations about how many ways it is possible to rape a woman, and their morning sessions of sexist jokes. The depictions of these callous, sexist cops is far from flattering, and the police who are as close to "heroes" as the novel gives us, are those who oppose them. But I still have mixed feelings about the treatment of women at the hands of the narrative in this section, and I'd be interested in others' thoughts. Is there a feminist way to write a novel about something like the Juarez murders? Maybe, maybe not.

I found The Part About the Crimes less pleasant to read than the first three books of 2666. The seemingly endless descriptions of female corpses got tedious, despite my previous comments about honoring each victim's individual identity, and there were fewer flashes of the satirical humor that pervaded the first few sections. Nevertheless, I thought it did important work: it interrogates what we expect from a crime novel, and posits that our desire to be comforted by a neat, satisfying conclusion after a spate of grisly murders is, in words of Inspector José Márquez, "fucked up, that's the only explanation." I am extremely curious to move on to Part 5, and see where Bolaño's narrative arc will take me.

Dorky lit-crit note, added August 18: While reading Susan McClary's Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, it occurred to me that Bolaño's refusal to "move on" with the story in Part 4, but instead to "stall" in a perpetual beginning of endless crime scenes, could actually be read as explicitly feminist. McClary argues that the traditional story arc, in which the protagonist works diligently toward a climax, overcoming certain obstacles in order to reach his successful conclusion, is a narrative model predicated on a forceful, stereotypically individualist male erotic practice. I know that this will sound wacky to people not used to thinking in terms of feminist criticism, but it strikes me as profoundly relevant. The audience (reader or listener) is taught, by encountering this narrative arc again and again in every TV show and Saturday morning cartoon, to crave that final climax even if - perhaps especially if - it requires a violent explosion of force to bring about. McClary points out that, although this model seems universal and "just the way things go" to modern folks, it hasn't always been the case: prior to the seventeenth century, there were many musical and lyric modes that stressed pleasure rather than desire, which gloried in a voluptuous "being-in-time" quality, rather than an individualistic striving after change and closure. It occurs to me that the standard detective-story narrative is one of the most blatant literary examples of this phallic striving-to-climax model: it even finishes, frequently, with an orgasmic car chase, gun fight, or other display of violent bravado. It therefore makes sense to choose to problematize the detective novel format when writing about the Santa Teresa murders, since all the dead women are victims of exactly the same kind of individualistic male sexual violence that McClary associates with the buildup-to-climax storyline. Perhaps Bolaño didn't want to perpetuate said violence all over again in his narrative structure. Again, I know it sounds kind of off-the-wall, but it was an idea that intrigued me.

Thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate
Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About The Critics

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

2666: The Part About Amalfitano (Book 2)


Claire and Steph's 2666 readalong continues! To be completely honest, I read the last page of this amazing novel a couple of weeks ago, but I scrupulously wrote up notes after finishing each section, and I'm publishing them just as I wrote them, at the end of each month. It's more fun this way!

The Part About Amalfitano is by far the shortest book of the five that make up 2666, so I feel a bit disconcerted to be writing up reading notes again so soon after the first batch (I'm writing this on May 19). Amalfitano does, though, provide some new food for thought: it goes in new directions with the themes established in The Part About the Critics, and piqued my interest even more for what is to come.

Primarily, I think, The Part About Amalfitano transforms that feeling of vague unease introduced in The Part About the Critics into something interior rather than exterior. In Book 1, the critics have the feeling that "something is wrong" - something more or less out there, whether "out there" means "in Santa Teresa," or "in Mexico," or "on the streets of the world." Only Norton has some sense that the "something wrong" could dwell within her, too. But for Amalfitano (the Chilean professor, incidentally, of whom the three Europeans were so dismissive in Part 1), that same something is decidedly wrong in here, rather than out there. In here: in the town where he works, in the house where he lives, inside his own brain.

The Part About Amalfitano is obsessed with madness and forgetting, from Amalfitano's memories of his wife Lola (disappeared on a wild quest after a poet, now institutionalized, with whom she may or may not have had sex years before), to his own evolving relationships with a mysterious geometry treatise and a disembodied voice. Whereas the Critics of the first book fight their battles in cafés, conferences and capitals, Amalfitano and Lola fight theirs within their own heads. Lola's story raises all the old questions of how to define madness, and how we deal with an institutionalized person who seems saner than his visitors, but Amalfitano's own story is, to me, even more compelling. Bolaño's stellar sense of the bizarre and hilarious is showcased to perfection, as in this passage, which finds Amalfitano obsessing, Beckett-like, on a mysterious, privately-published geometry book that he (totally uninterested in geometry) has discovered in one of his boxes.

