. . . 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.

04 August 2010

B. Traven

In a comment posted last Monday under the 1 February entry, Tyler had this to say:

Do you think it's possible that Archimboldi's story could be somewhat inspired by B. Traven's bio?

I'm something of a simpleton with litereature [sic] (perhaps that's why I've read all of Traven's books, haha) so that's just a passing thought not meant to be considered seriously.

First of all, Tyler is no simpleton with literature. He need only learn to spell "literature" correctly. (I hope he accepts that ribbing for what it is.)

In any event, first, I had to read more about B._Traven, which was fascinating. I immediately took Tyler's point.

I did a little Googling in an attempt to see whether this had occurred to anyone else. See the caption under picture at this site.

Then at MacMillan's site regarding Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will see the flat statement that Archimboldi was modeled on B. Traven, although I do not know where they got their information in support of that proposition.

I wish to thank Tyler again for that fascinating comment. Whether or not Archimboldi was modeled on B. Travern probably makes no difference whatsoever to any interpretation of 2666. Still, it very interesting. I would like to know whether Bolaño acknowledged this himself at some point.

Now, let me spellcheck this.

15 July 2010

Essay on Illness

The Writer is Gravely Ill.

By Roberto Bolaño, from “Literature + Illness = Illness,” in The Insufferable Gaucho, out this month from New Directions. Bolaño dedicated the essay to his hepatologist, Victor Vargas. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.

This essay from the collection appears in this month's Harper's.

20 May 2010


And then there was the tourist Vogel, a man with so much optimism, so much faith in the innate goodness of mankind, that he is nearly unbearable. Also, a great believer in masturbation.

Vogel saves young Hans Reiter's life on one of the two occasions that Hans nearly drowns. Vogel had initially mistaken Hans for seaweed. When he recollects this later, it perplexes him to no end. Page 646.

And then: in what sense can a boy resemble seaweed? And then: can a boy and seaweed have anything in common?


Good question.

Can a boy and seaweed have anything in common?

Laminaria digitata

19 May 2010

Prussia Rises from the Depths

The opening pages of The Part About Archimboldi are in one sense typical of a novel that tells a man's life story and in another sense completely disorienting. The passages relating to Hans Reiter's childhood are poetic, but it is poetry of a very distinctive flavor. I come back repeatedly to this paragraph, set off by itself, and consider who else would have or could have written anything like it:

When his one-eyed mother bathed him in a washtub, the child Hans Reiter always slipped from her soapy hands and sank to the bottom, with his eyes open, and if her hands hadn't lifted him back up to the surface he would have stayed there, contemplating the black wood and the black water where little particles of his own filth floated, tiny bits of skin that traveled like submarines toward an inlet the size of an eye, a calm, dark cove, although there was no calm, and all that existed was movement, which is the mask of many things, calm among them.

Page 639

Remember Amalfitano's voice? Calm will never let you down. That must hold true only in the terrestrial world. Here, under the water, there is only movement. And what is the movement from childhood to adulthood if it is not in great part a movement from poetry to prose?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Part About Archimboldi features a cast of extraordinary characters, characters that remind me of those of John Irving at his very best. The first whom we encounter is the one-legged man who lost his leg in the first world war and later becomes Hans Reiter's father.

Upon his return home from the war, the one-legged man seeks out the one-eyed girl before he either washes or shaves. He goes to her house. I love this that occurs there:

When the girl saw him standing at the door to her house, she recognized him instantly. The one-legged man saw her, too, looking out the window, and he raised a hand in a formal salute, even a stiff salute, though it could also have been interpreted as a way of saying such is life.

Page 638.

Such is life.

The one-legged man is of the opinion that all nationalities and ethnic groups are swine except the Prussians. But Prussia no longer exists. Later this occurs, which from my point of view is a truly beautiful image.

Then his mother stared at him with her blue eye and the boy held her gaze with his two blue eyes, and from the corner near the hearth, the one-legged man watched them both with his two blue eyes and for three or four seconds the island of Prussia seemed to rise from the depths.

Page 644.

Goddamn, I like that!

18 May 2010

The Mummy

With that overview of The Part About Archimboldi, let us take a look at some of the details.

The part opens with a description of “the mummy” in the bed next to Reiter's father in that military hospital of long ago. This figure, the mummy, is eerily reminiscent of “the man in white” in the hospital bed next to Yossarian in Catch 22. You remember that man in white. He had a jar connected to a tube that dripped fluid into him and another connected to a tube that eliminated liquid waste.

When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that stuff could be dripped back into him.

Catch 22, page 18.

It is difficult for me to believe that Bolaño was not familiar with Joseph Heller's man in white when he wrote these passages about the mummy.

09 May 2010

Overview of the Part About Archimboldi

[The following was originally written with the intention that it be my final contribution regarding the novel at Infinite Zombies. For several reasons I have decided to post it here and move on to comments on details in that last Part.]

A month-long visit in April to the United States of America interrupted my reading of 2666 along with others in attendance here. This was actually my second reading of the novel but not the last. So here I am again at the end of the last week of the reading schedule for the book laid out at www.bolanobolano.com. There is a distinct echo in the room here now, but I am going to put up one last entry anyway.

When I first encountered The Part About Archimbaldi, I groaned. I have read more than enough literature centered around Hitler, Nazi Germany, and the holocaust for a lifetime. Admittedly, some of it great literature. The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas comes to mind immediately as one of the best in my experience. But still. Enough is enough. I had no intention of reading any more. I was disappointed that in The Part About Archimboldi, the part that I had looked forward to with anticipation for 633 pages, Bolaño had chosen to mine this already well-mined material one more time in telling the story of Hans Reiter.

To tell you the truth I am still a bit disappointed with that decision, but I must admit he told a good story, a piece of literary fiction in a form we are comfortable with as if once again to demonstrate that this, too, he can do.

We are told the facts of Hans Reiter's life from his early youth into his eighties. We learn much about him. He was a prolific writer with a body of work of Nobel Prize caliber. Just for fun I made a rough outline of Archimboldi's writings with little notes on what we know of each work. One learns nothing from this, by the way, other than that he wrote a lot.

Embedded within this story of Hans Reiter's life are a great number of other stories. His great friend, Hugo Halder, whose ne'er-do-well father, by the way, collected paintings of dead women. The story of the Russian leftist Boris Abramovich Ansky in which is embedded in turn the story of the science fiction writer--or whatever you wish to call the genre—Ivanov. Stories within stories like Russian nesting dolls.

What was Ivanov afraid of? . . . Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good.

Page 722.

There is the love story involving Ingeborg, which has the ring about it of A Farewell to Arms but this time featuring not one of Hemingway's vapid females but rather a tender, insane, brilliant, terminally ill sexual skyrocket.

There is the excellent story of Archimboldi's patron, the German Jewish publisher, Mr. Bubis, a survivor, and the irrepressible—I cannot help but smile at that choice of word—Baroness Von Zumpe. (Why did I think of Andrei Codrescu's The Blood Countess whenever I encountered the Baroness Von Zumpe?) The Baroness did not waste time reading any of the books she published after taking over Bubis's business upon his death. Actually reading the books obviously had nothing to do with the success of the business under her leadership.

All of this is very colorful, very good stuff. But what about the true nature of Hans Reiter?

As a young man he became intimate with the arts of violence. He was awarded the Iron Cross, apparently deservedly so. Hans Reiter repeatedly imagined that under his Wehrmacht uniform he was wearing “the suit or garb of a madman.” Page 670.

One story within a story that I did not mention above is that of Leo Sammer, alias Zeller, and the murder of the Greak Jews, or Jews that may have been Greek. I found this story to be quite a masterful portrayal of the banality of evil. The banality of evil is not a new subject, of course. The subject itself has been around longer than the phrase, but it is treated here as well as in any other treatment that I have encountered. After Sammer confides his story to Hans Reiter, Hans Reiter strangles him in what we can believe is a kind of weird vengeance for Ansky's death, a man Reiter knew only through his notebook. It is this murder that sends Reiter on the run and ultimately transforms him into Archimboldi.

I shall get to the point now.

Back on page 481we have this exchange between Klaus Haas and his cellmate, the rancher who had strangled his wife and shot his two children:

Don't cover your head, he said aloud and in a booming voice, you're still going to die. And who's going to kill me you gringo son of a bitch? You? Not me, motherfucker, said Haas, a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he's going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. . .A little while later, however, Haas, called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.

Finally, we come to the story of the dream-ridden Lotte Reiter's adult years. She had never had any doubt that her brother, Hans, would survive the war and return. She was always alert for “the sound of his footsteps, the footsteps of a giant. . . .” Page 865. There follows multiple references the Hans Reiter's status as giant, at least in Lotte's mind's eye.

