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By Request

(My first double dactyl.
Be kind, Zombie friends!)

Calculus schmalculus,
2666
Features a battered ge-
Ometry text,

Plus much unpleasantness.
Uberjudiciously,
Leave it at that. Now who’s
Up for what’s next?

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I’m Not Dead Yet!

I know Daryl has wiped his hands clean of 2666, and I know I’ve been absent for about a month now, but I wanted to pipe up one last time on that group read before moving on to Moby-Dick. First of all, an apology: I committed myself to this thing and then it eventually got squeezed right out of my week, time and again. I’m sorry for having vanished on y’all.

A couple excuses. The prosaic one is that I simply ran out of time. Let me tell you this sincerely, and may you believe and remember it: The U.S. Census Bureau gets your money’s worth from its employees. (If you read here at Infinite Zombies from someplace beyond our polluted and too-often discouraging U.S. American shores, I’m sure it’s the same by you, mutatis mutandis.) I’m grateful for the employment, but it has pulped me these past weeks, and the 2666 group read was unfortunately not among the residua. I did keep reading, though; I kept my word that far.

Which leads to my next excuse, which is that I simply lost the spirit to continue coming up with narrow, somewhat technical topics to write on. That was about the only tactic that allowed me to grapple with the book—describing only the tail or foot or trunk, willfully blind, leaving the whole elephant studiously ignored in the middle of the room. As I began the Part About Archimboldi, I thought I might finally have a chance to open myself up some to the book. The writing was stylistically…on purpose, there was a plot of sorts, and the deliberate torment seemed to have run its course.

Then came that faggot sea urchin, and I thought to myself, In the context of Nazi Germany—where gay people also were rounded up, sent to work-and-torture camps, forced to wear badges to identify just which kind of disfavored non-citizen they were, and shot when they finally outlived their usefulness to the state—couldn’t Bolaño have laid off that “faggot” shit for a couple hundred pages? But we’ve hashed out the homophobia in this book as well as I think we’re going to, here (although surely the maricón-doesn’t-mean-it-that-way defense is vitiated in a setting outside of Latin America), so I read on. Then came a crucifixion. And then alcoholic children forced to massacre Jews because the grown-ups had killed themselves sick.

I mean really.

And I just couldn’t make myself make time to write about it. Here I admit it: This book defeated me. There were many pleasures in the Part About Archimboldi, perhaps particularly by contrast to what preceded it. But after all that, and with the delicious spice of still more unpredictable brutality with no purpose that revealed itself even to informed investigation, I ran out of things to say. I read to the end, was occasionally moved, and then closed the book with a sigh of relief.

If I even keep it, I doubt I’ll open it again. I’m grateful for the experience of having read it with everyone who participated, I was privileged to read some truly amazing thoughts on the book, and I made some new Internet friends, and that was worth all the rest. But reread 2666? I can’t imagine why I’d ever want to.

(Moby-Dick, on the other hand, I’m raring for.)

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Food and the End of the Road

Several times in 2666, we see strange, somehow disjunctive scenes that form themselves around food. Early on, we have Morini reading an old cookbook (which Maria wrote about). This takes place alongside a discussion of catch phrases and jokes emblazoned on mugs, and how the man who used to work at the mug place was saddened by a change in the composition of the phrases.

Later, we have Barry Seaman giving his lecture partially about food while pushing his barbecue cookbook. How much profundity there is in Seaman’s lecture is up for debate (some seem to read Seaman straight; others take him to be something of a clown), but there is, at any rate, what seems to be an attempt to link profundity with appetite (or with satisfaction thereof).

Next we have Kessler and his associate overheard in a diner during the part about Fate. This discussion of people at the edge of society is one I’ve come back to a number of times. I think the topic is central to much of what Bolaño is doing in 2666.

And finally, here at the end, we have Archimboldi talking the merits of ice cream vs. ices with a descendant of the man for whom a certain type of German ice cream (basically Neapolitan) is named. The treat’s namesake might have been remembered for any number of other accomplishments, but his name is remembered for its association with ice cream. Certain statements the descendant makes about his forebear one can imagine Bolaño hoping might one day be used in his own honor. It’s interesting to note that Morini’s encounter and his reading of recipe names occurred in the Italian Gardens and that Pückler of ice cream fame was considered something of an artist of a landscape gardner, and he spent some time in Italy.

I find myself wishing now that I had thought earlier in the book to make a more complete catalog of the consumption of food. In addition to these examples, there are of course Arcimboldo’s paintings that compose portraits out of pieces of fruit and other viands. There are a number of references to cannibalism and vampirism. Surely there are others, and perhaps someone with the stamina to read this thing yet again (twice in two years will tide me over for a while) will find more to the food motif (if it can be called that). I can’t say much more about it but that it stood out to me here at the end.

Ah, and the end. Anti-climactic, no? Maybe a little disappointing. We do confirm that Archimboldi makes his way to Santa Teresa, so there is at least a little closure.

I’ve enjoyed this group read but am glad it’s over. Onward!

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Dismemberment

A couple of months ago, I wrote about disembodiment. Tonight, I’ll give brief consideration to dismemberment, of which there is no shortage in 2666 without even counting all the severed nipples in the fourth part. First, a brief list taken from this week’s reading (some of these aren’t dismemberment precisely, but they’re disfigurings, at any rate, or catastrophic disabilities):

  • Reiter is shot in the throat and loses his voice for a while.
  • Ansky meets a soldier missing an eye and an arm (709)
  • A hunter is described whose sex organs have been torn off. He goes searching for them until at last he marries, at which point, having aged thirty years after being unmanned, he ages in reverse to get the thirty years back. Is there something of the Actaeon myth here?
  • There’s a curious episode with some indigenous people whom the Europeans believe to be cannibals but who actually take the European habit of shaking hands and making eye-contact to be a sort of threat of soul-rape. This isn’t exactly dismemberment, but gosh there sure does seem to be a threat of it, and it just feels related to me.
  • Reiter returns to his war buddies to find that Kruse now speaks as if he’s been castrated (738)
  • Reiter’s mother is blind in one eye.
  • Reiter’s father lost a leg and has some interaction with a sergeant who has also lost a leg.
  • Here’s a real stretch: There’s lots of talk of masturbation in this week’s reading. Can masturbation be construed to be a sort of almost imagined dismemberment of another person?

Some dismemberment  is to be expected, I suppose. It’s war time during this section, after all.

Still, some other body-wholeness or health issues occur to me.

Bolaño was dying as he wrote 2666 and in fact didn’t actually finish writing and editing the book (there’s supposedly a sixth part floating around somewhere). His terminal illness surely must have informed some of his impressions about death. Can it also have led him to focus on body/health issues, or do you suppose that was part of his project to begin with?

Bolaño writes a bit about art and body as well. We can’t forget Edwin Johns and his lost hand, of course, and what to me remains an open question regarding his real motivation for chopping off his hand. And then there’s Archimboldi’s namesake, Arcimboldo, about whom I wrote earlier with an eye toward the critics as a sort of composite character. As Arcimboldo composes some of his pictures as bodies made up of bodies, so Bolaño has made two big piles of bodies (at least two — the biggest or most explicit or pronounced being those of the Jews mid-century and of Mexican women late-century). And then there’s the matter of Bolaño’s health — perhaps worsened by the vagabond artist’s lifestyle he indulged in for much of his life? — and his own decision to switch gears in 1990 to write fiction rather than his beloved poetry, a decision fueled by a perception that he needed to be able to support his family, which he couldn’t do with poetry. Was Johns telling the truth after all, and betraying Bolaño’s own sense of having somehow sold out?

The final section of 2666 feels very mythological to me. It’s almost like a folk tale in tone and content at times. It tells the creation story of the man whose elusiveness set the opening part of the book in motion. Reiter is described as a giant many times, has a strange, counter-intuitive resistance to gunfire in spite of his height, and in fact has a mythology built up around him by the critics. He travels the world on adventures, is stripped of powers (speech) that he later regains, and even has something of an experience, in Castle Dracula, that one might liken to a trip into a labyrinthine underworld complete with a view of a chanting devil. He is awarded the medals of a hero.

As I contemplated the idea of Reiter/Archimboldi as a mythological figure, I tried to think of mythological figures who had been somehow disfigured. Cyclops with his one eye was, I suppose, born that way, but he bears mentioning because of all the one-eyedness in this section and before (blind justice, the mural of the winking saint). Another one-eyed figure were the Graeae, a set of crones (sisters to the Gorgons) who shared one eye and one tooth and whom Perseus outwitted. Prometheus had his liver perpetually torn out by eagles. Medusa, who has made a couple of appearances in Bolaño’s book, was ultimately decapitated, her head used as a weapon in future adventures. There are probably lots that I’m missing.

But the one that seems most relevant to me is Orpheus.  He was the son of a river god, and it’s hard for me to put aside the strange water associations Bolaño assigns to Reiter. Orpheus was linked more to community and to his disciples than to any one race or family; similarly, Reiter/Archimboldi, with his mixed-nationality name and his multi-national appeal, transcends boundaries of country and race. Orpheus was a great singer (and by extension poet) famous for his trip to the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. After failing to rescue her (he looked back into Hades before she had emerged and thus broke the deal), he became so despondent that he forsook all gods but Apollo, and when he went one morning to the oracle of Dionysus and began to praise Apollo, the female followers of Dionysus ripped him limb from limb. As his head and lyre bobbed down the river, he continued singing. Archimboldi’s final book (at the time of the story’s action, at least) will be called The Head, though I don’t think we know what it’s about. It’s an interesting title, given these little similarities between Orpheus and Reiter and the occurrences of art and disfigurement or dismemberment.

Consider also the story of Medusa. There are different renderings of the myth, but a couple of them suggest that she was actually very beautiful until she faced the wrath of Athena for defiling her temple by having sex in it. In one of the accounts, Poseidon desired Medusa, which angered Athena, who then allowed Poseidon to rape Medusa in her (Athena’s) temple, whereupon Athena punished Medusa for the defilement with the famous head of snakes and stony glance. I think it’s interesting to think of this story — relevant in a way to the murders in St. Teresa — with its ultimate beheading of a snake-haired head alongside that of Orpheus and his own decapitation: dismemberment of a woman for her uninvited sex set up next to dismemberment and subsequent immortalization of a poet for love of his wife, who died at the fangs of a snake.

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Castle Dracula

When I wrote about vampirism in 2666 about a month ago, I had forgotten entirely the events that take place at Castle Dracula in this week’s swath of reading. Or maybe there was some little synapse way back in the recesses of my brain that remembered, but it sure wasn’t something I had in my conscious memory. But sure enough, Hans Reiter gets shipped off this week to a strange assignment at Castle Dracula that culminates in let’s just say really impressive and ultimately at least slightly disturbing (or is it just humorous?) coitus complete with blood and chanting.

So why all the vampirism? And why this specific strange interlude, with its dream of cannibalism, at the castle of Dracula himself? In the comments on that older post of mine, it’s demonstrated readily enough that vampirism lines up rather nicely with the consumption of others, parasitism, etc., that’s so pervasive in the part about the crimes. It would be simple enough to allow that the Dracula interlude is just a solidification of the conceit.

But I think there’s more to it. Those who read along when we did Dracula this past October may remember that the author of that classic if really sort of disappointing text was Irish and that there are plenty of bits of the text that can be reasonably said to comment on the landlord debacle that Ireland is known for (I wrote about it briefly here). At the heart of that debacle was the misuse of poor people on the margins — outside of society, to use Kessler’s phrasing — by those within society. It kind of sounds familiar within our context, doesn’t it?

Further, consider how Bolaño lingers on the story of Benito Juarez earlier in the novel (I believe it’s in the section in which we first meet La Santa, and I assume that the city of Juarez, after which Santa Teresa is modeled, is named after this former Mexican president). During Juarez’s terms as president, Mexico was the subject of invasions by the U.S. and by France. Both nations had loaned money to Mexico for economical and political reasons, and both fought for influence in the country. Compare this to the history of Ireland, whose landlord problem arose as a result of England’s play to control Ireland for political reasons (it was a buffer from invasions by Spain and France). So yet again, we see pointers in Bolaño’s book to parallels with Irish history that happen also to be addressed, if obliquely, in Stoker’s book.

And then finally, at the end of this week’s section, we see the strange courtship of Reiter and Ingeborg in which we learn of her fascination with the human-sacrificing Aztecs and Reiter’s oath sworn by the Aztecs. Bolaño here is tying World War II and, by not very lengthy extension, the human sacrifice of the holocaust, back to the Mexico in which the heart of his story is centered. That one of Ireland’s most well-known writers couched the landlord matter in terms of cannibalism hardly seems tangential.

Someone who has a better head for history than I do may be able to provide additional color or nuance, but I definitely have the sense that Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.

