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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]

Roberto Bolaño: Amulet

Several people asked me why, in my review of The Savage Detectives, I thought that Auxilio Lacouture was not given a convincing female voice. I didn’t know exactly why, but something about her tough talk seemed too schematic to me, as though Bolaño’s women tended to fall into the categories of wispy crazies or hard-nosed butches. So I hoped to give it some more thought with the very short Amulet, which was written a few years after Detectives and is entirely in Auxilio’s voice.

What I found, though, is that it’s less of an issue here. Amulet, far from delving more deeply into the real horror of the toothless, bitter Auxilio’s two weeks trapped in a Mexican university bathroom while the army occupies the campus, is more ruminative and abstract than her visceral narrative in Detectives. And it reads as a less gendered narrative to me, by which I mean it doesn’t seem to exist in a social space where gender is such a dominant constitutive element. (In contrast, the sex-laden Detectives puts gender front and center.) So while it doesn’t help me figure out the Auxilio of Detectives, it does clarify some of Bolaño’s thematic obsessions.

Amulet draws a much more explicit line between Auxilio and Bolaño’s fictional stand-in Arturo Belano. Belano/Bolaño goes to Chile as a teenager to help “build socialism,” but Pinochet’s coup results in his imprisonment. This event is only mentioned as hearsay in Detectives and Amulet, but Auxilio is quicker to connect the dots in the latter:

What I mean is that Although he was the same Arturo, deep down something had changed or grown, or changed and grown at the same time. What I mean is that people, his friends, began to see him differently, although he was the same as ever. What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.

And yet Auxilio, who has been through hell herself, doesn’t feel any closer to him; she is just as alienated from him, whom she calls “a child of the sewers,” as his other friends. This is vividly demonstrated in an entertaining sequence where they both track down the dangerous “King of the Rent Boys” in the slums and Belano rather effectively threatens him into releasing his claim on one of their friends. This is the only real narrative episode in the novel, and by the end Auxilio has descended into her own personal nightmare of mythology and history. She says:

I felt as though I was being wheeled into an operating room. I thought: I am in the women’s bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left. I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the birth of History. And since I’m not a complete idiot, I also thought: It’s over now, the riot police have left the university, the students have died at Tlatelolco, the university has opened again, but I’m still shut up in the fourth-floor bathroom, as if after all my scratching at the moonlit tiles a door had opened, but not the portal of sadness in the continuum of Time.

This is a strange passage, and on its own it’s more striking than anything in The Savage Detectives. And it gives us, I think, Bolaño’s version of historical trauma. We are given, in his works, descriptions of horrific political events experienced on the personal level. They are presented in a more or less opaque fashion. They do not, as one would think, create a shared sense of community and identity, but instead they act as a cleavage of language and self from others. Belano’s poetry, it is implied, becomes so private that it would be useless to share it. (This is, perhaps, Bolaño’s explanation for his own turn to fiction.) Auxilio and Belano do not come together despite having endured similar traumas; Auxilio’s role as the “mother of Mexican poetry” is wholly spiritual, because poetry has become private. Auxilio describes the door that opens to her only negatively: one that is not sad, one that is not in Time, and presumably the same one that Arturo Belano disappears into in Liberia at the end of The Savage Detectives. We only suffer alone and cannot explain.

Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives

Q: You are Chilean, Spanish or Mexican?

A: I am Latin American.

(Roberto Bolaño)

This is a long book–too long, in fact–but it makes its point. Bolano, who died a few years back as a consequence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and assorted other consequences of extreme living (read the New Yorker profile of Bolaño for an overview), wrote a lot of short books and two very long books, including this one. And not only does it play at being autobiography, but also at a bildungsroman, as it follows “Arturo Belano” and his friend Ulises Lima from Mexico to Europe to Africa. But given Bolaño’s life, it reads as the only bildungsroman he could have written: a paean to the costs and benefits of never growing up. The bildung is entirely ironic, or negative.

The setup, in the words of James Wood:

“The Savage Detectives” was published in 1998, but its heart belongs to the Mexico City of the mid-1970s, when Bolaño was an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas. Like much of his work, the novel is craftily autobiographical. Its first section is narrated in the form of a diary, by a 17-year-old poet named Juan García Madero who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join a gang of literary guerillas who have named themselves the “visceral realists.” The group is led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wild duo who appear elsewhere in Bolaño’s work (in “Amulet,” for instance). Lima is based on one of Bolaño’s friends, the poet Mario Santiago, and Belano is based on … Bolaño.

Yet for this scenario, there isn’t a lot of literature in the book. Much of the so-called literary discussion is nothing more than trivialities, like Garcia Madero quizzing his friends on obscure poetic terms, and so-called “visceral realism” is, it is made clear, a mere platform for attacking the many betes noires of Lima and Belano (and Bolaño), particularly Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. Bolaño never slips: the book is entirely committed to showing literature as a lifestyle and not as an artwork, and what it extracts.

