Friday, February 28, 2014


Photograph: Alex Bolton, 1969, National Library of Australia

Taking a break before heading into the final two parts of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, I read a work that had been on the periphery of my awareness for at least a couple of decades, and which I may be among the last people with an interest in literature to read: Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. To my surprise, it was Bolaño himself who provided the final encouragement; referring to it in Between Parentheses, he notes his admiration for the book (and subsequent film). Borges, Cervantes, Joyce,  Cortázar  – these I would expect from Roberto Bolaño, but 84, Charing Cross Road? Wasn’t that a sentimental work about a London bookseller?

A few pages into this all too short, charming creation, though, I could see its appeal to Bolaño, or to anyone; one would almost have to be a toad to dislike this book. Playing a wide register from hilarious to poignantly moving, 84, Charing Cross Road consists of 80 or so brief letters and cards exchanged between Hanff (a New York writer) and the staff of a London bookshop between 1949 and 1969, initially in an effort to obtain nice but affordable editions “impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.” One of Bolaño’s favorite tools, omission, gets employed throughout 84, Charing Cross Road, which relies heavily on the reader to fill in the gaps in the story it tells. These are not just chronological, though some stretch as long as two years. What the letters say, and especially what they don’t, convey a world far beyond these brief, epistolary communications, not only the domestic and professional lives of Hanff and her correspondents, and not only the world in flux in the decades following World War II, but also a moving evocation of distance and intimacy, of how even such minimal meeting between open, witty and generous minds can create enormous goodwill and lasting friendship. The book’s literariness would also clearly have appealed to Bolaño in its myriad references to works and authors, and, on Hanff’s part, a strength of opinion concerning literature as unfiltered and forceful, and as meticulous and playful, as that of Bolaño himself (I give Hanff an edge in charm and in ability to elicit gleeful laughter).

Bolaño also must surely have enjoyed Hanff’s evolving appreciation of fiction. Where in the beginning her wide reading interests, inspired by the scholar Arthur Quiller-Couch, tended towards essays, Bibles in Latin Vulgate, Samuel Pepys’ diary, John Donne’s sermons, dialogues by Walter Savage Landor, and a few love poems to get her through the spring (“No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can love without slobbering”), she admits a distaste for fiction (“i never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived”). But Hanff eventually finds a few novels she can appreciate, like Tristram Shandy and Pride and Prejudice (about which she notes, “I…went out of my mind”). 

Anyway, at the risk of spoiling such a splendid book with superfluous commentary, I’ll bring this to a close. In scarcely the amount of time it's taken you to read this post, you could have read Hanff's book, so forget everything I just wrote and go do that instead. I’ll just affirm here my unexpected and great appreciation for 84, Charing Cross Road (it has already secured a place on my favorite works read in 2014) and my delight in paying forward Bolaño’s recommendation.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

2666: The Part About Fate

If the transition from the first part of 2666 to the second raised an eyebrow in abandoning the chief figures of the first part, but lowered it in concentrating the geographical and topical focus more tightly to its ostensible core subject – the murders of hundreds of women in northern Mexico - then the third part initially seems, even given the many branching diversions of 2666, a surprising departure from the direction in which the novel has been heading. First the title – The Part About Fate - lops off the reader’s expectations when Fate is soon found to be not a broad philosophical concept (or rather, not just a broad philosophical concept), but a character’s nickname - an ironic one too, perhaps, since Fate is one of the few characters thus far in 2666 to exercise will with any degree of boldness and conviction. Then there is the situation: Oscar Fate - a.k.a. Quincy Williams - seems far removed from the novel’s previous elements, way off in Chester Himes territory (the nickname could form a nice triumvirate with Himes’ Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones): an African-American reporter for a small Harlem newspaper, bereft of his mother, in pain, and haunted by “ghosts.” One tenuous connection to the previous section is the first name Fate shares with Oscar Amalfitano, as well as distinct echoes of Amalfitano’s similar sense of being at the end of his rope. Fate is on his way to Detroit to interview a former Black Panther, Barry Seaman, modeled with a high degree of resemblance on Bobby Seale (though the section on Seaman is brief, it features one of the tours de force in Bolaño’s writing in 2666, a sermon that Seaman, having renounced violence, delivers at a local church).

