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The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño

The opening finally takes its turn toward Mexico when the critics get word that Archimboldi was spotted there. For reasons no one can fathom, he told someone he was headed for Santa Teresa—yes, it’s roughly the same area where The Savage Detectives‘ Belano and Lima went to look for their mystery writer, and the area where that novel ended with its breath held in 1976. Two decades later, the city that the European critics (minus the less portable Italian) now visit in order to find Archimboldi has spread like an ooze. With its arcaded plaza, hotels, brothels, large swathes unlit at night, round-the-clock work sites, child craft vendors, Americans singing along to Willie Nelson, and a background trickle of dead bodies, which the critics are vaguely but not urgently aware of, the city so far refuses to yield a clue about Archimboldi.

The second section takes up the story of a resident of Santa Teresa, a Chilean literature professor named Amalfitano. The critics met him in part one and judged him a loser until they learned he once did an Archimboldi translation. It was published in 1974, he tells them, when he was living in Argentina. What was he doing in Argentina, they ask? Their blithe ignorance of what his situation as a Chilean might have been in 1974, in the year following Pinochet’s coup, sits on the page for an extra beat if we’re paying attention. Then Bolaño moves on.

This seems a key to his method: potent implications reside in unremarked details, like a hidden symbol in the mirror of a Mannerist painting. For his part, Professor Amalfitano strives to avoid self-pity. But he keeps hearing a jittery, homophobic voice in his head. He recalls an ex-wife from his years in Spain who was troubled by madness and later AIDS, and who left him to raise their daughter alone. Anxiously guarding his house under the big Sonoran sky, Amalfitano calls to mind a medieval squire, wanting but failing to protect the girl, Rosa, who has grown up so lovely she could be a secret princess.

We’re getting used by now to the provocations, the almost beatnik-throwdown quality to some of Bolaño’s weirder imagery. “The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain,” he writes. “It was also like an empty dance club.” We are settling into the rhythm of digressions—sometimes stunning, occasionally a stretch—and the brief flickerings of characters who then fall off the radar. So far we have had an aspiring thug who beats people in order to not appear gay; an anecdote of Marcel Duchamp in Argentina; a brilliant dissection of the Mexican writer’s compromised relationship to power; and two different visits to insane asylums, described in such a way that they seem surrounded by an aura of vibrating, possibly malignant energy.

The novel’s third section follows a black American journalist who goes by his pen name, Oscar Fate. (The name hints at the tone of this section, which does helpful, expository work to ground us in Santa Teresa, but feels at times both more pop and more “literary” than the rest.) After a sports reporter at his magazine dies, Fate gets pulled off the politics beat and sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prize fight. While there, though he personally seems like a square, he gets brought along to bars and druggy private party scenes, where he meets and decides to rescue Rosa. “This is a big city, a real city,” a chatty, ambiguous Mexican colleague has told Fate. “We have everything. Factories, maquiladoras, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico, a cocaine cartel, a constant flow of workers. There’s just one thing we haven’t got…time.”

Fate’s story has brought us closer to the feeling of danger. In the fourth section of 2666, we plunge into dread and numbness, tallying the bodies of women and girls who have run out of time. Much of the language in this section maintains the neutral tone of a report, with angry ironies noted beneath the surface. Bodies are described as stabbed or strangled or shot or burned, often raped in multiple places, sometimes mutilated; found on desert roads or schoolgrounds, in alleys and hills and a dump that catches fire and poisons the scuttling poor who scavenge from it (a place pointedly named by Bolaño “El Chile”). Page after page, the bodies keep showing up at the rough pace of one or two, sometimes three a month.

With his skill at letting small details and their implications work in our minds, Bolaño allows us to start to map out for ourselves the larger social pattern. From descriptions, we could probably sketch the city of Santa Teresa, quadrant by quadrant, from upscale condos to sports fields to bus stops and shacks by a makeshift latrine. Factories beckon migrants from all over Mexico to work, but offer no transport home at night beyond long, solitary walks in the dark. A creepy German national—whose height and blond fairness give him, in the Mexican context, a rather monstrous aspect—is held on suspicion of murder. The worst police seem wired to power; the better police are under pressure to nab a suspect—and the crimes go on. Fascinatingly, the United States appears as a part of characters’ remembered visits; a Mexican-American sheriff from Arizona crosses over to find out what happened to a blue-collar woman from his town. But the United States’s relationship to the drug trade and the history of the assembly plants are not explored directly or at length. Instead of belaboring the obvious, Bolaño seems to have chosen the challenge of representing something pervasive.

One key to Bolaño’s more idiosyncratic take on history seems to be a young, green police recruit named Lalo Cura. (The last name means “priest”; spoken quickly in Spanish, the entire name sounds like the Spanish word for crazy.) Lalo was still a child when he was plucked from an orphanage and pressed into service as the guard to a pampered wife of a rich man, who he later realizes is a narco; after a while in that job he is then placed in the police force as a detective trainee. It is an episode that somehow feels part of a history bigger than northern Mexico’s. Powerful institutions of the day, scooping rootless youth into their fold: if this were the year 1300, Lalo might well be a monk.