Much has been made of the book’s structure, and justifiably so. It is sandwich-shaped, with two shorter bookends taking place in 1975 and 1976 of the diaries of Juan Garcia Madero, and the main section narrating events episodically from 1977 to 1996 with intermittent flashbacks to 1976. The first section shows most of the benefits of the characters’ lifestyle, and it is not without some irritation that I read through one hundred pages of Juan sleeping his way through his fellow women poets and talking big with his fellow male poets. This irritation is intentional, because when things of consequence start happening, they are exactly the product of the sort of indulgent childish lives of wastedness that the visceral realists have been living. The rest of the book details the costs.

Even in that first part, we don’t forget that they are children: the visceral realists are people in their late teens and early 20s. Even Belano, who was imprisoned by Pinochet’s government in Chile after the coup before returning to Mexico, treats his experiences in the detached, solipsistic way a writer would: his politics are vague and more visceral than intellectual. The Chilean experience is only alluded to, while the book slides into a soap opera plot about Belano, Lima, and Garcia Madero going on the run with a girl trying to escape from her murderous thug boyfriend. If this sounds dissonant in summary, it doesn’t on the page, but it is terribly disconcerting, when the soap opera seems more real than Allende and Pinochet. So it is with adolescents. Bolaño hardly shied away from political topics, embracing them explicitly in works like By Night in Chile, but here he intentionally resists them because they are at odds with his characters and subject matter, and this is part of the tragedy he is trying to convey.

We return to the soap opera of 1976 at the book’s end, after having seen Belano disappear into civil war Liberia after nearly getting killed there, having stopped drinking due to a liver ailment that has doomed him to an early death (as one did Bolaño, killing him in 2003). Yet there hasn’t even been a progression during the middle section, and this is significant. Scenes from 1976 keep acting as a magnetic attractor as the other recollections move forward in time, arresting any sense of forward progression. Since the middle section of the sandwich is so diffuse, containing recollections from dozens of characters who never recur, many of who only had the most tangential interactions with Belano and Lima, no robust narrative emerges as a counterweight to Garcia Madero’s diary, and Garcia Madero himself is definitively absent from the middle section. The overall sense is that indeed, all of these characters’ lives ended in 1976, as Garcia Madero’s seems to have, and what is playing out afterwards in the middle section is a kind of afterlife purgatory of the sort Alasdair Gray brilliantly portrayed in the last two books of Lanark: a purgatory in which the characters wander lost without development. It is in this way, and no other that I can find, that the book makes sense, and a fatalistic, depressing sense indeed.

There are moments in the book–only moments–where the priorities change. The first is the horrific story of Auxilio Lacouture who hides in a bathroom for almost two weeks while the Mexican Army occupies her university in 1968 (she recounts this in late 1976 in the forward timestream of the book). She proclaims herself “the mother of Mexican poetry.” In the language of the book, this means that she, like Garcia Madero, disappears completely after 1976. Bolaño does not call attention to her disappearance, but it is crucial for the narrative that she vanish from the book: she represents the mother of all that is damaged and cannot survive. (It is at this crucial episode, however, that Bolaño’s writing falters, as Auxilio talks like a man, as happens with many of his most significant female characters.)

The other moment is the Liberian civil war, and it must be there that Belano vanishes, because it is there that his childhood truly runs out, as he seems to be faced with something he cannot comprehend.

And yet, Bolaño has stacked the deck, for Belano gets divorced and does not have children; Bolaño remained married and had two children. Belano lives on alone, near-suicidal in his excursions. Bolaño escaped, but for the sake of the narrative of Latin American and Latin America’s writers, Belano is sacrificed. The pathos is complete.

I am not in love with Bolaño in the way that Matthew details in his entry on Bolaño. As the work of a man who was racing against time to produce something urgent and vital, it is appropriately striking and direct. But The Savage Detectives, for all its careful construction, doesn’t quite have the juice to justify its conceit: Bolaño doesn’t quite manage to complete the circle to link Belano’s adventures in Liberia to the final 1976 episode with Garcia Madero. And the very end of the book, rather than making excuses, appears to acknowledge exactly that incompletion. Bolaño proclaims the imperfection of his work, and implies that perfection has gone to death with all his young characters. While not a satisfying ending, it is one I accept.

David Grossman: See Under: Love

This is a big book, and when I say big, I don’t mean in page count. It’s a modest 450 pages, but the scope of what Grossman tries to do here dwarfs longer works like Dostoevsky’s lesser works, Christina Stead’s novels, and even things like Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It is, I suppose, the sheer outsizedness of Grossman’s ambitions that renders See Under: Love simultaneously awe-inspiring and messy. Things like that have been said about other modern bookss like The Tin Drum and far too many Latin American novels (where outsized ambition is a stereotype, despite the meticulous focus of authors like Borges and Rulfo), but Grossman’s book is unique as far as I know in bringing the aggressiveness to a resolutely abstract peak. A noted expert on Israeli literature tells me that the book had a massive impact when first published in Israel in the mid-80s, because unlike the strict narratives of authors like Wiesel and Appelfeld, Grossman’s approach was out to contextualize the Holocaust in language and literature.

The book is divided strictly into four parts which are only loosely connected. Characters reappear between them, but in drastically different form. The main character is a child (third person) in the first section and an adult (first person) in the second, then recedes to a background third person narrator in the third section before disappearing altogether in the last. Maybe it will make more sense if I describe each segment:

1. Momik: A child, Momik, grows up in Israel in the 50s, born to Holocaust survivor parents. His parents will not speak about what they call “Over There,” and Momik comes to wonder about what he calls the Nazi Beast. He knows it’s present, but he senses it ignores him because he is not truly a Jew; a Jew is one who knows the story of “Over There.” He plots to take his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, another surivor, into the cellar of his house to lure the Beast into showing itself. His grandfather tells him enough to send him into paroxysms of fear, from which he does not fully recover. Then his grandfather disappears.

2. Bruno: Momik is now an adult writer in the early 80s, and he’s fairly obsessed with Polish writer Bruno Schulz, a half-mystical, half-imagistic Jew who was shot during the war by an SS man. In “The Mythologization of Reality”, Schulz wrote:

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

And likewise, Grossman presents a fantasia on Schulz’s life that ends with him not being shot, but escaping into the waters, where he communes with the fish. Momik eventually meets up with him, and Schulz takes him to a new world of a new language, one without violence, without the idea of violence. But it’s not what one would expect…

3. Wasserman: Momik is reconstructing a life of his grandfather, who in earlier years was the author of lovable juvenile adventure stories featuring the “Children of the Heart.” Wasserman comes to the camps, and the Nazis find that he cannot be killed; a direct bullet to the head doesn’t do it. They bring him to the camp commandant, Neigel, who makes a deal with Wasserman: Wasserman will tell him new stories, Scheherezade-style, of the Children of the Heart, and for each story, Neigel will attempt to kill Wasserman. So amidst mass death, Wasserman reinvents the Children of the Heart in the present day, in alternately nightmarish and surreal situations. Of particular interest, though not described here, is their parentage of a child named Kazik.

4. The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life: Structured as an alphabetical concordance, though not arbitrarily (there is some structural linearity to reading it from beginning to end), this section interweaves revelations about Kazik and the Wasserman/Neigel situation. Kazik, it turns out, is a child who lived an entire human life in less than 24 hours, whom the Children of the Heart prayed would “know nothing of war.” He grows up, has sex, takes a trip, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Neigel’s wife leaves him, even though he had been attempting to use Wasserman’s stories, unattributed, to draw her back to him. Neigel too commits suicide. Wasserman lives.

There’s more, much, much more. Especially in the last section, Grossman throws out ideas and images so quickly that there is simply too much of an overload to assemble them into a conceptual structure for the book. I suspect this was consciously intended, for it fits with the themes of the book for the beautiful, focused prose of the first two sections (“Bruno” in particular is viscerally moving) to become more abstract and more incoherent as the subject matter comes to inhabit the Holocaust. It is a strange book where an underwater fantasy adventure with Bruno Schulz is more concrete than scenes in a concentration camp, but that is one of Grossman’s most distinctive achievements.

Four words to describe the novel: violence, love, language, memory. In the same way that Momik, in the first section, is alienated by his lack of memory of “Over There,” Kazik suffers in his lack of knowledge of war. The middle two sections, in turn, show language to be, inseparably, an equal conduit for love and violence. This is an absurd reduction of the novel, but since Grossman is very cagey about giving the reader any one place to start, and effectively gives the reader no place to end (the encyclopedia runs out of alphabetical entries, but that is hardly an ending), I constructed my own, and that is it.

To be continued…

Update: The aforementioned expert, Adriana, corrects me for misquoting her:

But the point that I was making when we talked (while measuring flour for a [sugar-free] peach cobbler) had to do specifically with the novel’s reception in Israel and how it compared to the Holocaust narrative of another Israeli author. Wiesel did not factor in that particular comparison. What distinguished See Under: Love was that Grossman was not a Holocaust survivor, and his novel attempted to imagine the Holocaust from the perspective of the second-generation, particularly (and this is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel) the Israeli second-generation.

I admit full culpability for adding Wiesel to the equation, but the first-generation/second-generation distinction (which, to the best of my knowledge, I would agree is keenly apparent in the book) is not all that she mentioned. She also described the reception as also centered around the somewhat shocking experimentalism of the book in dealing with the Holocaust material, as well as its overt anti-narrative tendencies. While Appelfeld uses clearly allegorical and synecdochal techniques, his novels are fundamentally realistic and linear. Adriana says:

Appelfeld skillfully exploits the conventions of realism to create narratives that are deeply concerned with language, history, memory and the looming threat of their breakage.

But I would inquire further as to the difference between a novel that obeys the conventions of realism and a novel that is realistic. (What can realism be besides a convention?) I would point out as an ironic example Appelfeld’s novel The Immortal Bartfuss, where the titular adjective is used to denote his survival; meanwhile, Grossman imagines a truly immortal character in See Under: Love. This is not to deny Appelfeld’s stunning use of narrative ellipsis or his undermining of narrative expectation, but he inhabits realistic techniques thoroughly enough that I am willing to draw a line between him and Grossman. I would also ask where Amos Oz figures in this, since he falls in age between the two authors, and seems to stick to the realist paradigm. Even when uses an epistolary format in Black Box, the story remains quite linear and explicit.

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