At last Hans does return after Lotte confides in Countess Von Zumpe concerning her son's predicament. He does not look like a giant anymore. Over eighty years old, he denies that he ever was one. Page 890. Lotte asks,

“Will you take care it all?”
“A beer,” he said.
“I don't have beer,” said Lotte. “Will you take care of it all?”

There is then the delightful interlude concerning ice cream in the park that Maria Bustillos discusses over at www.bolanobolano.com followed by the last line of the novel.

Soon afterward he left the park and the next morning he was on the way to Mexico.

We have no clue what this eighty-year-old man will accomplish in Mexico, but by the end of The Part About Archimboldi we know that he is capable of accomplishment. After 893 pages of the most grim, the most cynical, the most fatalistic fiction one will ever encounter, the novel ends on this twisted note of optimism and of hope.

I thought back to that great line toward the end of Ansky's notebook:

In one of his last notes he mentions the chaos of the universe and says that only in chaos are we conceivable.

Page 736.

Less reckless than Harry Magaña. Wiser than Oscar Fate (with a steadier stomach too boot). Acquired of a less feckless madness than Amalfitano's. Add the additional edge of being at the end of his life anyway. If there is any man capable of effectiveness within that chaotic conception, it is Hans Reiter, the great writer known as Archimboldi. I think that I can be forgiven for believing that there is one more remarkable episode in his story.

11 April 2010

Aesthetic Ruminations

I have developed my own dearly held theories about reading fiction, idiosyncrasies that I have acquired through the years. The most dearly held of these is this. When I read a novel, I consider it no longer to belong to the author. It is mine at that point. It may have belonged to the author as he was conceiving it, laboring over it, and revising it with his editor. However, when he turns the finished product over to the publisher, in a very real sense he is giving it away to his readers, if any.

I say that I consider it mine when I read it because it is obviously my reader's brain that must supply the cognition that gives it form and substance at that point. The images and ideas have to take form in my brain. The same can be said for any artist and art in any other field. This is not some new aesthetic theory. It is the theory of aesthetics. It is as old as Aristotle. Nor is it in any sense intended to demean the effort of the writer, or any other artist for that matter, when I say that it is my brain that brings the work to life however imperfectly my brain may do that. It is just that I am not a writer. I am a reader. As a reader, I am jealous of my own prerogatives as such.

In other words, I do not consider a work a fiction, in this case a novel, to be a communication medium in the sense that we usually think of communication. The author does not communicate with me. Rather, the author has created what he hope is a piece of art and turns it loose. I pick up that piece of art—an object, a book—and give it life with my brain. The author is out of the picture. Long gone. Not to put too fine a point on this, I never give a fuck about what the novelist had in mind when he wrote a novel. The only thing I care about is what I have in my mind when I read it. This is admittedly a perfectly solipsistic regard for fiction.

As a result, I have come to certain conclusions. The work, if it is art, must speak for itself. It must stand alone. This is the very reason that so often good writers are reluctant or impatient with the idea of discussing the “meaning” of their own work. I agree with them in that reluctance. They bust their ass to create a piece of art and hand it over to readers and then they are asked to explain what it “means.” I can imagine that I might be a bit impatient with that, too. And I am fond of writers who decline to invade my reader's province in that way. I do not wish to be told what the damned thing means.

Moreover, “meaning” is a very slippery thing. Meaning resides in the reader's mind, and there can be different meanings in different readers' minds based on those readers' own life experiences that have nothing to do with the author's. Sometimes meaning may not take up residence in a reader's mind at all for any number of reasons. In my own case Finnegan's Wake's secrets remain secret, and I feel not the least bit a deficient reader as a result.

There is some duty, for lack of a better word, to himself or herself on the reader's part to be rational in deriving his or her personal meaning from a novel, but beyond that, who's to say? By "rational" I mean, for example, that Charles Manson's interpretation of the Beatles' composition Helter Skelter was not a valid one. I must say that I do not find Harold Bloom's interpretation of Shakespeare any more cogent than that either, to cite another example.

I become a bit impatient with efforts to paw through the author's biography for clues to his “meaning.” First, that simply ought not be necessary. Second, and just as importantly, I think that one can arrive at interpretations of a work based upon events in the author's life that are too pat, too facile. Lastly, it short changes the part that the reader's own brain and experience play in this whole thing we call “fiction.”

This is not to say that I do not become curious, as everyone does, about the author of a book that I like a lot. That is a different thing and good that it is a different thing. I can admire and enjoy the images I derive from Ernest Hemingway's novels and the ideas they generate while at the same time appreciating that personally he was an asshole and not get the two concepts mixed up.

Where does this leave the idea of “universality” as a measure of good fiction? I do not think that when we use the term “universality” in connection with a work we actually mean that it has exactly the same meaning for a large number of people. Rather, I think that we are saying that it has important meanings for a large number of people. The only thing universal about a good work of fiction is that the individual interpretations of various readers of significant number add some new dimension to their understanding of their own existence, usually their understanding of their own existence vis à vis the existence of others. Is not that what it is all about? In the end?

Many readers in the vicinity have limned their dislike of this novel repeatedly. I certainly understand that. There is not much to “like” about it. I cannot say that I myself “like” the novel. As I have mentioned elsewhere, when the book comes up in conversation, I am careful to recommend that others not read it. 2666 is not an entertainment. While there is not necessarily anything unsatisfactory about novels that are entertainments, this novel is not one of those.

I will say this though. I am utterly fascinated by it. I cannot help but think that Roberto Bolaño undertook something of great magnitude in a very original way. Because I believe that, as a reader I have tried to give it the effort that I think Roberto Bolaño's own great effort deserves.

I have also come to realize that one of the primary reasons for my fascination is that the book has, late in my life, caused me to question and rethink every single thing that I have written above. I have not yet changed my mind about any of these ideas. As yet, I am only rethinking them, and I hope that perhaps, thanks to this novel, I will ultimately be able to clarify further or maybe even refine those ideas in my own mind.

10 April 2010

The Professor's Crater

Haas’s lawyer is not a happy woman:

If it had been up to her, everyone around her, the shadowy figures on the edges of the photograph, would have disappeared instantly, and so would the room, the prison, jailers and jailed, the hundred-year-old walls of the Santa Teresa penitentiary, and all that was left would be a crater, and in the crater there would be only silence and the vague presence of the lawyer and Haas, chained in the depths. Page 591.

A couple of pages later, we revisit the crater in interesting fashion in the dreams of the comically pretentious and ineffective Professor Kessler:

On his way back to the hotel, in one of the city council’s official cars, Kessler thought how nice and hospitable these people really were, just as he had believed Mexicans to be. That night, tired, he dreamed of a crater and a man pacing around it. That man is probably me, he said to himself in the dream, but it didn’t strike him as important and the image was lost.

Page 594.

Of course as nearly as we can tell, nothing that really is important strikes Professor Kessler as being important. During his “investigation” this is the guy whose mind wanders to the question of how they got the scrap metal up into the hills of Cerro Estrella while he is having a shot of bacanora. Page 599.

Juan de Dios Martínez

I wrote earlier about my fondness for Lalo Cura. The second half of The Part About the Crimes also presents a sympathetic picture of the humanity of Juan de Dios Martínez.

He concludes that the death of the twenty-eight-year-old schoolteacher, Perla Beatriz Ochoterena, by hanging was a suicide at page 517. He discusses this with Elvira Campos at page 518 and 519, telling Elvira some of the titles in Perla’s collection of books. Elvira ultimately launches into this strange monologue:

What was it the teacher couldn’t stand anymore? asked Elvira Campos. Life in Santa Teresa? The deaths in Santa Teresa? The underage girls who died without anyone doing anything to stop it? Would that be enough to drive a young woman to suicide? Would a college student have killed herself for that? Would a peasant girl who’d had to work hard to become a teacher have killed herself for that? One in a thousand? One in one hundred thousand? One in a million? One in one hundred million Mexicans?

I say “strange” because I have no idea what Elvira’s own answers to those questions are. Is she mocking Juan de Dios’s conclusion that the young woman committed suicide? I do not know what our answers ought to be to her questions either. One thing is for sure. She is not as fond of Mexicans and Mexico as I am.

At page 534 he is clearly and profoundly troubled by the murder of thirteen-year-old Herminia Noriega. She had four heart attacks during her torture, and the final heart attack was listed as the cause of her death.

One’s heart goes out to him for being so deeply in love with Elvira Campos, a distant woman to say the least. At that same page he confides in her about “what was happening to him.” Instead of providing anything constructive to him, this psychiatrist instead regales him with her fantasy about running off to Paris for plastic surgery and a “new life without Mexicans or Mexico or Mexican patients.” Solipsism for sure there.