Some 30 pages into The Part About Fate, though, the murders in Santa Teresa, intrude again in a peculiar, virus-like manner, via a TV news story that plays while Fate is sleeping, dreaming of an interview he’d once undertaken with a Black communist who’d ended the interview by giving him a copy of a book about the slave trade, which Fate, upon waking, purchases at a Detroit bookshop. For the third time in as many parts of 2666, Bolaño takes his principal characters and moves them, as though fated, pulled by the gravity of a black hole, into the vortex of Santa Teresa: Fate’s editor asks if he’ll go there to cover a boxing match. Even before Fate has crossed the border, he’s again touched by the murders: in a restaurant south of Tucson he overhears a conversation between a young man and a white-haired man (who’ll appear later in 2666 as the American criminologist and mystery writer Albert Kessler) regarding “careful” versus “sloppy” killers, with part of the dialogue elided by a diesel engine but, audible, an assurance that while establishing a pattern of behavior is harder with a sloppy killer, given “the means and the time, you can do anything.” The conversation becomes another of Bolaño’s unreal monologues (2666 is full of them), an all but impossible discourse hung upon the situation of a conversation (just as elsewhere Bolaño hangs such discourses on dreams, on books, or the rambling thoughts of the half-crazed). In this case, Kessler opines that in the 19th century, “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words,” that words “served [the] purpose” of closing eyes to “madness and cruelty,” and were “mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation.” As an example, he references the slave trade, the anonymous deaths of “twenty percent of the merchandise on each ship” going unnoticed in contrast to, say, a plantation owner who goes mad and kills his neighbor and wife, resulting in a frenzy of media attention. Here the TV report and Fate’s dream converge, as the reference has obvious relevance to the murders of Santa Teresa, unfolding on the periphery of the world’s attention, when paid any attention at all. The story of Fate also converges with the novel’s previous parts. And who better, perhaps, than an African-American man, might understand the kind of impunity that, as the reader will soon see in The Part About the Crimes, meets the multiplying horrors of the murders in Santa Teresa?

The very tangential nature of the murders awakens something in Fate when he arrives in Santa Teresa. A louche local reporter, Chucho Flores, notes that, “Every so often the numbers go up and it’s new again and the reporters talk about it. People talk about it too, and the story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and every body forgets about it and goes back to work.”  Fate, though, repulsed by such fatalism, finds the murders a far more worthy story than the absurd boxing mismatch he’s been sent to cover. His interest is spurred by two women: Guadalupe Roncal, a reporter from Mexico City assigned to the story who seeks Fate’s help, and Rosa Amalfitano, who reappears in a different perspective, seen in The Part About Fate not so much as the daughter who frets about her fretting father, but as a young girl out on the town. Fate finds her compellingly attractive, recognizing that she’s out of place amid bad elements like Chucho Flores, and he takes a bold, decisive action that ensures her safety, perhaps at the expense of his own.

Though The Part About Amalfitano led the reader to the edge of the red abyss of the murders, and Bolaño might have proceeded directly to The Part About the Crimes, The Part About Fate adds considerable context to the heavy, menacing atmosphere of Santa Teresa. The oppressive machismo culture of northern Mexico is explored and underscored through dismissive comments about women and homosexuals, by the celebration of violence in the boxing match, by a passive lack of concern regarding the murders in Santa Teresa, by the facility and sometimes outright hostility with which men treat women, as bluntly evident when Fate witnesses the brutal beating of a woman in a bar, accompanied by mocking derision, the obliviousness by some of Rosa’s companions, and an invisible arm that restrains him from taking action – at least temporarily.


In the previous two parts of 2666, a conceptual art piece has figured significantly in the narrative. Another, a “secret” film by Mexican director Roberto Rodriguez that may or may not be a snuff film, figures prominently in The Part About Fate, ending with the camera zooming in on a mirror, recalling Liz Norton’s mirror dream from the critics’ first night in Santa Teresa. Perhaps more potent, though, is a crude mural painted inside the oddly fortress-like, ominous house (with its strange, ominous bathroom – there are a lot of bathroom scenes in 2666) where Fate ends up the night of the boxing match, and where his act of defiance, a burst of violence intended to remove Rosa Amalfitano from danger, is unleashed. On a wall in the house is a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an image ubiquitous in Mexico; she’s already appeared in a similar mural seen by the critics in a Santa Teresa restaurant in The Part About the Critics and as part of a tattoo on a young man’s back earlier in The Part About Fate. But Fate notices something odd about the Virgin’s face here: one eye appears to be closed, defaced, a powerful suggestion of both the violence against women and of the diminished capacity of this religious icon to serve as a protectrice, or even witness, to Santa Teresa’s crimes, and of the cruel irony of such a figure being fetishized in the same house in which, we’re led to believe, such crimes may have taken place.