Lalo feels like a freighted child of history in still other respects. In The Savage Detectives, the kids traveling to Santa Teresa were fascinated to learn that Belgians had come through the region in the 1860s. They were monarchists, following Carlota of Belgium and the Hapsburg Maximilian in their misbegotten attempt to set up a Mexican empire. Instead, several of the Belgians were captured and beheaded—an omen of the region’s future as a hotbed of assassination. In 2666, we learn that Lalo’s ancestor was raped by one such Belgian (though the child later died). For a real mindbender, it is even suggested in passing that Lalo’s conception in the mid-1970s dates to the time when a certain pair of young men from Mexico City passed through—could they have been our poets?—and made love to a local girl.

Randomness and consequence competing for control over history, the struggle of the individual to survive with a functioning ethics: the themes carry over into the final section, in which the life of the writer Archimboldi is revealed—not to the first part’s critics, who have vanished, but for our eyes only. His real name is Hans Reiter. We follow him from birth (when he looks like “a strand of seaweed”) to World War II service in the German army from Normandy east to the Crimea. He discovers the journals of a Ukrainian-Jewish poet (from these he learns of the organic, bizarrely proliferative fruit-and-vegetable portraits of the Renaissance painter Arcimboldo). The name Hans Reiter belonged in history to a notorious Nazi doctor; but in the novel, while a POW, this Reiter murders a man who cravenly sent Jews to die and has the nerve to pity himself. Eventually he finds his calling to write fiction. The range of sexual episodes and violent fates multiplies. The prose is moving again, which is a relief to our nerves. What Reiter’s fiction is actually like to read remains opaque, as does his personality. In a way he is a man of action: he survives, observes, and chooses: to stay with his frail wife, to live a writer’s life, to ruthlessly eschew fame.

Out of the desert we have moved into a new world of symbols, from the dense forest to the cold seabed. In a novel already filled with departures, a loving portrait of Reiter’s editor (said by the translator Natasha Wimmer to reflect Bolaño’s gratitude to his Spanish editor) and the dwelled-upon death of Reiter’s wife suddenly begin to haunt us. We remember an earlier scene. The young character Rosa crosses the border into the United States with Oscar Fate. Spontaneously moved, she looks behind her, saying of her time in Mexico and of Mexicans that they 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…. I’ll miss my father and I’ll miss the people.

We can’t help but wonder what it was like for Bolaño, cataloguing his affections.

Bolaño’s vision is fierce, not total. Technology, various kinds of intimacy, and levity as opposed to satire don’t have much of a place here. Bolaño’s sexual staging can feel like a lecture; his women can seem larger or smaller than life.

Still, Bolaño gives us an idea of something like moral nobility. We hear it in the words of the old-lady Indian seer Florita Almada, possessor of common-sense recipes for high blood pressure, and apprehender of danger. In her harsh decades of self-teaching, Florita has come to understand how “every hundred feet the world changes.” She has faced down boredom and self-pity—two of Bolaño’s main enemies, and come up with a code:

If it was true that all effort led to a vast abyss, she had two recommendations to begin with, first, not to cheat people, and, second, to treat them properly. Beyond that, there was room for discussion.

We see it in people who strive to keep children from harm, and who keep their heads amid tribulation. In Santa Teresa, we see the mother of a little girl not insignificantly named Penelope, whose father departed for the United States. The mother has given up waiting to hear from him and taken charge of the family. When her older daughter is threatened with rape by a neighbor, she does what she needs to protect her:

But by this point she didn’t trust the word of men and she worked hard and put in overtime and even sold sandwiches to her own coworkers at lunch until she had enough money to rent a little house in Colonia Veracruz, which was farther from Interzone than the shack by the trench, but it was a real little house, with two rooms, sturdy walls, a door that could be locked. She didn’t mind having to walk twenty minutes longer each morning. In fact, she almost sang as she walked. She didn’t mind spending nights without sleeping, working two shifts back to back, or staying up until two in the morning in the kitchen when she had to leave for the factory at six, making the chile-spiked sandwiches her fellow workers would eat the next day. In fact, the physical effort filled her with energy, her exhaustion was transformed into vivacity and grace, the days were long, slow, and the world (perceived as an endless shipwreck) showed her its brightest face….

The older daughter is protected. The mother can’t know that her eleven-year-old will soon leave school and vanish. Penelope may have been seen getting into a car with tinted windows; she is eventually found in a drainage pipe, dead not from the hands that strangled her but a heart attack induced by terror. The mother has failed in the only way that matters to her. Yet she made every effort.

Near the end of the novel, we learn the reason Reiter is headed for Mexico. And then he is gone. Instead of completion we have the physical sense of being in the presence of a confounding object, which we are not yet done investigating. For a while yet, our brain feels rewired for multiplicity. This is not just a cultural or geographical question, though if 2666 contains a lesson it is that people are always from some confluence of factors more bizarre than a country. And it goes deeper than the question of multiple voices. We have eavesdropped on characters and then felt ourselves in the funny, sad, and dangerous process of needing and making meaning. Since there is no logical endpoint, we close with an image from the novel that is out of time. A world of “endless shipwreck,” but met with the most radiant effort. It’s as good a way as any to describe Bolaño and his overwhelming book.


Bolaño & Drugs January 15, 2009

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