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Dead Center

Here we are at pretty much the dead center of the book this week, and Bolaño drops this on us in Florita Almada’s meditation on a poem that she mistakenly figures must be about little Benito Juarez:

(1) that the thoughts that seize a shepherd can easily gallop away with him because it’s human nature; (2) that facing boredom head-on was an act of bravery and Benito Juarez had done it and she had done it too and both had seen terrible things in the face of boredom, things she would rather not recall

A couple of pages later, she says that in her visions, she had seen dead women and dead girls in a desert, an oasis like those seen in films about the French Foreign Legion and the Arabs (this I suppose is a nod to French imperialism of the sort that Benito Juarez fought as president of Mexico and that I can’t help thinking of alongside Bolaño’s promiscuity of nationalities in this book, though what he’s doing with it I can’t say). The really kind of lovely little poem she talks about also addresses boredom:

O resting flock, who don’t, I think, know your own misery! How I envy you! Not just because you travel as if trouble free and soon forget each need, each hurt, each deathly fear, but more because you’re never bored. And also: When you lie in the shade, on the grass, you’re calm and happy, and you spend the great part of the year this way and feel no boredom.

Let’s think back to the front matter of the book, whose epigraph Bolaño borrows from Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!”

Florita Almada, whose very name means something like “little flower,” is well-versed in the application of plants for food and medicinal purposes. She’s one heckuva gardener, you might say. And the poem she speaks about calls to mind the story of the garden of Eden, the unfortunate acquisition of knowledge — and with it boredom — that resulted from the consumption of fruit from the wrong tree. Incidentally, I can’t help thinking of Florita’s role as seer and of the Greek Cassandra, whose ears were licked clean by snakes so that she could hear the future. Yet Cassandra proved an untrustworthy prophetess in a way, because her curse was that no one would believe her.

The trustworthiness of La Santa is also sort of up for grabs, I think. She clearly has a more or less correct pipeline into something about the killings; her visions are presented as accurate and legitimate. But consider her speeches. The first is full of  lyricism (I’m thinking of the pastoral poem in particular) and nuggets that at least resemble wisdom. Her second long spiel breaks down into garrulousness and even a sort of transparent egotism:

[I]t made her even more frightened and angry, and this she had to say here, in front of the cameras, on Reinaldo’s lovely show [insert here a list of the virtues of the show, and its wonderful catalog of guests]… and now that she was here, she said, it was her duty to take this opportunity to speak of other things, by which she meant that she couldn’t talk about herself, she couldn’t let herself succumb to that temptation of the ego, that frivolity, which might not be frivolity or sin or anything of the sort if she were a girl of seventeen or eighteen, but would be unforgivable in a woman of seventy, although my life, she said, could furnish material for several novels or at least a soap opera, but God and especially the blessed Virgin would deliver her from talking about herself, Reinaldo will have to forgive me, he wants me to talk about myself, but there’s something more important than me and my so-called miracles, which aren’t miracles, as I never get tired of saying… my miracles are the product of work and observation, and possibly, I say possibly, also of a natural talent, said Florita.

How much time can you really spend talking about how you’re not going to talk about yourself? She’s a loud-mouthed old lady back-pedaling from talking about her virtues while talking about her virtues. It’s comic. She got a taste of fame during her first visit to Reinaldo’s show and has returned to drink up some more. We scoffed at Barry Seaman earlier in the book, and much of La Santa’s speech resembles his, even down to the subject matter (food, dreams, heavenly bodies, how to live). Given a pulpit, they’ll just belch out whatever they have to say, and even though some of what they say may be wise (whether simple regurgitation of conventional wisdom or not), the power of their word is undercut by their method of delivery. They discredit themselves, in a way, at least to discerning readers like the lot of us.

The matter of the agency of (and thus trustworthiness of) voice is reinforced in this week’s reading by the appearance of a ventriloquist who believes his dummy is a living creature. Like La Santa and Seaman, he’s an autodidact. “Deep inside,” he says, “all of us ventriloquists, one way or another, know that once the bastards reach a certain level of animation, they come to life.” La Santa is something of a ventriloquist’s dummy to whatever spirit fills her with her visions. She’s overtaken by her trances, seized, possessed. And like the ventriloquist’s dummy and perhaps moved a bit by the desire for fame (maybe by weariness of her own boredom?), she comes back for that second visit and shoots off a bit at the mouth. Having reached a certain level of animation, she has come to life.

As I read about her trance and considered it in light of the ventriloquist’s peculiar belief about his dummy, I couldn’t help thinking of two lines of poetry that have always stuck with me. The first, from Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, reads “Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?” The other is from Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance.” Where, in other words, do you draw the line between agent and output, and at what point does one overtake the other? I’m reminded also of my childhood Ouija board experiences, my skepticism about the occult tested by the curious ability of the thing to spell out answers to things I didn’t think my older sister could know the answers for and yet reinforced by the perhaps more curious inability of the thing to move with just my hands resting on it.

I think Bolaño is toying here with trustworthiness of voice and of authority. La Santa has what seem to be authentic visions, and yet she herself isn’t immune to certain human tendencies to provide embellishments here and there, especially when a captive audience is present and all ears. We saw the same with Seaman. We see reporters covering subjects they know nothing about. We see reporters who should be doing more to cover the murders failing to do so (it’s implied, at least, that the exposure of this stuff isn’t great). And we see critics who decide they’re not sure they know what they’re saying, who have warred with other factions of critics about things they’ve made pronouncements about and later figured out they may not understand. Bolaño distrusts people who try to package things for you.

Of course, one can’t escape the fact that he too is a repackager. Just as the thoughts that seize a shepherd can gallop away with him, so can the thoughts of a seer, or of a reporter, or of a critic, or of an author.

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  1. March 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

    This is kind of a meta-comment, but it’s somewhat reassuring to find that other readers are coming to the same conclusions that I am. The similarity between La Santa and Seaman was particularly striking to me, though the former seems to have an insight that the latter lacked.

  2. March 15, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I agree, Dan. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read this morning that you had made the same connection. I don’t trust my ability to figure out when an author is sort of poking fun at a character or sketching somebody as a sort of buffoon, but as I read especially the second long section about La Santa, I couldn’t help but figure she was something of a clown. And yet she does have those visions, which seem to be authentic. (On the other hand, is she saying anything people don’t already know? “Hey, look, young women are being killed around here.”)

  3. March 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I don’t know that La Santa really has any remarkable insight. Like you say Daryl, she’s hardly revealing secrets. By the time of her second TV appearance, WSDP has already begun protesting what’s going on. (As an aside: I wasn’t super impressed with the heavy-handedness of of Sergio González getting everything right about that acronym except for “peace.”) I feel like she’s just another loudmouth, but one who clothes herself in a little borrowed authority from the Latin American mysticism that Steve rightly injects into our understanding of the book.

  4. bluestocking
    March 16, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    I don’t think these aspects of Florita A. are at all irreconcilable. The buffoon and the seer … not mutually exclusive. Sure she is a buffoonish old lady, full of silly little remarks like old people often make. I have an aunt like this, totally addicted to telenovelas and “espiritismo” but in fact she is also a really wise, funny old lady, too. Maybe this is why I’ve got such a soft spot for this old lady.

    After all you guys are admitting, nothing she says about the crimes isn’t true.

    I’m going to have to go back and reread but I think the author really meant to have this kook tell the truth here, for him.

  5. March 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

    I’ll have to reread the Florita Almada section more carefully, but I think I’m with Bluestocking on this. She’s a buffoon and a seer, and maybe the buffoon/seer is the more effective vehicle for publicizing the crimes than the serious journalist. After all we are still pretty early in the chronology of the crimes, so they are perhaps just rising to mass consciousness, and a show like An Hour With Reinaldo probably reaches a lot more people a lot more quickly than an expose’ in a newspaper of record.

    • March 18, 2010 at 10:30 am

      You (and bluestocking) may have a point. Watching David Hasselhoff lie shirtless on the floor slurring and eating a hamburger while his daughters film him is probably a more effective warning against excessive drinking than some lame PSA suggestive of a similar outcome or, worse, a study or formal report. In Shakespearean literature, the fool was sometimes the only one who could speak truth to the king. Maybe there’s a truth and even something of a literary tradition to the buffoonery.

  6. March 18, 2010 at 10:49 am

    And most politicians would probably rather get an hour on Oprah than another write-up in the Times.

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