Later at page 600 Juan de Dios can only rest his head on the steering wheel and try to cry after the investigation of the shooting of Angélica Ochoa by her husband, who started by shooting her in the thighs and then worked up. (Perhaps the fact is that he is upset with himself for falling in love with that narcissist.)

Lalo Cura is an appealing character to me because he alone shows some passing interest in vigorously investigating the crimes. Juan de Dios Martínez is appealing to me because he has a heart.

26 March 2010

The Conversation

At page 491 José Márquez describes a mysterious conversation to Juan de Dios Martínez, a conversation among other policemen from which Márquez was excluded. Those in on that conversation were Pedro Negrete, Inspector Ortiz Rebolledo, Inspector Ángel Fernández, and Epifanio Galindo, a motley crew indeed.

Per the snatch of the conversation that Márquez heard before being waved away, the participants were upset about Karl Haas's press conference. One can only conclude they are upset because Haas has been given a forum to protest his innocence. They see the hand of Enriquito Hernández, a narco, in this.

We are then given some history regarding Enriquito and are then left wondering along with Juan de Dios Martínez why Enriquito is "protecting" Karl Haas. Page 493.

25 March 2010

Another Visit to El Chile

In October no dead women turned up in Santa Teresa, in the city or the desert, and work to get rid of the illegal dump El Chile was permanently halted. A reporter for La Tribuna de Santa Teresa who was covering the relocation or demolition of the dump said he'd never seen so much chaos in his life. Asked whether the chaos was caused by the city workers involved in the futile effort, he answered that it wasn't, it came from the inertia of the festering place itself.

Page 473.

El Chile is not the only place festering in inertia.

24 March 2010

Working Girls

. . .and as he was talking the whore yawned, not because she wasn't interested in what he was saying but because she was tired, which irritated Sergio and made him say, in exasperation, that in Santa Teresa they were killing whores, so why not show a little professional solidarity, to which the whore replied that he was wrong, in the story as he had told it the women dying were factory workers, not whores. Workers, workers, she said. And then Sergio apologized, and, as if a lightbulb had gone on over his head, he glimpsed an aspect of the situation that until now he'd overlooked.

Page 466.

It would be nice if Sergio were to share the insight. We must noodle it out for ourselves. I would not trust Sergio's insights anyway.

Therein lies the problem. Sergio's insight may simply be that the victims are predominately factory workers and not prostitutes. The guy is not a helluva lot of use to us, the readers.

Elvira Campos

Sometimes Elvira Campos thought it would be best to leave Mexico. Or kill herself before she turned fifty-five. Maybe fifty-six?

Page 513.

Interesting. I don't want to leave Mexico either. But in my case it is not quite this serious a matter. Killing one's self in late childhood? She should up that to age seventy-five at least.

It is also interesting that we are offered this angst with nary a hint as to what lies behind it.

Harry Magaña

vigilante: a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly: a self-appointed doer of justice.

Harry Magaña is clearly a vigilante in the broad sense of the word. His role raises interesting questions about the complete breakdown of the state apparatus for dispensing justice as portrayed in the novel. We grant a monopoly on violence to the state in connection with the social contract on the presumption that the state will effectively employ that violence to provide security for the citizens. Bad cops, for example, constitute a breach of this social contract. In Santa Teresa we witness a breakdown of the entire social contract. It should therefore be no surprise that vigilantism then comes into play to fill the breach.

We need to discuss this more, but in the meantime the observations in Daryl's entry at Infinite Zombies entitled “One More Po” and the comments appended make interesting reading. I continue to ponder that entry and those comments.


16 March 2010

The Narcos: A Dead End

The reporter answered that Santa Teresa was a center of the drug trade and most likely nothing happened there that wasn't related to the phenomenon one way or the other.

And what exactly does that tell us? Not much. At page 463 we are told explicitly for the first time that Pedro Rengifo is a narcotraficante. We certainly suspected this at the time that Lalo commenced his employment as a bodyguard for Rengifo's wife, but we were not told. Still, Rengifo is not a particularly malevolent character. We have a sense that he is simply a businessman in a dangerous business.

The narcotics traffic does not get a lot of play in the novel. It is simply something that is there in the background. In that regard it is worthwhile to remember that the situation in the Mexican border states in 1993-95 was a different situation by several magnitudes than it is today after Felipe Calderon started the war with the drug lords with the support of the United States as he promised in his 2006 campaign.

The sentence quoted at the outset is the only indication anywhere in the novel—that I recall—that suggests even a tenuous connection between the narcotics traffic and the murders.

08 March 2010

Pages 353-404: Lalo I

How can we not be favorably disposed toward Olegario Cura Expósito, a sixteen-year-old kid raised in poverty in Villaviciosa who displays integrity and no small amount of courage? And how does he make it out of poverty? Through his skill and courage amid violence. La locura. Lunacy.

Through him we are introduced to the two scumbags who are also bodyguards for Pedro Rengifo's wife, one from the state of Jalisco and the other from Chihuahua—Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, to be exact. I do not recall any other mention of Ciudad Juárez to this point in the book.

Santa Teresa is in the state of Sonora.

Lalo's Desert Eagle .50 Magnum manufactured in Isreal. Magazine holds seven rounds in the .50 cal. Action Express version.

Latest U.S. State Department Travel Alert, 22 February 2010.

Pages 353-404: Another Journalist Out Of His Element

We learned earlier that Oscar Fate's usual beat is “[p]olitical things that affect the African-American community. Social things.” Page 311. Now he is reporting a boxing match and wants to do some crime reporting.

We learned earlier that Guadalupe Roncal's previously wrote for the city section at her big Mexico City newspaper and almost never got a byline. Quite suddenly she has become a crime reporter. Page 297.

Now, in this section, we meet Sergio González, who is normally an arts writer for the Mexico City newspaper La Razón. He is on assignment in Santa Teresa to do a story on The Penitent, an assignment given him as a favor so that he can get some fresh air, earn some extra money, and forget about his wife. Page 376.

07 March 2010

Circo Internacional

The Part About the Critics at page 131:

The circus was called Circo Internacional and some men who were raising the big top with a complicated system of cords and pulleys (or so it seemed to the critics) directed them to the trailer where the owner lived.

The Part About Fate at page 303:

There was no one at the Arena del Norte. The main door was closed. On the walls were some posters, already faded, advertising the Fernández-Picket fight. Some had been torn down and others had been covered by new posters pasted up by unknown hands, posters advertising concerts, folk dances, and even a circus calling itself Circo Internacional.


Still, the critics liked the market, and even though they weren't planning to buy anything, in the end Pelletier picked up a clay figurine of a man sitting on a stone reading the newspaper, for next to nothing. The man was blond and two little devil horns sprouted from his forehead.

Page 125.

Then the man vanished and he was left alone. He [Fate] got up and went over to the edge of the arbor, next to the foosball tables. One team was dressed in white T-shirts and green shorts and had black hair and very light-colored skin. The other team was in red, with black shorts, and all the players had full beards. The strangest thing, though, was that the players on the red team had tiny horns on their foreheads. The other two tables were exactly the same.

Page 305.

In the end, I have to think that this is just silliness and not worthy of the book. Cheap-assed devil imagery.

Pages 353-404: Mexican Zoetrope

I speculated in the Fourth Installment entry about the possibility that when Bolaño was writing the passages concerning Professor Kessler and Hugh Thomas's book, The Slave Trade, he was considering how he might use words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance in writing The Part About the Crimes.

Then Matt in his Tidbits piece got me focused on Professor Plateau and his invention that ultimately lead to the zoetrope.

I have finished my second reading of pages 353 through 404 of The Part About the Crimes. I originally gauged Bolaño's intentions here to be to bring to each of these murder victims some small identity—to force us to contemplate them each individually for a moment. Words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance. I still think that.

However, as the crime victims fluttered by me this time, they became as individual images in an animation machine and a kind of persistent perception was implanted in my mind. The victims blended back together again into one image. The body of a young woman with long hair, about five feet seven inches tall (tall for a Mexican woman), partially clothed, lying out in some vacant area along with garbage. But the odd thing is that there is no resulting animation. All is still.

Vacant Lots

05 March 2010

A Pause to Ponder the Structure of the Thing

As far as the relationship of the first three parts, it now seems a pretty straightforward thing. In the first part we are introduced to Archimboldi in absentia through the critics. We then travel with them to Mexico and ultimately Santa Teresa in their search for the elusive author. With the critics in Mexico, we make the acquaintance of Amalfitano and Marco Antonio Guerra, as well as a couple of lesser characters at the University.

