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Tag: 2666

Further Last Thoughts on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

The last section is about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer who the academics were chasing after way back at the start of the book, and who has not been of much significance since then. Bolano explicitly constructs the section as a linear Bildungsroman, or at least as a pastiche of one.

While the section eventually joins with the rest of the book, it is mostly self-sufficient. Archimboldi is born as a naif, grows up and has horrendous wartime experiences, then slowly becomes a writer. The section is solid if not overwhelming (unlike the penultimate section about the murders), and Archimboldi does give Bolano a nice but contrived mouthpiece for discoursing directly on literature. By this point the critics of the first section are long forgotten, and consequently the the contrast of Archimboldi’s life with their facile obsessions does not weigh too heavily on the writing.

I don’t want to say that much about this section other than to point out a movement that takes place toward its end. After Archimboldi has gone through most of the formative experiences of his life and has established himself as a writer, he disappears. His person is still there in the book, but the intimate introspection given into his mind for much of the section is drastically curtailed. He moves from being a subject to an opaque object, i.e., the object studied by the critics. And evidently this is where he is to stay.

What is meant by this movement? Bolano heavily uses reportage in his work, and when introspection is present, as in By Night and Chile and Amulet, it is carefully circumscribed so as not to overreach its place and time. I suspect that there is some criticism of introspection and psychology as being a luxurious distraction, something that draws our eyes away from things like the horrible murders of Santa Teresa. So Bolano’s abandonment/subversion of the Bildungsroman, where rather than coming to fruition, Archimboldi becomes a cipher, is Bolano’s proposal for how individuals turn into history, or how the mask of intimacy is removed so that inexplicable reality is faced. And this is the movement of the novel as a whole: 2666 is about removing the mask.

In conclusion? The novel is a major achievement, but I can’t call it a masterpiece. (Archimboldi’s somewhat incongruous speech beginning on page 785 rails against the hierarchy of masterpieces and minor works, so take the terms with a grain of salt.) Bolano’s intent was too focused on undermining the claims of the integrity and autonomy of literary work for his skills to work best in long form. By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth strike me as his best work, where the prose does not have to take on too much weight of undermining itself.

Still, self-abnegation at this scale is striking, and it seems to have successfully disoriented a number of his readers, including Ignacio Echevarria, who writes in his somewhat haughty afterword: “Although the five parts can be read independently, they not only share many elements (a subtle web of recurring motifs), they also serve a common end. There is no point attempting to justify the relatively ‘open’ structure that contains them.” Conveniently, he concludes no justification is necessary, alluding to subtle but apparently indisputable evidence without presenting it. This, too, is something that Bolano would not tolerate.

Last thoughts on Bolano’s 2666

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.

More Notes on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

(See part one.)

Even as the second part (about Amalfitano, a peripheral character in the first section) begins, Bolano is already undermining the first section. In the story of pharmacist/teacher/literary enthusiast Amalfitano, citizen of Santa Teresa and general sad sack, Bolano gives a richer, more detailed portrait of life than anything on hand in the first section, and the specters of the four characters and their bedroom athletics quickly disappear in favor of the muddy and depressing history of Amalfitano. His wife, as it turned out, ran away from him and their daughter years ago to pursue a silly Bohemian existence of the sort that the first section bloodlessly presented, and Bolano presents it as being about as meaningful. (When she returns years later, she observes that Amalfitano has changed, and Amalfitano observes that she has not. She mistakenly takes it as a compliment.)

When Amalfitano begins to go a bit insane, the literary knowledge in his head jumbles itself incoherently, attempting to find a meaningful form and failing. He reads a book about a bizarre paranormal conspiracy theory. He dreams.

Failure and inadequacy replace the indulgence of earlier, but Bolano, with full certitude, tries to elevate the material to the level of truth. There’s a hard-boiled attitude to Bolano’s repeated myth-busting and proclaiming of the failures of the literary project and its world. The problem with such an attitude is that its effectiveness lies in the vividness of the portrayal, not with the attitude itself, or else people would be reading E.M. Cioran rather than Dashiell Hammett. And Amalfitano himself, unglamorous and earnest, is what makes it vivid. When the fourth section (about the murders) rolls around and Bolano abandons most of the embellishments for a flat recounting of the facts, he is at his best.

What remains from the first section are not the scholars (who, in a rather obvious move by Bolano, ridiculed Amalfitano for being a literary neophyte), but the small affair that one of the scholars had with a local girl, Rebeca, whom he used and tossed away while nursing his own romantic wound. Now Rebeca is part of the real world and he is not, and her life and the danger she is in, with girls like her being murdered constantly, remain in the air long after the scholars have been forgotten.

Notes on Roberto Bolaño: 2666

Okay, let’s do this. Here’s the first sentence in the book:

An excerpt from “The Part About the Crimes” first appeared in Vice.

And with that preview, let’s begin. When I reviewed The Savage Detectives, I said that it was not Bolaño’s best or tightest work (I rate By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth as his best), so I was curious to see what he would do in his other large work. It’s told in pretty much the same sprawling, episodic manner as the earlier book, but at least in the first section, which I just finished, Bolaño sprawls within tight boundaries, detailing the quest of four scholars to locate the target of their studies, the mysterious writer Archimboldi. 160 pages later, after three of them have taken a long trip to Santa Teresa, Mexico, they have not found him.

Note that Bolaño is using a similar mechanism to the one of The Savage Detectives, in which the two poets central to the narrative (one of whom was Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s surrogate) never spoke for themselves during the major part of the book and were left only to be elucidated upon by a host of figures who had interacted with them over their lives. Here, though, Archimboldi remains wholly elusive, as Bolaño gives only tangential information on him and his work, using him as a MacGuffin for the drama that plays out between the scholars. The four of them, each of whom hails from a different country, are all seeking something in their obsessive search for the man, but whatever it is, it is subordinated to the quest narrative itself, and the romances that develop among the scholars.

So the Archimboldi mythology so far reads to me as a mostly generic mythology, except for the great specifics given to his supposed final location, Santa Teresa, where the hundreds of murders to be detailed later in the book (and partly in Vice) have already taken place. I connect this to the greater reality given to the first and last sections of The Savage Detectives, the parts narrated as a real story rather than as hearsay, and whose second part ends in Santa Teresa as sort of a culmination of a youthful poetic pilgrimage. And thus the first part of 2666 reads as a tentative return to a place outside the civilized world which Archimboldi has fled, a place that is more real or at least more alive as literature. When the scholars meet the less refined translator and Chilean exile Amalfitano in Santa Teresa, their priorities are summed up:

“Exile must be a terrible thing,” said Norton sympathetically.

“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”

“But exile,” said Pelletier,” is full of inconveniences of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important.”

“That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano.

So, onto the abolishing of fate. Following this section, which reads as prelude, the next part is about Amalfitano.

[One other thing: some people asked me why I thought Bolaño didn’t do female characters well, and now I cite Liz Norton in 2666 as evidence. She serves too much as a Deus ex machina, sleeping her way through the characters without ever becoming more than an enigmatic cipher. (Her somewhat interminable letter at the end of the section is weak and offers no explanations that elaborate on her character.) She reminds me of a similar woman-as-other character, La Maga in Hopscotch]

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