One of the key motifs in 2666 – seeing – has become even more pronounced in The Part About Fate (an entire thesis might be built on Bolaño’s use of sight, half-sight, blindness, dream visions, clairvoyance, and images in mirrors). If in the first part of 2666 the four critics represented a kind of blindness to the atrocity, and in the second part Amalfitano’s response was a kind of refuge in desperation that nonetheless kept an eye open to what was happening, then one might say The Part About Fate presents another response: active resistance, with both eyes open, to the crimes that will spill across the pages of the next part of 2666.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

2666: The Part About Amalfitano

In the first part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, four academics from different nations follow a rumor concerning the elusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi that leads them to the depressing border city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, epicenter of a series of savage murders of women. Bolaño now leaves behind Archimboldi and his four critics; the narrative becomes more close, confined, threatening, sowing increasingly ominous suggestions about the murders in this abyss of a city, such that even the sound of footsteps seem charged with dread.

Occupying the titular center of this second of five linked parts of 2666 is Oscar Amalfitano, introduced in the novel’s first part as another university professor and Archimboldi expert who has helped the scholars in their unsuccessful quest. The narrative here backs up several paces to the period of Amalfitano’s arrival in Santa Teresa, where, with his 17-year-old daughter Rosa, he inhabits a humble house, its small yard surrounded by concrete topped with jagged glass. His wife Lola, Rosa’s mother, has long ago decamped, pursuing, not unlike the young scholars, an obsession with a writer, a young poet more physically tangible than the mythological Archimboldi: Lola’s obsession is as much sexual as intellectual, to the point that she’s convinced she can cure the poet of his homosexuality.

Amalfitano shares with the critics a quality of internationalism; he’s Chilean and has lived in Argentina, Spain and now Mexico (several of these particulars, among others in this more personal, intimate section of the novel, he also shares with Bolaño himself, including an invested concern with Chile’s literary and cultural state, as emphasized when Amalfitano recalls a work of outrageously nationalistic, mythic fantasy involving Chile’s Araucanian origins). But Amalfitano presents a markedly different portrait of the academic. His interest in Archimboldi is admiring but “nothing like the adoration the critics felt for him.” Unlike the privileged Europeans, Amalfitano lives constrained by necessity, anxiety over his daughter in this city where so many young women have been murdered, and a suspicion that he may be going mad, especially given that he hears voices, or at least a voice, perhaps that of his father or grandfather (motif in 2666: whispers and disembodied voices). He inhabits a gritty reality and a sense of helplessness; among the more memorable sections of the The Part About Amalfitano is a resigned pause in the velocity of the narrative consisting entirely of the word “Help” followed by a period.

When Amalfitano is first introduced in The Part About the Critics, he presents to the Europeans a pathetic, baffling figure. Like thousands of Chileans under the Pinochet dictatorship, Amalfitano chose “the path of exile,” calling it “a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.” The puzzled Pelletier counters that “exile…is full of inconveniences, of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important,” to which Amalfitano, having escaped prison or worse, replies, “That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate.” The critics are equally uncomprehending of a monologue by Amalfitano concerning the place of the writer in Mexico, a fanciful but nonetheless cogent discourse on the writer’s responsibilities with regard to state power and concerning which Norton admits that she hasn’t understood a word, even when the monologue is replete with suggestions of the obliviousness of intellectuals:  “The roars keep coming from the opening of the mine and the intellectuals keep misinterpreting them.”