The critics then fade out and Amalfitano fades in along with Marco Antonio Guerra. The Part About Amalfitano is extremely dense and permeated with what I see as Amalfitano's growing mental instability marked by premonitions and vague telepathic impressions of Rosa's growing danger in Santa Teresa.

Then Amalfitano fades out temporarily and Oscar Fate appears on the scene. Fate is the ultimate outsider—he does not even speak Spanish—and we experience first hand through Fate's imperfect perceptions the real netherworld of Santa Teresa as he rescues Rosa. Amalfitano again plays a role at the end of this part in financing and facilitating their escape.

With that we leave all of the characters from the first three parts with the exceptions of the German publisher's wife in Germany—and of course, Archimboldi himself. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 5 tie together structurally quite nicely—not in any traditional way—but quite nicely. There is a beautiful symmetry as we travel back to Santa Teresa toward the end of the novel, first with Superman's mother and then with his uncle, Archimboldi. . .

On second thought, let's not use the word "symmetry." We will think of another word.

04 March 2010

Robert Rodriguez

I am not a film aficionado. I was totally unfamiliar with Robert Rodriguez, the director who is the subject of a conversation between Charly Cruz and Fate at pages 280 to 281. When describing a film that Robert Rodriquez directed under another name, Cruz refers to his distinctive style. The Wikipedia article describes Rodriguez's style as one that involves “quick cuts, intense zooms, and fast camera movements deployed with a sense of humor that offsets the action.”

Later, we see the first half of a video at Charly Cruz's house that I have repeated referred to as one that I take to be a “snuff film.” Pages 320-21. At a minimum it is hardcore pornography. Cruz claims that this is the film made by Rodriguez under the name Johnny Swiggerson. (And of course at the end of this video fragment, the camera zooms in on a mirror.)

It strikes me as particularly bizarre that Bolaño would make use of a real person, Robert Rodriguez, in this way, public figure or not. Overall, it seems to me that Bolaño's repeated references to living contemporary people in similar ways to this is one of his devices for creating verisimilitude. At times he also slyly comments upon a living person's work through his fictional characters. Is Bolaño himself saying here that some of Robert Rodriguez's films are nothing more than "snuff films?"

I believe that we will come back to this whole subject in connection with The Part About the Crimes.

02 March 2010

What fun!

Working at 2666 is the best full-time job that I have ever had. Flexible hours. Work that I enjoy. No partners. No staff. I work at home in sunny México and send in the work product.

If I could get this pay thing worked out, I would be in fat city for sure.

A Fool's Sixth Installment About Fate

Nothing cerebral about this at all, an entirely subjective view of pages 291 through 349, The Part About Fate. . .

Roberto Bolaño had to be a true fan of films. He was clearly inspired in part by film when he undertook this section and appears to have attempted to create in print the atmosphere of film noir. This recreation is complete with a retrospective voice-over at the very beginning of this part as we pan in on a reporter at work at his desk in New York. I know I mentioned this before, but I liked it.

Actually, I think he succeeded in recreating the atmosphere of a descendant of film noir. Fate discussed David Lynch with the desk clerk at page 339. The atmosphere of this part reminded me most of a David Lynch film that they did not mention, Blue Velvet, a film that truly freaked me out when I first saw it lo, these many years ago.

While we are on the subject of that desk clerk, I was struck by something he said:

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven't happened yet,” he said.

It was as if he were telling us, “This all will be playing at a theater near you soon, folks.”

At any rate we went into Charly Cruz's house at page 319 with everybody a little popped after the boxing match and a night out in the nether world of Santa Teresa. I experienced suspense. I admit it. I am probably the most cooperative reader around. I willingly suspend my disbelief at the drop of a hat. When Oscar encountered the Virgin of Guadalupe in the garage on the way in, I saw it as a portent. Something was going to happen for a change. It was only later when Oscar saw her again on the way out that I concluded the Virgin of color had blessed the man of color with a wink.

The Virgin of Guadalupe has historically blessed violence in the service of a sacred cause many times. When we saw what I took to be the first reel of a snuff film, another video fragment, and Rosa Amalfitano had disappeared in that house somewhere, I wanted Oscar to do something. I wanted Oscar to be the first major character in 323 pages to do something. If the only thing Oscar held sacred was beauty in the form of a pretty girl with perfect features, that was good enough for me.

I realize now that I was reading these scenes from the point of view of the other Oscar, Óscar Amalfitano. I myself am a father with beautiful daughters who sometimes did not display the sense that God gave an eel when they were younger. I did not want to know everything they did either, as long as they could handle it. But this was a different deal here. Little Rosa Amalfitano had gotten in over her head.

So then, what did my man do? (He suddenly became my man.) He dropped Corona with one punch and picked up his handgun. Count Pickett he may not have been, but my man had some stopping power in that fist. He had strained to let fly at somebody several times earlier in this part. He chose the perfect time and place to land one. In these new circumstances that sick Chucho Flores was immediately cured of his psychotic possessiveness. Good for a quick, bitter laugh for me.

It was a good little piece of violence, cathartic after the suspense. "Carthartic." A pissant English Department kind of word. Actually, I wanted to smell some cordite in the air. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need. Isaac Hayes was singing the Theme from Shaft in my head. I am a sucker for stuff like this.

I still do not understand, however, why Oscar and Rosa gave that jerk Chucho Flores a ride to the bus stop though.

A satisfying conclusion for me, too. Óscar Amalfitano finally found the wherewithal to do something. Calm did not let him down. It made no difference whether the guy in front of the house was a cop or a greaser. Amalfitano did well in diverting his attention after fixing up Rosa with some money and telling them to get out of there. And we were on the way to the border.

”They're good people, friendly, hospitable. Mexicans are hardworking, they're hugely curious about everything, they care about people, they're brave and generous, their sadness isn't destructive, it's life giving,” said Rosa Amalfitano as they crossed the border into the United States.
“Will you miss them?” asked Fate.
I'll miss my father and I'll miss the people,” said Rosa.

Such a truly cheap trick that by Bolaño. Still, it more than worked for me.

I sat back and relaxed in the sun. Rosa was out of there. Her father will never demand that she return to visit him in that mental lockup in Santa Teresa or Hermosillo. Nor will he forbid it either. But hopefully—a hope not entirely justified by the facts available—I clung to the thought that she will develop good sense, take comfort that Professor Pérez will visit her father regularly, and stay the hell out of there herself. Her father will be entirely satisfied with letters from her as he was with Lola. That scenario is not so bad, as he himself said.

If all this had to be purchased at some amorphous psychic cost to Oscar, that simply made him all the more admirable to me.

As for Rosa Méndez, Schopenhauer's woman--she likes to have fun; life is short--Rosita is clearly going down. But we cannot save everyone, can we?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Interspersed with this is the story of Guadalupe Roncal, yet another reporter pulled out of her normal milieu, the city desk, and transformed into an anonymous crime reporter—after the real crime reporter had been tortured and murdered.

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.

It is through Ms. Roncal that we met Nietzsche's Superman. If I had to interview Nietzsche's Superman, I would not know what questions to ask him either. I cannot help but think that we will learn something more about the nature of that party going on back there in the cell block when he first appeared.

A Fool's Fifth Installment About Fate

Everything I write here about 2666 ought to be read with an implicit question mark behind it. I earned my living for years saying things that I was not entirely sure of or that I flatly did not believe to be true. I must have been somewhat convincing because I did earn a living this way. The question marks here are going to be explicit. I am going to mash the question mark key occasionally.

Before we move on from page 290, I wish to mention some miscellaneous things that interested me in the beginning of The Part About Fate in the hope that one or two items may have interested others, too. There may be some repetition here of things discussed elsewhere, forgivable repetition, I hope.

1. It is repeatedly drummed into us that Oscar Fate's understanding of what goes on around him is imperfect, as I suppose is the case with all of us. Earlier, I mentioned his inability to understand the words of the two women at the funeral, “words of consolation or rebuke.” Page 236.

At last a taxi stopped. When he was about to close the door he heard something like a shot. He asked the taxi driver whether he'd heard it. The taxi driver was Hispanic and spoke very bad English.
“Every day you hear more fantastic things in New York,” the driver said.
“What do you mean, fantastic?” he asked.
“Exactly what I say, fantastic,” said the taxi driver.

Page 239.

So did the Hispanic taxi driver with his bad English intend some word other than “fantastic?” Maybe. In any event, we are soon to go into Mexico with Oscar Fate who cannot speak Spanish, which will only enhance his imperfect understanding of what is going on.

This sort of thing happens again with the chant of the little girls jumping rope in Detroit at Temple A. Hoffman Memorial Playground, “something about a woman whose legs and arms and tongue had been amputated.” Fate is “[c]ompletely disoriented.” Page 245-46.

During the overheard conversation between Kessler and the young man, the young man “. . . said something about inspiration. All Fate heard was: you've been an inspiration to us.”