I probably picked it up at Laie, he thought, or maybe at La Central, the time I stopped in to buy some philosophy book and the clerk was excited because Pere Gimferrer, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, and Juan Villoro were all there, arguing about whether it was a good idea to fly, and plane accidents, and which was more dangerous, taking off or landing, and she mistakenly put this book in my bag. La Central, that makes sense. But if that was the way it heppened I'd have discovered the book when i got home and opened the bag or package or whatever it was, unless, of course, something terrible or upsetting happened to me on the walk home that eliminated any desire or curiosity I had to examine my new book or books. It's even possible that I might have opened the package like a zombie and left the new book on the night table and Dieste's book on the bookshelf, shaken by something I'd just seen on the street, maybe a car accident, maybe a mugging, maybe a suicide in the subway, although if I had seen something like that, thought Amalfitano, I would surely remember it now or at least retain a vague memory of it. I wouldn't remember the Testamento geométrico, but I would remember whatever made me forget the Testamento geométrico. And as if this wasn't enough, the biggest problem wasn't really where the book had come from but how it had ended up in Santa Teresa in one of Amalfitano's boxes of books, books he had chosen in Barcelona before he left. At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it in there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste's book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?

What I love about this passage is its double-edged nature: is Amalfitano needlessly belaboring an unimportant detail, as his daughter Rosa seems to think? Or is this ostensibly small incident part of, perhaps even a key to, that intangible "something wrong" which all Bolaño's characters are chasing? And what does it mean that the inquiry into the origins of this innocuous geometry book is spiked with so many catastrophic allusions: plane crashes, car accidents, muggings, suicides? Is Amalfitano onto something in this passage, or are we witnessing his first slide toward madness? In the end, these two options may be just two paths to the same outcome: if Amalfitano is fixating on an unimportant detail, it may indicate that he is going mad. On the other hand, he may be correct in his insistence on the book's significance, and what he thinks it signifies is...that he's going mad. The book catches him in a logical trap, and his delightfully odd solution (or is it an exacerbation?) of transforming the volume into a Duchamp-inspired readymade doesn't dispel his nameless fear.

And speaking of fear. The second book of 2666 includes further allusions to "the crimes": those hundreds of female bodies being discovered all over Santa Teresa, with no end in sight. Interestingly, though, it generally chooses to talk around the murders, rather than addressing them head-on. In one scene, just after Amalfitano has discovered the disquieting geometry book, he calls a professor friend of his and confides that he's a nervous wreck. She assumes that this is because he is worried about the murders:

Professor Pérez soothed him, told him not to worry so much, all you had to do was be careful, there was no point giving in to paranoia. She reminded him that the victims were usually kidnapped in other parts of the city. Amalfitano listened to her talk and all of a sudden he laughed. He told her his nerves were in tatters. Professor Pérez didn't get the joke. Nobody gets anything here, thought Amalfitano angrily.

Even in this relatively explicit passage, there is so much that is ambiguous. Bolaño gives the impression that, despite Pérez's assumptions, the murders are not the actual cause of Amalfitano's frayed nerves. It's plain that Pérez's talk about them, for whatever reason, is either irrelevant or offensive to him: he interrupts her, and then feels angry that she does not understand his "joke" about tattered nerves. We never see Amalfitano, here or elsewhere, thinking explicitly about the crimes, which seems bizarre in itself given that, in the first place, he lives with his teenage daughter, and in the second place, he has long internal monologues about everything from his colleagues, to a volume of crackpot pseudo-history once sent to him by a friend. On the other hand, the reader could certainly interpret the murders as an unacknowledged influence on his mood, a partial explanation for why he is so on edge, why the appearance of a strange book so unsettles him, why he is sleeping poorly and hearing voices. One could see, in his dearth of thoughts about the murders, a pointed avoidance of the subject rather than a lack of interest. But if Amalfitano's encroaching madness is related to the murders, what is the connection?

Time, perhaps, will tell. Or perhaps not: an outcome I might even prefer. In any case, I'm still heartily enjoying 2666, and I'm eager to move on to the third book, The Part About Fate.

(My thoughts on Part 1, The Part About the Critics, are over here.)