If the grimness and violence of the world seem at a remove to the critics, who have shrugged and blindly gone on about their lives even after participation in a violent act, Amalfitano, here at the end of his tether, nonetheless keeps an eye open. Ostensibly resigned and passive, he nevertheless maintains an awareness and even a kind of resistance, in his near madness spinning “idiosyncratic ideas…Make-believe ideas,” which serve to “turn a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility…[the ideas] turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.” Amalfitano makes a gesture, perhaps futile and absurd, but aimed squarely at the world’s incomprehensibility. Inexplicably finding among his books a work of geometry (written by a poet, no less), Amalfitano recreates a conceptual art piece, “Unhappy Readymade,” given by Marcel Duchamp to a couple as a wedding present with instructions to hang the book outside on a clothesline such that the wind can ruffle through its pages “to choose its own problems.”  An absurdity, the book nonetheless seems to Amalfitano “clearer, steadier, more reasonable” than anything he’s seen around Santa Teresa, which offers (like much of Bolaño’s text itself, one might argue) only “images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.”

Almost subconsciously, Amalfitano begins to draw geometric figures linking seeming random names of writers and philosophers, as though sown there by the wind, in an order Amalfitano himself cannot grasp. Bolaño has used puzzling graphic figures before – they appear in The Savage Detectives and in Antwerp – and they seem to represent, like the Duchamp’s ready-made, a kind of poetic grasping for comprehension that lies outside of language, or at least beyond one’s ability to articulate meaning, not that this should stop one from trying. One of these figures, with Harold Bloom and Allan Bloom located along a segment connecting an activist dead in Stalin’s camps with a Soviet ideologue “prepared to countenance any atrocity or crime,” leaves Amalfitano curious as to what seems “funny” about it. At once here’s an example of Bolaño’s use of omission, of encouraging readers to fill in the blanks, to involve them actively (it’s telling that Bolaño references Julio Cortazar’s “active reader” in this section) and of Bolano’s challenge to the reader to seek comprehensible patterns in seemingly disparate elements (not that they necessarily exist). The puzzle is tempting, and any number of “solutions” can be suggested. For example, someone might find it telling that Allan Bloom gets put to the right of Harold Bloom on this Likert scale running from resistance to countenance of atrocity, or maybe these two Blooms suggest another, perhaps the “carnivorous flower” of the sky above Santa Teresa, or maybe that of Archimboldi’s The Endless Rose, the book Amalfitano has translated (another motif in 2666: flower/bloom imagery). Maybe it’s that there’s no Bloomsbury, or maybe no Leopold Bloom. One could play like this all day, as there’s no shortage of games and humor in 2666. But as Amalfitano says to his daughter, there are “worse things happening” than a geometry book hanging on a cord. Heck, maybe what makes it “funny” is no Molly Bloom. A missing woman.

For in The Part About Amalfitano, Bolaño has begun, through Amalfitano’s general un-ease as well as his concern for his daughter, to dig down into the horror of missing and murdered women in Santa Teresa. The growing sense of dread is intensely palpable, especially aided by an awkward relationship Amalfitano can hardly evade, that with his Dean’s son, Marco Guerra, who approaches Amalfitano and strikes up a one-way relationship, and whose attitudes betray an unpleasant, even menacing aggression,  (Guerra’s attire bears a creepy resemblance to that worn by a man seen with one of the murdered girls before her disappearance, as described in journalist Teresa Rodriguez’s book about the murders, The Daughters of Juarez). And even in Amalfitano’s reading of the batty book about the telepathic Araucanians, which might have been but a thinly veiled, gratuitous diatribe by Bolaño concerning his own country, the relevance to the murders is evident: one element of the work that disturbs Amalfitano is a reference to ritual rape, and another is his conviction that the book could easily have been written by Pinochet himself, given its appeal to a notion of an all encompassing, collusive exertion of state power. As the section ends, Amalfitano’s meditations on the Araucanian book give way to sleep and dreams.  He dreams another uneasy and grasping flight of imagination, involving the absurd and even comical, since a vodka-swilling Boris Yeltsin makes an appearance. But the dream culminates with a hellish image: a crater “streaked with red or…a latrine streaked with red,” an abyss (neither the first nor the last gaping void in 2666), into which Amalfitano doesn’t dare to look, but from which, one may imagine, though any explicit suggestion of sound is omitted by Bolaño, that howls and roars are assuredly emerging.

The 2666 group read is sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos.