The African-American Picturesque
Really, my first thought was, what does this Chilean author, who has been masterful with southern Arizona and northern Mexico (what I know of them, anyway), know about aging Black Panthers in Detroit? Yes, some people, particularly those in political and social movements, are caricatures. But seriously?
One of my great flaws as a reader is that I’m over-credulous. I’m too ready to take what the narrator says at face value, and I’m too slow to make judgments of characters. Maybe I lack an innate radar that some have for deciding whether a character is likable or true. At some point during college, I figured out that you couldn’t always trust the narrator or accept a straightforward reading of a character, and I began reminding myself that I had to really think and ask myself whether or not I thought I was intended to like a character. Sometimes when a character is a rascal, you’re not supposed to like him; other times you are. I bring all of this baggage to my reading of 2666. So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that Seaman was a caricature (though in retrospect I suppose it’s obvious; can’t you just imagine Dave Chapelle with a powdered head mugging and talking about poke chops in a grotesque, almost Uncle Remus-like impersonation of this character?).
Upon reading @naptimewriting’s post, I thought of another line that follows shortly after Seaman’s lecture. Having leafed through the volume of The Slave Trade that Antonio Jones had given him and realizing that the author was white, Fate reflects on the reaction to his story about Jones:
To most of his colleagues, Fate noted, the story was little more than a venture into the African-American picturesque. A loony preacher, a loony ex-jazz musician, the loony last member of the Brooklyn Communist Party (Fourth International). Sociological curiosities.
It occurs to me that our critics from the first part of the book are caricatures of a sort as well, providing a glimpse of the academic picturesque. Still, while someone on the fringes of academia can provide this latter glimpse reasonably enough (and nobody complained that Bolaño was off key in part 1), it does seem, as @naptimewriting points out, that Bolaño may be a bit out of his element in trying to portray an aging Black Panther.
But is it possible that he’s doing it for effect, that Seaman is a caricature not because Bolaño happens to be writing about something he shouldn’t and so hits the highlights with none of the nuance but precisely because Bolaño means to be writing about something he shouldn’t? Maybe, that is, he’s missing the note on purpose, with the aim of saying something about the untrustworthiness of writing. He meditates on this later, saying “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words… Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear.”
Words can’t necessarily be trusted, and the story you get about a character or event can’t necessarily be trusted. What Fate’s colleagues recognize as something of a caricature, his readers receive well enough that he’s hired on as a staff writer. What you’ve read about Mexico, what you’ve heard about coyotes and crummy conditions and squalor across the border may not be trustworthy. What you may have read in bits and pieces about the St. Teresa (née Cuidad Juarez) murders probably isn’t right, certainly isn’t enough; if filters out too much of the horror. Here’s a portrayal of an aging Black Panther reduced to a doddering old man passing out conventional wisdom and recipes, with all the fear and grit of his life filtered out. Coming up next, I can imagine Bolaño thinking, is a more trustworthy account of the set of horrors central to the book, with a much different, much more permissive, filter.