Fatigue, Mirrors, Inside/Outside, and a Theory

It’s been quiet around here lately, huh? I’ve got a bunch of things going on and, like many whose posts and comments I’ve read, have grown weary of the part about the crimes, so it’s been hard to get motivated to post. Even tonight, I don’t have it in me to write something obsessive or even particularly coherent. But I did want to make a couple of quick notes.

Bolaño is clearly doing something with the congresswoman and Norton. Both women wind up staying in a hotel room in Santa Teresa with one mirror by the door and another on the wall at the other end of the room. It seems likely (since this was a distinguishing characteristic of the room for Norton) that it’s the same room. And both — Norton in a dream — spend time trying to see themselves reflected in the two mirrors. Both are women who’ve had what vanilla folk like myself consider fairly racy sexcapades, and it seems reasonable (if not entirely charitable to Norton) to suggest that they’ve done so at times for personal, professional gain. Norton is associated in several places with the medusa, and the congresswoman describes the consumption of porn at the narcoranchos on page 628 in terms that bring medusa to mind. Norton furiously takes notes in her dream as the congresswoman establishes a detailed dossier on her missing friend.

It is Kessler who speaks, way back on page 267, about people living outside of society and how they’re perceived as expendable. He speaks of words used to avoid rather than to reveal, and he says that the crimes have different signatures and that everybody in Santa Teresa is outside of society. Kessler too is an outsider, of course, as is made all the more apparent by the pomp that surrounds his visit (the conversation described earlier in the book seems to be a follow-up visit a few years after the visit we’re told of late in the book). In my last post of any substance, I noted a number of instances of contrast between being inside and being outside. On page 609, the congresswoman bangs on the topic some more:

You think that from the inside you might change some things for the better. First you work from the outside, then you think that if you were inside the real possibiliteis for change would be greater. You think that inside, at least, you’ll have more freedom to act. Not true. There are things that can’t be changed from outside or inside. But here comes the funniest part. The really unbelievable part of the story (the sad story of Mexico or Latin America, it makes no difference). The part you can’t believe. When you make mistakes from inside, the mistakes stop mattering. Mistakes stop being mistakes. Making a mistake, butting your head against he wall, becomes a political virtue, a political tactic, gives you political presence, gets you media attention.

Here at the end of this part of the book, we have the congresswoman, who has become the ultimate insider, tracking one murder while Kessler, the ultimate gringo outsider, is brought in to provide support for the investigation. It’s an interesting contrast, if not one I can really do justice to.

And finally, a theory. It’s not at all clear to me how tidy the end of the section is supposed to be. The parts about Kelly Parker are drawn out and seem important by virtue of word count, but they also seem sort of patched in and just about random. Why all this detail about one case all of a sudden (and why the one about a woman who changed her name to a very American-sounding name?)? Is it gesturing toward a source for a lot of the crimes? I can’t help wondering if the implication isn’t that a lot of the women being found dead are women Kelly has hired as prostitutes for her parties, and that there really is a big central case to blow wide open if only the police would do some police-work. If so, I fear that it’s obvious and I’m coming across as a moron for proposing it as some ground-breaking theory.

Anyway, next week: Archimboldi.

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Resurfacing

March 26, 2010 3 comments

Ah, the pit of despair as Daryl so eloquently put it below.  I’ve been wondering just where I was!  I have to admit that I bit off a bit too much this first quarter of 2010.  I believed I could take on an extra project at the office, serve on a grant review panel, read 2666, participate in the forums and post at least occasionally as part of the Zombies crew.  What the hell was I thinking?  Well, the extra project is finished, the funding recommendations have been made, and this is the first week I’ve been on schedule with the reading (actually slightly ahead).  High time to finally put some thoughts down in a post.

Full disclosure first – so far I just don’t like the book.  I don’t hate it, but I’m not loving it.  It’s just leaving me cold.  An odd experience for me, it’s pretty rare that I’m not at all moved.   As I really began to realize that I was not making any connection to it an idea began to gel for me.  I found myself thinking a great deal about a book that addresses some similar themes and that moved me greatly – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  Then over the past week the fates, serendipity, coincidence, whatever you want to call it, really pushed me in the direction of looking at these two works together.

I ordered a new copy of Blood Meridian; the lovely Modern Library edition with a wonderful introduction by Harold Bloom.  I read the intro Monday night and a couple of pages into the text.   The next day I checked in with The Morning News Tournament of Books to see which book was advancing in that day’s match up.  What do I find there?  The commentary includes an hysterically funny bit of back & forth about Nicholas Sparks and his dissing of Cormac McCarthy, specifically Blood Meridian, in a recent interview!  I read the interview referenced and found it horrific in its own right.  But the commentary also reminded me that both McCarthy and Bolano have been in the TOB in recent years – 2666 in last year’s Tournament; The Savage Detectives in 2008; The Road in 2007 (and the champion).  So I’ve been dipping into the matches and commentary on 2666 over there as well.

All of which is my very convoluted way of saying it’s obvious to me I need to keep exploring these two books.  I’m putting my first thoughts together and I’m looking forward to bringing them to you and hearing your comments.  Meanwhile, back to the litany of death!

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The Little Engine that Could

Even among those of us tracking various things over at bolanobolano.com, the fatigue of reading the part about the crimes is starting to take its toll. This is just a quick little note of encouragement for others following along who may also be growing weary. Just two more weeks until we’re out of the current pit of despair. I don’t remember a whole lot about the final section from when I read it a year ago, but I do remember that it was during that final part that I began to see why people thought this was a good book. Hold on for two more weeks, my friends, and things will get better. The best writing, if I remember correctly, is yet to come.

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In and Out

On page 506, I underlined the sentence “That same night, in bed in his cell, Haas said: the killer is on the outside and I’m on the inside” and drew an arrow to my own note: “There’s a lot of this contrast (in/out) in this part (at least) of the book.” Once I was finished with this week’s reading, I went back and did a very quick scan of the text to find a few of the instances of in and out or inside and outside that had jumped out at me. Here’s a brief (but not necessarily complete) catalog:

470: Of Estrella Sandoval (the girl whose murder eventually points back to Haas), her friend says that she went in and talked to Haas and was mad when she came out.

475: Haas’s desk is horseshoe shaped, an enclosure.

475: There’s a reference to a couple of kids boxing. A boxing ring is an enclosure (enclosing violence).

477: Epinfanio asks if he can come into Haas’s house. Surprisingly, Haas lets him in.

479: Haas invites policemen on a subsequent visit to come into his home, but they decline before arresting him.

480: Haas, in possession apparently of endless stores of energy, makes his interrogators, shut in a soundproof room with him, lose patience.

481: Haas is put in a private cell.

483: Inmates in private cells could go out into the yard or spend their days inside. Twice on this page we see the phrase “The first time he went out into the yard.”

485: Haas acknowledges that at some point he’ll have to leave his private cell, so that his “in” becomes another “in.”

486: There’s a reference to a labyrinth.

488: There’s another reference to a labyrinth and a couple of references to an abyss (to a prison, which is very much an “in,” built on the edge of the abyss). He also feels (in a dream) something sewn inside his mouth. My puzzler for the day: Is an abyss in or out or something else altogether?

490: “Here, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is sensitive to what happens outside, to the hearbeat of the city, you might say… Then I asked him if he thought I had killed [the women] and the bastard said no, not you, gringo, as if I was a fucking gringo, which inside maybe I am… That here in prison they know I’m innocent… It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious.”

502: There’s mention of the changing of a city’s limits, a shift in what constitutes in and out.

506: “The killer keeps killing and I’m locked up. That’s an incontrovertible fact. Someone should consider that and draw conclusions. That same night, in bed in his cell, Haas said: the killer is on the outside and I’m on the inside.”

513: Elvira Campos wants to ask Juan de Dios Martinez more about the crimes, but “doing so would only deepen the relationship, lead them, together, into a locked room to which she alone held the key.

I’m reminded of a discussion way back in the part about Fate between two men in a diner. Steve highlighted the section a few weeks ago, but I’ll requote the pertinent parts:

The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were.

and

“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus…”

As is often the case, I don’t have a tidy theory to assemble these fragments into, but it does seem to me that Bolaño is doing something with insider and outsider status (even among the critics, with the different cliques) in the book and that, in this week’s section including several scenes in jail, he adds some color to the vague dichotomy of insider/outsider by providing lots of examples of specific ins and outs.

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A Haiku

March 22, 2010 7 comments

I was just thinking,
“You know what else this book needs?
Prison rape with blades”!

(More later.)

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