Anyway, you get the idea. This sort of thing occurs repeatedly. The upshot is that our own perceptions as readers are doubly imperfect.

2. Related to item one is the fact that Oscar is being sent on an assignment wherein he is out of his usual element, politics and social issues relating to the black community. (He will not be the last journalist in this predicament that we will encounter.) It is as if the sports editor assumes that any black man ought to know something about boxing. Nobody stereotypes African-Americans like other African-Americans.

3. How can one not wonder what the hell the deal is with Oscar's stomach? I have studied all the contexts in which he vomits or suffers stomach discomfort, and I find no clue.

4. Antonio Jones' answer to the question of why he kept doing what he was doing was remarkably simple and remarkably funny:

Because someone has to keep the cell operative.

Page 258.

You dummy, Oscar.

5. Dick Medina's television news report on the woman from Arizona who had disappeared in Arizona obviously foreshadows. I find it fascinating that Oscar is asleep and dreaming of the last Communist in Brooklyn while it airs. I am not sure why I find it fascinating, but I do. Page 258.

6. Am I weird to be mulling over those identical twins with the Mexican woman in the diner as much I do? Pages 264-65. Maybe it is just that Espinoza, Pelletier, and Norton have me seeing threesomes everywhere. You must admit, though, that identical twins would be a nice touch.

7. Consider this:

She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn't talk like a New York secretary but like a country person who has just come from the cemetery. This woman had firsthand knowledge of the planet of the dead, thought Fate, and she doesn't know what she is saying anymore.

Page 273.

Could it be that Lola did not die and is now cleaning office buildings in New York instead of Paris? Or is this Lola's ghost on the other end of the line?

8. Say what, Omar?

”What are you looking at?” Omar Abdul said to him.
“The landscape,” he said, “it's one sad landscape.”
Next to him, the fighter scanned the horizon and then he said: “That's just how it is here. It's always sad at this time of day. It's a goddamn landscape for women.”
“It's getting dark,” said Fate.

Page 275.

Believe it or not, I am not blind to Bolaño's faults. Quite honestly, I think he overdoes it with the dreams and the mirrors, tropes that are a bit shopworn, don't you think? His foreshadowing can be a bit ham-handed. And the guy can get downright full of himself at times. I find it thoroughly improbable that Oscar Abdul would say this. As a result, this is too transparent an effort to create an atmosphere of foreboding. Too forced.

"This is a big city, a real city,” said Chucho Flores. “We have everything. Factories, maquiladoras, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico, a cocaine cartel, a constant flow of workers from other cities, Central American immigrants, an urban infrastructure that can't support the level of demographic growth. We have plenty of money and poverty, we have imagination and bureaucracy, we have violence and desire to work in peace. There's just one thing we haven't got,” said Chucho Flores.
Oil, thought Fate, but he didn't say it.
“What don't you have?” he asked.
“Time,” said Flores. “We haven't got any fucking time.”
Time for what? thought Fate. . . .

I love that passage. That passage boils with meaning in my opinion. And Fate's thought of oil is funny to boot. Still, time for what? I have no idea either.

10. Johnny Swiggerson is a name very much like Dirk Diggler. Page 281.

11. Can we safely assume that Oscar knows how to kiss because he is critical of that dark-haired girls ability? Page 281. It is usually the woman who complains of the man's ability at this, is it not? This one is not keeping me awake. However, I cannot recall another literary kiss that came about quite so abruptly. It was even more abrupt than, “Suddenly, they were kissing.” We bypassed that. “As he and the dark-haired girl who had come with Rosita Méndez were kissing. . . .”

12. Climacteric? Climacteric? Page 289. Male menopause? I am being stupid here, I know. Somebody please help. I need to look at the original Spanish there.

Enough. Let us read on.

And crawling, on the planet's face, some insects, called the human race. Lost in time, and lost in space... and meaning.

The Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

01 March 2010

A Fool's Fourth Installment About Fate

On the way from Tucson to the border, Oscar overhears a conversation in a diner between a young man and a Professor Kessler, obviously some sort of expert in criminology. Excerpts from Professor Kessler's mini-lecture delivered to the young man:

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through a fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn't want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course most of the serial killer were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through a filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he's afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he's about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. [Emphasis mine.]

Professor Kessler, after widening his contemplations to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries as well, then explains that in order for a murder to cause a sensation, it had to be a murder committed by people with victims who were both a part of society. Nobody cared if 20% of the “merchandise” in the holds of the slave ships died before delivery.

The ones killed in the Commune weren't part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. 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.

And then Professor Kessler's opinions:

“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I'll tell you three things I'm sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”

After this, Fate reads that passage from The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas that is a perfect demonstration of filtering the death in the holds of those slave ships through a fabric of words. That book has been discussed earlier.

I am wondering if, when Bolaño wrote this, he was considering how words might be used in the service of revelation rather than avoidance in connection with the women's deaths in Santa Teresa, clearly people outside society as Professor Kessler explains it.

Or alternatively, if he wrote this after having written The Part About the Crimes--which I do not believe he did--perhaps he was explaining that he had tried to use words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance when he wrote that part.

It seems obvious to me that one endeavor in this novel is an attempt to make those murders “legible” in a way that they could not be made legible in news reports and the like, and in the process make death itself more "legible."

At the same time, I am in no way suggesting that Bolaño was any sort of social crusader. I am not saying that he was not either. Whether he was or was not does not make any difference to me.

But that is only one of the endeavors. When I am foolish enough mention 2666 in conversation, for example when I am asked what I am reading lately, often the person will say something like, "Oh, yeah. That is the novel about the murders in Juarez, isn't it?"

For the sake of keeping the conversation light and moving, I always lie and say, "Yes. That's what it's about."

28 February 2010

Stand By for a Brief Reminiscence

I was house sitting alone for a week in January in the middle of Colonia San Antonio here in San Miguel de Allende. I read the first four parts in this courtyard in that chair. The dog was the only one available with whom to discuss the thing, but Zumm only speaks Spanish. I am not fluent enough in Spanish to discuss this book. Hell, I am not fluent enough in English to discuss this book. What an experience.

With that, we will get back at it.

A Fleeting Thought

I feel like rereading Gone With the Wind or some other swish and spit. Instead, I am going to reread The Part About The Crimes. For the same reason that I did not cut my hair when that fleeting thought came. I feel like I owe it to someone.

Janet Maslin's Review

Books of The Times - A Trip Through a Literary Labyrinth in Roberto Bolaño’s New Novel, ‘2666’ - Review - NYTimes.com

Highway 61 Revisited, huh? Okay, I will buy that as an analogy, Janet.

But this?

“2666” earns its place in posterity by burying a hint at the book’s overall secret, to the extent that it has one, in the midst of one critic’s story.

You must be talking about Morini, Janet. And it is because I do not understand Morini that I do not understand the “overall secret?” But this presupposes that you understand the “overall secret,” Janet, and I am not going to accept that on faith.

Yes, “the Fate section is more entertaining than plausible,” but we were due for some entertainment at that point, Janet.

Dammit, Janet, I love you.

Brad in the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Roberto Bolaño's Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past - NYTimes.com

Roberto Bolaño's Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past - NYTimes.com

So then. Never a heroin addict? Not in Chile during the Pinochet coup? I agree. This is going to be a tough biography to write.

23 February 2010

A Fool's Third Installment on Fate: Meaning

Yesterday I wrote a reply to a note by Maria at wwww.bolanobolano.com, a brilliant person whom I have known for years. The gist of it was that middle class people derive meaning in life from the things they buy. When they purchase a copy of 2666, there is much gnashing of teeth when they do not find meaning in it. I mashed the “Post” button.

Within minutes I realized that was not close to the idea that I wished to propose nor was it at all in the spirit with which I wished to propose it. For one thing, I am aware that the phrase “middle class” is never uttered without a sneer by some. I was not sneering. After all, I are one. I was too lazy to come up with a phrase less freighted with that baggage. But what would that have been? "Bourgeois people?"

Then the problem was that I could not figure out how to take down that reply. I considered for time posting a reply to my own reply, a reply that screamed, “This man is a cretin!” Then I said to myself, “What the hell? It is not as if I accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.” I went about my business. Now I feel pretty much as if I had accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.

I gnash my teeth more than most as is demonstrated over and over here. It is in the nature of the beast.

All I wished to suggest was that in former centuries people derived meaning from faith. Before that was magic. With the erosion of faith, people began to derive meaning from the things that money can buy. Now materialism is proving catastrophically unsatisfactory globally and spiritually.

Maybe one of the questions being illustrated by 2666 is, “What next are we going to try in our attempt to find meaning in an existence the meaning of which is obscure at best?” Again, maybe the book as a whole, through the response of mystification that it elicits in us, illustrates that question as opposed to posing the question more directly, or even indirectly, in a particular piece of text within it.

Assuming we get by Amalfitano's philosophers' question of whether we actually exist at all, that is, whether our hand is really a hand.

If Bolaño has big questions in mind, he never asks them. He illustrates them. The problem is that the illustrations are Rorschach tests.

Maria had proposed a meaning, extrapolated from a section of the novel, that somebody needs to do something about these murders of women in the hundreds. Maria is brilliant, and I look forward to where she goes as she pursues that in the context of this novel. I say that with not a hint of sarcasm.

The kind of thing I said in that reply spilled from my partially fossilized left brain. Meanwhile, my right brain bubbled with delight when Oscar Fate later actually does do something—not much in the big picture of hundreds of murders, but something. Óscar Amalfitano, relying on calm just as the voice had admonished him, later does do something, too—again, not much, but something.

In the end, however, we are right back at the issue that Maria was pondering.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For example, . . .

I cannot help but gnash my teeth regarding the meaning of the maquiladores churning out consumer goods, the stacks of garbage generated by the city, the parking lots carved into the sides of mountains, the stink of the place and such. Maybe these are nothing more than manifestations of the wonderful economic growth of the city as extolled by a couple of the less appealing characters, but the novel certainly has an apocalyptic feel about it.

The biocatastrophe people foresee a multifaceted worldwide apocalypse resulting from the infestation of the earth with human beings. That biocatastrophe, according them, will feature profound climate change, increasingly scant water, peak oil, diversified and intensifying waves of “ecotoxins” and “ecocontaminants,” antibiotic-resistant plagues, total collapse of ecosystems, and last but not least, the implosion of the monetary system—all occurring concurrently.

In other words war, famine, pestilence, and death with no rationale and no meaning from our perspective in the middle of it. No king's writ is going to hold the center together. They blame this all on the consumer economy in the broad sense of the phrase, including the consumer economy of weapons. They foresee us all ultimately being on The Road with Cormac McCarthy, another acclaimed novel in which folks strain to find meaning.

There are those that take the position that we are past the tipping point already. The biocatastrophe is already inevitable. There are those that insist that if we do something now, the biocatastrophe might be avoided.

One might argue that Roberto Bolaño is in part offering us a vision of the front edge of this biocatastrophe, that with his recurrent rat imagery, he is suggesting that there are too many rats in the cage. It might be said that his vision of the biocatastrophe places an emphasis on the dimension of lawlessness.

I discarded that possible reading of the Rorschach test. I do not buy any of that biocatastrophe stuff. The very word implies a value judgment. Oscar Fate contemplated the dinosaurs in Temple A. Hoffman Memorial Park, which, had they had the gift of self-awareness, would certainly have regarded their own extinction as a biocatastrophe.

It would only be a massive catastrophe from the human point of view. From the planet's point of view, the Earth would simply be cleansing itself of us in preparation for righting itself over geologic time. In which case the more women murdered in Santa Teresa the better. The planet is not as fragile as folks imagine. Bolaño may just as well be telling us to relax. Everything is going to be fine.

My current working theory is that the author has cleverly chosen to speak his meaning to us through the ditzy philosopher, Rosa Méndez: Have fun. Life is short.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Notwithstanding all that, I do still believe that it is premature at a point less than halfway through this novel to become frustrated that the relationship between the five parts is not yet clarifying let alone clear, that the overriding theme or theme of the book is not apparent, or that the large meaning of it all is not emerging from the mist. That might be legitimate cause for dissatisfaction when nearing the halfway point of a conventional novel. It might. But this is not one of those.

Perhaps the best thing to do at this point is to pretend that it has no meaning, and rather, focus on trying to understand the characters to the extent we can, making sure we know what happens to the characters, comparing impressions of the imagery, trading notes on the other authors to whom this author alludes, and the like. There will be whatever lifetime is left to each of us after finishing the novel to ponder the big questions.

This is only a suggestion.

Also, I believe that I need to give considerably more thought to my replies over in www.bolanobolano.com before mashing the "Post" button.

22 February 2010

Review Written on Valentine's Day 2010

The following is my the review of 2666 written on Valentine's Day, 2010, after finishing the novel for the first time.

HEADLINE: I do not recommend that you read the best novel that I have read in the last 20 years.

Yes, 2666 is easily the best novel that I have read in the last 20 years, perhaps longer. No, I do not recommend it to you or anyone else.

Nonetheless, in the event you are unfortunately tempted, I would like to be helpful. Please answer the 20 questions in the following questionnaire with a simple “yes” or “no.” You may answer with a complicated “yes” or “no” if you wish, but in that case please capitalize the first letters of “Yes” or “No.” It would be helpful if you could answer candidly without fear of someone attaching value judgments to your responses. No one need see your answers.

1. Are you unhappy when you encounter a “spoiler” that ruins a great ending to a novel that you are reading?

2. Have you ever before consecutively read five novels by the same author?

3. Is entertainment the most important benefit you derive from reading novels?

4. When you do not understand the meaning of a text in a novel, do you become either impatient or unhappy with the author or both?

5. Does religious iconography of any sort add a dimension to your life that you value?

6. Have you ever reread a novel in its entirety immediately upon completing it the first time, thus magically transforming an 893-page novel, for example, into a 1,786-page one?

7. Does a book, any book, have some separate, objective existence outside the minds of its readers?

8. Immediately after she is beaten to death, would you expect an Indian woman's skin to be orange?

9. Are you sick of novels in which Nazi Germany and World War II are major subjects?

10. Are you proud of the fact that you have read the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville? (You may answer “yes” or “Yes” even if you have not read Moby Dick as long as you have read The Trial by Franz Kafka. If you have read neither, then I would propose that your response probably should be “no” or “No,” but it need not necessarily be. A response of “Yes” with a capital “Y” might make some sense in certain individual circumstances for example.)

11. Is the “Trendlenburg position” usefully employed in waterboarding?

12. Have you more than once claimed that you enjoyed reading The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens? (Obviously, whether or not you have read The Pickwick Papers or actually enjoyed it is totally irrelevant to your answer.)

13. Did the andesites in the mountains between the states of Chihuahua and Sonora in México and your hand originate at the same time? (You need not necessarily know that there is a country named México that abuts the southwestern border of the United States nor do you need to know the geographical location of its political subdivisions in order to provide a meaningful response. This is not a trick question in other words.)

14. Do you believe that God has especially blessed the United States of America? (If George Carlin immediately popped into your mind, please consider skipping this question or simply answer a different question. Otherwise, you might then be giving his answer and not your own. That would skew the results.)

15. Do you believe that at some point before our deaths, every single one of us will experience a period of physical torture?

16. Do you believe that human beings and rats are both God's creatures and therefore equally deserving of our respect?

17. Have you ever considered killing another human being to the point that you were considering the various practical means available to do it?

18. Do you believe that the size of the human population of this planet has currently reached a level at which humankind must rationally be considered an undesirable infestation of this planet? (If you do not live on planet Earth, please respond as if you did.)

19. Are you willing to devote so much time, effort, and concentration to a novel that your friends or family consider you to be “absent” or “distant” for an extended part of every day for a period of one month?

20. Are you homosexual?

If the number of your “yes” answers exceeds the number of your “no” answers, you should clearly avoid reading this novel, although you are free to pretend that you have. If the number of your “no” answers exceeds the number of your “yes” answers, you should clearly not read this novel and neither should you pretend that you have.

If the number of your “yes” answers is precisely equal to the number of your “no” answers—in order to check yourself on this, make sure that the number of “yes” answers and the number of “no” answers are exactly ten each—then you should ask yourself why you wasted your time answering these absurd questions in the first place. However, as a sort of tie-breaker, you may proceed to continue to add questions of your own to the twenty listed ones until such time as you concurrently have an even number of questions and a preponderance of “yes” or “no” answers. In that event and without regard to the number of “yes” or “no” answers, you can read the novel without fear of more psychological damage than you have already sustained in life to this point.

If all of your “Yes” and “No” answers, regardless of the number of each, begin with capital letters, then go ahead and read this novel if you must, but don't blame me for any untoward consequences.

If you are curious about the psychological damage that I myself have sustained, you may read my blog entry entitled Libertad.

21 February 2010

Bolaño. Oh, Bolaño, what am I going to do with you?

Every time that I reread what appears to me to be a significant passage, I realize that I was reading it incorrectly before. So many of the things that I have written below are simply wrong.

However, I am not going to sift back through this blog and edit those wrong things. That would be cheating.

