Oh MAN, this BOOK!!! It’s totally swallowed my February! Why am I even surprised?
I’m going to try to pick up with my randoms thoughts and scattered observations on where I left off, so focusing on Parts 3 through 5.
Part 3 – The Part About Fate
– So this is the part that follows the titular Fate, the African American journalist who travels to Santa Teresa initially to cover a boxing match but gets “caught up” (to say the least) in some local business that feels more than slightly ominous. Bolaño’s not wasting any time with us, opening the section with Where did it all begin? The nightmare. (231) Talk about a key question for the book as a whole… And how about a name like “Fate” for a journalist? I can’t tell if that’s the most Symbolically Loaded Thing in this book, or if the artist dying by falling into an abyss in Part 1 takes the cake. What does it mean that the journalist (so a figure of investigation and enquiry, another form of storyteller) has a name that refers to the predeterminations of events? To the fixed quality of the universe? To the idea that there’s order within chaos, to those Greek chicks who sat around weaving?
– There’s a strong motif of undetectable smells running throughout this section, like when Oscar catches a whiff of something icky in his mother’s apartment following her death, (236) or when he’s searching for signs of vomit in his hotel room but can’t find any (304), or his constant unexplainable nausea (I think there’s something wrong with my stomach). (269) Like there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, but we can’t find the source, can’t figure out what it is. It reminds me of the times that I have unwashed tupperware containers with sludgy lunch leftovers hidden somewhere within the depths of my room and I have to tear everything apart going crazy trying to find them. It adds to the sense of menace hanging over the book–there’s something bad in the background that we can’t see full-on, but we know it’s there, via tiny hints and faint whiffs.
– We also get another example of an Artist/Writer figure in this section to contrast with Archimboldi and the hand-chopper in Part 1. I’m referring, of course, to the character of Seaman, a former Black Panther party member who now delivers sermons from the pulpit that revolve heavily around his career as a cookbook writer (As you all know, said Seaman, pork chops saved my life). (250) I read a review somewhere online that compared this part to the sermon in Moby Dick, and although my “Moby Dick” memory is murky I must say that it sounds like a damn good theory (I mean his name is SEAMAN, of all things!!).
Apart from talking about his cookbook and giving us a yummy-sounding recipe for duck a l’orange, Seaman also says some things I found interesting about reading and writing. In a way, his approach to reading & writing is a strong contrast to the more academic/criticism-styled focus we saw in Parts 1 & 2 with the academics. “I went through books like they were barbecue,” Seaman says, describing the way he took up reading in jail. “This is my real contribution tonight. Reading is never a waste of time… I knew I was doing something useful. That was all that counted… Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas.” (255-256) It’s a decidedly different approach to reading than the one we get in Part 1, in which we’re told that for one of the critics, “reading was directly linked to pleasure, not to knowledge or enigmas or constructions or verbal labyrinths.” (9) I think the fact that Bolaño considers so many different approaches to reading or storytelling in this book indicates that it’s an important theme to him. Are these different approaches to reading meant to symbolize different approaches to gaining knowledge? The different ways in which we try to learn things and gain understanding, stop being so blind about the world? Do we want to know things for pleasure or utility?
– On that note about being blind, seeing is another BIG THEME in this book. Near the end of the section a female character says, We’re still alive because we haven’t seen anything and we don’t know anything. So seeing here is connected with knowledge in a very direct relationship–if it’s not represented/witnessed, it didn’t happen/doesn’t exist. To support this assumption, check out this heavy quote from page 266 (spoken by a prophet-like elderly white-haired Mexican man in a diner, in a conversation that Fate eavesdrops on after he first crosses the border):
In the nineteenth century… society tended to filter death through the 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… Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the 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. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks you might say invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil in us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Of course everything changes, but it’s not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. (266)
So words don’t necessarily lead to clarity.Words = closed eyes. And then that reference to history, to the Greeks–he seems to be saying that there’s been a CHANGE, a SHIFT, in the way we see things–in the way we see proofs and testimonies of evil. Uff, que fuerte. The white-haired prophet dinner guy also comments (while referring to historical atrocities and evil) that “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.” (267) So if writing is connected with truth-telling, testimony, verifying an experience, then if it can be written, it happened; if it can’t be written/described, it’s impossible. All this reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s essays and theories about modernity, about how the loss of tradition due to modernity leads to the loss of being able to articulate the meaning of our experiences (that is like my Freshman Year 101 Understanding of Benjamin that probably makes any knowledgeable PhD literature student raise their eyebrows and flare their nostrils like an all-knowing stallion).
These theme of words and storytelling and verification is especially interesting when you consider the fact that Fate is a JOURNALIST there to INVESTIGATE. But the story he has been sent to tell is something oh so very minor and trivial–a boxing match! And in his defense, when he tries proposing covering the story of the murders to his editor (the fight is just a little story, Fate says. What I’m proposing is so much more. A sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world, a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story, for fuck’s sake)….. his editor pretty much shoots him down (Reportage? Is that French, n*****? Since when do you speak French?). (294-295)
It’s also interesting that when we first hear about the killings in Fate’s section, it happens while he’s asleep and watching TV. So we, the readers, get to hear and witness the first mention of the main story directly, but he, the reporter, doesn’t. He’s a reporter who doesn’t/can’t report, who doesn’t see or witness. I wish I was a goddamn reporter, someone says to Fate at one point. You people don’t miss a thing. (318) But that’s where the parodic element of the story comes in–the reporter IS missing the main thing, the central story of the women’s murders. Even the reporters in Mexico see the story of the killings as something that keeps melting away, getting ignored: The story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and everybody forgets about it and goes back to work. (285-286) Interesting that we get a mention of the sun here–that classic metaphor for light, illumination, truth, knowledge. Man oh man.
No one pays attention to these killings, Fate thinks by the section’s end, but the secret of the world is hidden in them. (348)
Part 4- The Part About the Crimes
Ugh. Here we go.
“The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big. Some children playing in the lot found her and told their parents… The lot was bordered by Calle Peláez and Calle Hermanos Chacón and it ended in a ditch behind which rose the walls of an abandoned dairy in ruins. There was no one around, which at first made the policemen think it was a joke.” (353)
And so it begins. I talked a bit about the experience of reading Part 4 back when I first read 2666, five years ago (!). But it still gets me, man. This was still a slog to get through. As it’s intended to be.
“According to the autopsy, Esperanza Gómez Saldaña had been strangled to death. There was bruising on her chin and around her left eye. Severe bruising on her legs and rib cage. She had been vaginally and anally raped, probably more than once, since both orifices exhibited tears and abrasions, from which she had bled profusely.” (354)
This time around I noticed how certain phrases tend to accumulate. She didn’t have any identification on her. No one claimed the body. The case was soon closed. Some victims begin to show a trademark, such as bites and tears on the vulva and thighs, as if gnawed at by a street dog. (461) There are two forensic statements that gain a particularly hypnotic quality from the number of times they’re repeated: “One of her breasts was almost completely severed and the other was missing the nipple, which had been bitten off.” (464) “The cause of death was strangulation, with fracture of the hypoid bone.”
This constant cataloging (109 victims in total) creates a curious effect. It’s relentless. Numbing. Factual. Mundane. Tedious. Never-ending. Boring, even. Talk about Hannah Arendt’s infamous “the banality of evil.” It is a disarming and even upsetting experience to feel bored while reading descriptions of murdered young women (at least it was for me–there was something incongruous about it… God, reading about yet another corpse based on a real-life murder, someone who was an actual living breathing human being is SOOOO tedious!).
What are the implications that arise from Bolaño using this technique–from making us bored? This numbing, repetitive, mundane language? The cold camera-like gaze that makes me feel like I’m in a frigid laboratory?
I wonder if these sections are Bolaño’s attempts to represent without style–to narrate like a camera. The bodies are reduced to things, objects listed in an endless litany that never results in any kind of catharsis. Even the details that are specifically highlighted (as though they possess some kind of great meaning or importance for the case) never lead anywhere. It all accumulates into an ongoing list, a giant wall of white noise in which it becomes impossible to tell what is important and what isn’t.
Part 5- The Part About Archimboldi
This is probably the second-most intense section to read. I’m running out of gas here so I don’t know how much I have to say about it, but I’ll try. Probably what stood out most for me was the section narrated by the coldest stone-hearted bureaucrat since By Night in Chile, in which he describes the way he “deals” with hundreds of Greek Jews that mistakenly get sent to his town instead of Auschwitz. “Leave it alone,” he says. “Cover it up. Go dig somewhere else. Remember the idea isn’t to find things, it’s not to find them.” (764) This idea of concealment comes up again when another character says (speaking to Archimboldi, after selling him a typewriter), “Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.” (790) Is this a goal of the novel as a whole? (Wow, I initially wrote “hole” as a typo–guess the ABYSS is really GETTING TO ME.) To hide the crucifixion, the key event, in a wall of white noise made out of forensic language, duck a l’orange recipes and bibliographies of German writers?
Overall, it’s a clever move on Bolaño’s part, to juxtapose the horror of Juarez (oops, I mean Santa Teresa) with the horror of WWII. It’s like he’s making an overall statement about the nature of evil itself–something historical and ongoing, even if the particulars and specifics change.
God, this book. I seriously think the only other book that is maybe this intense is Moby Dick. Well, good thing I’m writing my dissertation on it and I get to spend loads more time reflecting on it…