I let the book sit in my head for a while before writing about the last two sections because Bolano piles up a lot of fairly disparate material in the last two sections, and it’s not easy on first reading to get a sense of how effective the amalgamation is. After a purposefully soporific first part and a vital second part comes a brief and somewhat distracting interlude involving an American reporter named Fate, followed by the two final mammoth sections that make up most of the book, the first about the murders in Santa Teresa (a thinly veiled depiction of Ciudad Juarez), and the second a fairly complete telling of the life of Archimboldi, the mysterious and unseen writer that the dreary academics were pursuing in the first part.
The fourth section, the one about the murders, is the key to the book. I talked to people who had gotten bogged down in it, and I feared that it would be 300 pages of nonstop horror. It is, but Bolano structures it brilliantly. Multiple plot threads keep things moving and there is a small set of characters who provide the necessary continuity to what would otherwise be a series of dozens of female homicides with little connection to one another but for their misfortunes. We only meet these women in retrospect, and sometimes not even, if the police or reporters fail to discover any information about the bodies. It is implied there are many more murders that aren’t even discovered. Bolano resists any conspiracy theories or even hypotheses to explain the murder rate; some of the murders have obvious situational explanations, though most are seemingly random. The lack of explanation only makes the major point more clear, which is that hardly anyone cares. The local police, most of them corrupt and indifferent, a few of them earnest but impotent, go through their motions, there is occasional interest from outside the town, but over the ten years that are chronicled chronologically, month by month, there is never much change, no revelations, just the steady trickle of mostly unsolved, uninvestigated murders, and the novel’s steady intent to bear witness to them. The continuous series of graphic, clinical descriptions of the murders (most of them with evidence of rape) is horrific, and Bolano provides just enough narrative material to prevent it from becoming numbing. I think maintaining that reader response and interest is the main motive of the section, and by itself it stands as a real achievement.
There is one anomaly, which is Klaus Haas, a German-born American who gets arrested in connection with one of the murders and scapegoated for the rest of them. Fake evidence is concocted and he is imprisoned, though with his money and connections he manages to create a nice life for himself in the prison. The murders continue anyway, though no one seems to care enough to evaluate what this might mean. Still, he remains mysterious and sinister; we only see him from the outside. According to this useful essay, Haas is apparently based on Abdul Latif Sharif, though Sharif had a much nastier history than anything we find out about Haas. Bolano prefers to leave him as an enigma.
The literary influence who comes through in all of this is given by Bolano in the last section: Alfred Döblin. Döblin was the most “naturalistically” inclined of the Germanic modernists of the early 20th century, preferring to downplay the overt philosophy in favor of a panoramic and very immediate depiction of urban society. Bolano tends to bury his pure intellectual force, never talking about books or ideas for too long, and instead accumulating brute details in a similar way to Döblin. Hence, Haas is not a figure like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities, designed to take on great symbolic weight and social context. He’s just a figure of menace but also mystery, much more a force of nature than a force of humanity. He’s meant to confront rather than explain. And he can only be seen from the outside, which is the link he provides to the last section about Archimboldi. Which will have to wait until next time.