20 February 2010

Bernardo O'Higgins

Before we leave The Part About Amalfitano, we ought at least to mention that fascinating book O'Higgins is Araucanian by Lonko Kilapán. Why I have taken this upon myself is as much a mystery to me as Amalfitano's ruminations on the book are.

After the last appearance of the voice that we read of, Amalfitano begins to think about telepathy. That leads his thoughts to the Mapuches or Araucanians, the indigenous people whom the Spanish could never whip. For the 300 years before Chilean independence, the Mapuche lived in their own autonomous region abutting that portion controlled by Spain. His train of thought leads him to reexamine this book, which had been given to him at some time previously as a joke.

Amalfitano's ruminations on the book are framed by and interrupted twice by descriptions of episodes involving Marco Antonio Guerra.

Somehow, Amalfitano concludes that Lonko Kilapán is half Indian. Perhaps there is something in that name that gives this away. This is a “vanity book,” the publication of which was financed by its author. Apparently, Amalfitano knows this because of his familiarity with the nature of the particular publisher's business in Santiago.

The book has typographical errors. In one case Amalfitano infers a typographical error by assuming that an event described by the author actually occurred in 1974 rather than 1947 as written. (1974 happens to be the year that Augusto Pinochet became President of Chile.) The footnotes are strange, in one case simply repeating information that is given in the text itself and in another case asserting that Prometheus stole the gift of writing from the gods.

The author purports to establish through 17 “proofs” that the mother of Bernardo O'Higgins, one of the founding fathers of the nation of Chile, was an Araucanian. It is historically accepted that O'Higgins was the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O'Higgins, a Viceroy of Peru, which included the region of Chile, and María Isabel Riquelme, a criolla woman of Basque descent. Marriages between peninsulars, as Ambrosio was considered to be, and criollos, people born in the new world, were prohibited without permission from the Spanish crown. For reasons unknown Ambrosio never sought that permission and never married Isabel. (I have tried to save you some time nosing around in the encyclopedia.)

The Prologue noticeably refers to the famously illegitimate O'Higgins as “legitimate” for the reason that the text itself suggests that his father actually married the Araucanian mother in a traditional Araucanian ceremony that included an “abduction ceremony” causing Amalfitano to infer abuse and rape by old Ambrosio. Page 217.

At the heart of Amalfitano's ruminations on this book, there occurs a weird but interesting passage at pages 224 to 225. This by the way is where Cortázar's “active reader” is mentioned. It is here that Amalfitano thinks that the active reader could entertain the strange proposition that Kilapán was simply a nom de plume for one of any number of Chilean politicians of all political persuasions, not just neo-fascists,

. . . which wouldn't be so strange either, this being Chile, in fact the reverse would be stranger, in Chile military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone, behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men. . . .

I have taken to regarding all this as I do Alexander Pope's The Dunciad, freely conceding that it is witty to those who find it witty without my being able to appreciate the wit because I am not familiar enough with the personalities who are being mocked. It is clear to me, though, that Bolaño is unloading some bile here regarding the Chilean literary establishment and, when one reads on, Chilean society generally.

But back to the Araucanian mother of O'Higgins. The text leads inexorably to the conclusion that not only was Bernardo O'Higgins a telepath because his real mother was Araucanian, but also Lonko Kilapán is a telepath, all of this because Araucanians were telepaths who kept the Spanish at bay through the use of this power to gather intelligence and communicated via telepathy with other Araucanians in other parts of the world. Whew!

It seemed clear to me that when all was said and done, Amalfitano had concluded that he himself was probably a telepath. Page 225. Why does that seem clear to me? I have not the faintest idea. He was startled and his hair stood on end for five seconds after he considered the similarity between his own mother's name and the name of the historically accepted mother of Bernardo O'Higgins--nothing at all to do with the alleged Araucanian mother.

I am not contending that this is the key to The Part About Amalfitano by any means. I am not sure there is any such key. But if I am wrong and if Amalfitano's hair stood on end for some other reason, what was it?

And do these passages not remind you Borges people of Borges? Does anyone else smell a sly mockery of Borges here?

19 February 2010

Los suicidas

_________, thank you so much for taking the time to transcribe that passage from The Savage Detectives. I have not read that novel. Interesting. It is apparent that Bolaño is awfully fond of this metaphor or symbol or whatever it is. I appreciate that he could be accused of being heavy-handed with this stuff at times, with some justification. My response would be that there is nothing necessarily wrong with heavy-handedness. It all depends on the hand.

That business about those scum having eaten the worm is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

All I can say is that based upon my observations only, I am so happy that I quit drinking before I ever discovered Mexican mezcal. I would never have survived it.

I want to add a piece of language trivia that signifies nothing whatsoever. I hope the fluent Spanish speakers attending will correct anything I say that is wrong here.

Initially, that word suicida, suicide victim, puzzled me because of the feminine ending. Initially, I thought suicidas referred to women suicide victims. But no. There was the definite masculine article “los,” which can be indefinite as to gender because it is plural.

It turns out that suicida is one of those rare Spanish words that can be either masculine or feminine. In other words, there is no such word as suicido for a man who commits suicide. All suicide victims, men or women, are suicidas. Apparently, “the male suicide victim” would be “el suicida,” which certainly looks weird to me.

A lot of asylums in this book, Maria. A lot of asylums.

18 February 2010

The Works of Benno von Archimboldi

The Works of Benno von Archimboldi

The following is a list of novels in order as their publication is described in The Part About Archimboldi with information found in The Part About the Critics appended.

1. Lüdicke. This is Archimboldi's first novel. [p. 800]

A very odd review of this book appeared in a Berlin newspaper after its publication. Mrs. Bubis kept it. Someone named Schumacher “tried to sum up the novelist's personality in a few words.
Intelligence: average.
Character: epileptic.
Scholarship: sloppy.
Storytelling ability: chaotic.
Prosody: chaotic.
German usage: chaotic.”
[p. 27]

2. The Endless Rose. [p. 815] Upon reading this Mr. Bubis was deeply shaken upon reading it. It was better than good. Looking back on it later, he recalls that it was upon reading this book that he became convinced of Archimboldi's story-telling powers. Archimboldi also displayed his “capacity to inject new blood into the sclerotic German language,” in Mr. Bubis's opinion.

This is the book by Archimboldi that Amalfitano translated. Page 117.

3. The Leather Mask. [p. 817 This book is one of Archimboldi's trilogy, a “Polish-themed” novel.

The critic Junge insists to Mr. Bubis that he has read Archimboldi, which of the books named above we do not know. Junge gives that opinion that Archimboldi does not seem to be a European writer. Finally, he settles on the opinion that Archimboldi is more like an Asian writer, Malaysian in fact. [p. 819]

The library in Santiago had a copy, and Amalfitano read this book when he was about 20. Page 117.

4. Rivers of Europe. [p. 823] This book is really only about one river, the Dneiper. The Dneiper is the protagonist, and the other rivers are the chorus. Mr. Bubis laughed when he read it. The book was translated and appeared in Italian in 1971. [p. 5]

The library in Santiago had a copy, and Amalfitano read this book when he was about 20. Page 117.

5. Bifucaria Bifurcata is Archimboldi's novel about seaweed. Apparently, this novel is nearly unreadable. Not even Mr. Bubis finished it. [p. 826] Nonetheless, Morini translated it into Italian in 1988. [p. 5] Other Archimboldi texts had already been translated into Italian at the time.

The library in Santiago had a copy of this book, too, but Amalfitano could not finish it. Page 117.

6. Inheritance. came to Mr. Bubis four years after Archimboldi's disappearance. [p. 837] A big book of over 500 pages originally to which Archimboldi added another 100 pages at the last minute on his last visit to the publisher, a chaotic text, in Mr. Bubis's opinion, but one that left him “with a feeling of great satisfaction.” Archimboldi lived up to all of Mr. Bubis's hopes. The book was translated and appeared in Italian in 1973. [p. 5]

7. Saint Thomas. “. . .the apocryphal biography of a biographer whose subject is the great writer of the Nazi regime, in whom some critics wanted to see a likeness of Ernst Jünger, although clearly it isn't Jünger but a fictional character.” [p. 846]

This is the second novel that Morini translated into Italian.

This is one of the books that Pelletier rereads on the terrace in Santa Teresa. [p. 142, 149]

8. The Blind Woman was sent to Mr. Bubis from Icaria. [p. 847] . “. . . it was about a blind woman who didn't know she was blind and some clairvoyant detectives who didn't know they were clairvoyant.”

This was the first Archimboldi work that Liz Norton read when it was loaned to her by a friend in Berlin. She liked it but did not then run out and buy every Archimboldi she could find. [p. 9] We do not know which work of his was the second that she read.

This is one of the books that Pelletier rereads by the pool in Santa Teresa. [p. 143, 149]

9. The Black Sea was apparently also written during the Icaria stay. [p. 847] “. . . a theater piece or a novel written in dramatic form, in which the Black Sea converses with the Atlantic Ocean an hour before dawn.”

10. Lethaea was apparently also written during the Icaria stay [p. 847], an explicitly sexual novel, and the first to go through five printings after the court case alleging it to be pornography was disposed of. It is a novel “in which he transfers to the Germany of the Third Reich the story of Lethaea, who believes herself more beautiful than any goddess and is finally transformed, along with Olenus, her husband, into a stone statue.”

Morini wrote a study on the various “guises of conscience and guilt” in this novel and the novel Bitzius. [p. 6]

This is one of the books that Pelletier rereads on the terrace in Santa Teresa. [p. 145, 149]

11. The Lottery Man was apparently also written during the Icaria stay. [p. 847]. “. . .the life of a cripped German who sells lottery tickets in New York.”

12. The Father. A son recalls the activites of his father, a psychopathic killer, “which begin in 1938, when his son is twenty, and come to an enigmatic end in 1948.

13. The Return came to the publishing house after Mr. Bubis's death. [p. 849]

14. The King of the Forest is not mentioned in connection with the publishing house. Is this Archimboldi's last book? Probably not. [See The Head below.] This is the book that Lotte purchases at the airport book stand. Upon reading it, she recognizes the characters as her family members and knows it is written by her brother. [p. 887

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The following are miscellaneous works that I have difficult to place among the works listed above.

The trilogy:

D'Arsonfal. This is the first book by Archimboldi that Pelletier read [p. 3], a “French-themed” book. On his own initiative, Pelletier undertook a translation of it into French in 1983-84. [p. 4]

The Garden is another in the trilogy, an “English-themed” novel. Pelletier found it in an old Munich bookstore in 1981. [p. 4]

The Leather Mask [see above], is the other work in the trilogy. The book had already been translated into Italian by Colossimo in 1969, long before Morini had discovered Archimboldi. [p. 5]

Pelletier gave a copy of this to Vanessa, the prostitute with the Moroccan husband, thinking “that with some luck Vanessa might read it as a horror novel, might be attracted by the sinister side of the book.” Vanessa remarks that, “It's as if you were giving me a part of you.” [p. 82]

I wish to interject here that it is when Pelletier gives this book to Vanessa, we read this:

Pelletier had, along with a few others, instituted a new reading of the German, a reading that would endure, a reading as ambitious as Archimblodi's writing, and this reading would keep pace with Archimboldi's writing for a long time, until the reading was exhausted or until Archimboldi's writing—the capacity of the Archimboldian oeuvre to spark emotion and revelations—was exhausted (but he didn't believe that would happen), though in another way it wasn't true, because sometimes, especially since he and Espinoza had given up their trips to London and stopped seeing Norton, Archimboldi's work, his novels and stories, that is, seemed completely foreign, a shapeless and mysterious verbal mass, something that appeared and disappeared capriciously, literally a pretext, a false door, a murderer's alias, a hotel bathtub full of amniotic fluid in which he, Jean-Claude Pelletier, would end up committing suicide for no reason, gratuitously, in bewilderment, just because.

[p. 82-83] I include this note because it proves me wrong. Pelletier started to encounter difficulties understanding Archimboldi's works long before he went to Mexico.

Mitzi's Treasure is a small book, less than 100 pages. Pelletier found it in an old Munich bookstore in 1981. [p. 4]

Railroad Perfection. The book was translated and appeared in Italian in 1975. [p. 5] Morini wrote a study on the role of fate in this book. [p. 6]

The Berlin Underworld was a collection of mostly war stories put out by a publishing house in Rome in 1964. [p. 5]

Bitzius is a novel of less than 100 pages similar to Mitzi's Treasure. It tells “the story of the life of Albert Bitzius, pastor of Lützelflüh, in the canton of Bern, an author of sermons as well as a writer under the pseudonym Jeremiah Gotthelf.” Morini wrote a study on the various “guises of conscience and guilt” in this novel and the novel Lethaea. [p. 6]

This was the third work by Archimboldi that Liz Norton read. This is the one that did make her run out, but run out through the rain in the quadrangle. It was as if she had drunk a cup of steaming peyote. [p. 9]

When the four critics first talk avidly about Archimboldi by telephone, they discuss the “reconquest of the verbal and physical territoriality in the final pages” of this book.

The Head. When Espinoza and Pelletier are sleeping in Norton's sitting room after she first started to consider sleeping with both of them, Espinoza pulls out this book and starts reviewing his marginal notes at 4:00 in the morning. Espinosa and Pelletier both felt that this was the last novel that Archimboldi would write, although that had been said also about Railroad Perfection and earlier about Bitzius. I find no other reference in 2666 to The Head.

Some miscellaneous notes:

Espinoza never translated Archimboldi or any other German author. [p. 8] However, in 1990 he received his doctorate in German literature with a dissertation on Benno von Archimboldi. [p. 8]

At a twentieth century German literary congress held in Maastricht in 1981, Pelletier delivered a paper titled “Heine and Archimboldi: Converging Paths,” and Espinoza delivered a paper titled “Ernst Jünger and Benno von Archimboldi: Diverging Paths.” [p. 10] (I include this note because I love the titles of the papers). Earlier, Espinoza had terminated all dealings with the “ Jüngerians” after feeling slighted by them. [p. 7]

In approximately 1993 Pelletier and Espinoza adhered to an interpretation of Archimboldi's works marked by a festive, Dyonisian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival). They also spoke of civic duty. Liz Norton supported this view. Leading the opposing group, Borchmeyer spoke humor, which Morini considered the height of gall. [p. 12]

In 1994 Pelletier presented a paper that focused on insularity, the rupture that divided Archimboldi from the German tradition but not the European tradition. [p. 15]

Espinoza read the Marquis de Sade in order to refute a paper by Pohl, one of Borchmeyer's allies that drew connections from Justine and Philosophy of the Boudoir to one of Archimboldi's novels of the 1950s [p. 44], Lethaea perhaps? That was the sexed up one.

15 February 2010

I would be more comfortable with the idea that The Part About Amalfitano is told from Amalfitano's point of view, rather than that he is the narrator. Occasionally, amid that narration we have the luxury of reading his own thoughts exactly as they occur to him and in the order they occur to him. But then, admittedly, my own comfort is beside the point.

Whatever, I get to the same point as Matt does but by a bit longer route. These interjections amid the quotations from Calvin Tomkins seem to me clearly to be Amalfitano's thoughts as he reconsiders the story as Tomkins told it. When he thinks that Duchamp was not just playing chess in Buenos Aires, he is initially admiring the conception of the wedding gift. Then when he considers that Duchamp himself really did not do anything but conceive the idea, he concludes that Duchamp was in fact only playing chess, but playing chess with pure ideas.

It is perfectly valid for us as readers to consider this experiment meaningless, just as Yvonne obviously so regarded all of Duchamp's “play-science” of that time. I have difficulty concluding that Amalfitano considered the experiment meaningless, however. If he did, why then did he himself hang out the Dieste book?

The answer to that question is that perhaps he did consider the experiment meaningless as he hung out the Dieste book. In which case it might simply have been only a gesture demonstrating his own growing doubts about the meaningfulness of his own identity, a professor of philosophy, a chess player playing with pure ideas.

Allotting one week to The Part About Amalfitano because it is the shortest part was an innocent mistake. It may be the shortest part, but it is by far the densest part.

For one addicted to the use of a Hi-Liter® as I am and speaking from my own experience, I suggest that one immediately highlight the whole thing, each and every word, and get that out of the way. Then throw the Hi-Liter® aside, and go back and read the thing all in yellow.

There are many who consider The Part About Amalfitano to be so much angst-ridden tripe. I am in no position to dispute that. I have read Dan's blunt appraisal of it, and I appreciated its honesty. I have read an initial reaction set out at iloveyousomething.com, wherein clearly, some of the right questions are asked.

Upon completion of the The Part About Amalfitano, a reader may have come to realize that this is not a novel that was written to entertain. Not in any sense of the word “entertain.” One feels a foreboding that it is going to get less and less entertaining for every single human being who reads it, male or female, parent or child, of every race, creed, or sexual orientation. For this reason the end of The Part About Amalfitano is the perfect place to make a thoughtful decision as to whether one truly wishes to press on.

The book constitutes an aggressive attack on each of our identities as human beings.

I do hope there can be an unguarded discussion of The Part About Amalfitano. I am obviously a complete fool for this part but would love to read the honest thoughts of others about it.

Marco Antonio Guerra, the young prophet, is my favorite character in the novel thus far. There is an honest thought for starters.