2666: The Part About the Critics (Book 1)


A big thanks to Claire and Steph for suggesting read-along of Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666! They've described what they're hosting as a "do-as-you-please read-along," and suggest spreading the five books (or parts) of the novel over five months, interspersing them with other books so as to avoid burnout. They're also asking for monthly check-ins and reading notes. Taking my cue from the "do-as-you-please" aspect of this project, and from Bolaño's own desire that each part of 2666 be published as its own free-standing novel, I think I'll just read this at whatever pace seems right to me, and write up a review of each of the five sections as I get to them. I'll wait to publish each of them, though, until the month allotted by Claire and Steph for that particular book. Sound good? Good.

And now that we've got the logistics out of the way...

I thoroughly enjoyed The Part About the Critics, which is the first book of the five that make up 2666. With all the talk of sex and violence surrounding this novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in these first pages, by Bolaño's light, satiric touch and keen sense of the absurd. (We all know I'm a sucker for absurdism.) More than anything, his style and subject matter reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov: the ridiculousness and insularity of academia, the minute dissections of the reading life, the way that the four protagonists are more than a little silly, yet still sympathetic - Bolaño and Nabokov both handle all these elements masterfully. Bolaño has a firm grasp of the "don't belabor every little joke" principle of humor: his anecdotes are peppered with light, unexplained touches that I found hilarious. In this passage, for example, he writes a brilliant send-up of the self-importance among two opposing camps of scholars studying the enigmatic German author Archimboldi:

The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier's fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.

Although the overarching joke here is a good one (only academics themselves would be so absurdly self-involved as to liken their conferences to Napoleonic battles; it's like something out of a Christopher Guest film), there are so many tiny, near-irrelevant touches that heighten the humor. It's somehow hilarious that the students have come "by train or in vans." The caution or incaution of the conference audience is equally hilarious, given that all most of them are doing is nodding or shaking their heads, as is the fact that Morini finds the suggestion of humor somehow more offensive than suffering or civic duty.

But more than being funny, the pan-European, colonializing self-importance of the critics (representing the big four European centers of France, Spain, Italy, and England) holds a darker note. In this scene, they've come to a German city to attack and triumph over German scholars, in a discussion of a German author, and they are outraged when their interpretations are challenged. The German scholars, who attempt to locate the work of Archimboldi within a greater context of German literature as a whole, are ridiculed. Instead, the protagonists favor of a glamorous, individualistic interpretation that allows Archimboldi to belong to everyone and no one (but mostly, to the four European critics).

Later, when three of the four friends descend on a small Mexican border town to search for Archimboldi himself, their cultural arrogance becomes even more obvious. When a Mexican Archimboldi scholar addresses a note "Dear Colleagues," for example, two of them burst into laughter while the third finds the note depressingly pathetic. None of them seriously consider that a professor from Latin America could possibly be worthy of their regard, yet they fully expect local cooperation in their obsessive quest to track down a writer who obviously wishes to remain hidden. When their motivation is questioned, indeed, their interrogator is met with blank incomprehension: "Because we're studying his works, said the critics."

But the darkness in this first book is not limited to the cultural imperialism of the four protagonists. Indeed, the Mexican section of The Part About the Critics begins to introduce a more sinister note all around. There is a feeling that something is wrong in Santa Teresa, and Bolaño does a fantastic job of creating, via certain bizarre incidents, that atmosphere of vague but profound unease. The critics learn, for example, of an unexplained war between cabbies and hotel doormen, in which the doormen will beat the cabbies senseless unless the latter pay them off. A group of drunk Americans in the bar seem to be observing something of great interest in the street, but when the critics try to share the view, there is nothing to see. Even the critics' hotel rooms and the landscape outside are vaguely unnerving to them. And then there are the rumors of the hundreds of murdered women that have been turning up in the area, about which none of the Europeans can get much information. Something is definitely rotten, and the critics are tempted to put it all down to the lack of civilization in this backwater Mexican burg. At least one of them, though, has the nagging feeling that this vague "something" has been wrong all along:

These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. Bu Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn't understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them, with that slightly repulsive young man they had met in Toulouse, with Dieter Hellfeld and his sudden news about Archimboldi. And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written about, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself, if only intermittently, who read and made notes on an interpreted Archimboldi's books.

And looking back, the reader does remember examples of the same kind of skewed-ness taking place in Europe. There's the recurrent theme of the painter Edwin Johns, who cut off his painting hand, and a certain academic conference "of which Morini had reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax." And then, of course, there is the deliciously bizarre scene about the mugs. I won't say any more. You'll just have to read it for yourself.

I love this kind of unknowable, semi-surreal wrongness in literature, and have ever since I was a child. So Bolaño's mix of Lynchian unease with absurdist humor is pretty much guaranteed to please. I'll be eager to see what the second book of 2666 holds in store.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography