. . . 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.

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.