Author Archive

September 11, 2012 4 comments

An entry posted here in this blog in error. Pardon me. Perhaps someone should disable me here so that it does happen again.

Stephen Brassawe.

Winding Down

I am off the road for a bit. I mentioned some time ago that I thought the opening of The Part About Fate was clearly a nod to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. At page 554 via more of those voices, this time in Lalo Cura’s head, we hear of his family history.

Lalo’s known family history, according to the voice, goes back to 1865 when a nameless orphan is raped by a Belgian soldier and then gives birth to María Expósito. There follows rape after rape through generation after generation until at one time there are five generations of María Expósitos living in an ever expanding house outside Villaviciosa. One of these María Expósitos has the powers of a witch. In the center of this saga about all these generations is planted the story of a brother’s revenge.

This section is short, roughly four and a half pages. It reminded me so much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was the repetition of names through the generations. Some dramatic and passionate blood letting. There was magic.

I am sure that elsewhere in this novel there are other instances where Bolaño mimics other authors, or pays tribute to them if you will, and I did not recognize that for what it was. (Come to think of it, there was a tip of the hat to Borges in there somewhere, but I cannot remember now where it was.) These two examples came through very clearly for me though.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

As we finish up The Part About the Crimes, it seems to me that we have been presented with a pretty vivid picture of the fecklessness of everyone. And I do mean everyone. Not just the cops.

The three medical examiners, whom I myself labeled The Three Wise Men, have breakfast regularly together, do not talk, and then slink away like vultures. Page 549.

The press is paid off for discretion in what they write according to Haas’s lawyer. While our main representative of the press, Sergio González, is apparently not being paid off, there is no reason to pay him off. He cannot write anything at all about the crimes. Page 564.

Yolanda Palacio, the head of Santa Teresa’s Department of Sex Crimes wherein she is the only employee, holds forth on how Santa Teresa is not all that bad for women given the employment opportunities there. Page 568.

In the end the only information that Florita can offer us is that the killers have big faces, swollen faces and that their joys and sorrows are huge. What the hell is that all about? Page 571.

The former police chief of Mexico City opines that the snuff film industry in Santa Teresa does not exist. Page 536. Immediately thereafter we follow an Argentine reporter as he goes to watch one.

And when all is said and done, is not Professor Kessler as impotent as all the rest, almost comically so? Daryl below makes reference to the pomp of his visit, and that is about all there is. He makes visits to crime scenes or other settings related to the crimes ostentatiously taking notes. He sneaks off at times taking elaborate precautions to avoid being tailed, but he is tailed by the police anyway. He seems best at giving lectures to full halls at the University and regaling people at cocktail parties about the movies for which he has consulted. He is a zero in this place because of his outsider status, again as Daryl points out.

Let us not forget to mention Professor Silverio García Correa, the Mexican criminologist, another study in uselessness. Page 578.

This brings me to the charismatic congresswoman, Azucena Esquivel Plata, about whom Daryl has also written below. It is difficult to come to grips with her. Nonetheless, for all her intensity, passion, and determination, the best she can do in the end is demand that Sergio write about the crimes–the reporter who cannot report. As much I like her, I think we must anticipate that her efforts will be to absolutely no effect, as have been the “efforts” of everybody else in this place.

Cynicism rules. My original draft of this entry was far too long because I had collected quotes wherein various characters offer their own particular brands of cynicism. I will settle for only one, which really captures the overall mood. In contrast to the former Mexico City chief of police’s little homily about fighting the good fight at page 537, we find this from Sergio:

But what are good times? Sergio González asked himself. Maybe they’re what separate certain people from the rest of us, who live in a state of perpetual sadness. The will to live, the will to fight, as his father used to say, but fight what? The inevitable? Fight who? And what for? More time, certain knowledge, the glimpse of something essential? As if there were anything essential in this shitty country, he thought, anything essential on this whole self-sucking motherfucker of a planet.

Now that is cynicism. But what more can you expect from people who regularly go to El Rey del Taco for beers and Tex-Mex?

When all is said and done my overall impression is that Haas’s lawyer is correct. Anybody who seriously wished to investigate these crimes ought to follow the money. That is precisely what nobody is able or willing to do.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Do any of our main characters ever mourn these young dead women? Or even give them a serious second thought. Azucena Esquivel Plata does of course in an enraged sort of way. Oddly enough, Juan de Dios Martínez does, too.

. . . and then Juan de Dios Martínez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep. . . .

Page 534.

Juan de Dios rested his head on the steering wheel and tried to cry but couldn’t.

Page 600.

–Steve Brassawe

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Pages 466-513: Just For Fun

March 26, 2010 2 comments

I have already described two of the ways in which I have found myself responding to the renditions of the murders in Mexican Zoetrope below. First, the relentless descriptions of the state of one after another after another body that is found brings home the magnitude of the whole thing. Second, however, all seem to blend into one image of a single tortured young woman now dead.

There has been a third response to the details, too. Only occasionally do we hear about the events that led to a particular body’s condition. Even in those few cases when a murderer confesses and describes what he did, the events are only sketchily drawn for us. Usually, we are only given a description of the appearance of the body as it was found and facts from the medical examiner’s report. This is a Hitchcock technique in the sense of making what we do not see much more horrific than anything that we might have been shown.

I do not know how one can avoid imagining the infliction of multiple stab wounds, the mutilation of breasts, the strangulation, the torture while reading this section. If one reads it thoughtfully and attentively and imaginatively, the Part About the Crimes has to be one of the more harrowing sections of any novel out there. How does one avoid becoming introspective with untoward results in the face of this onslaught?

Then in the middle of it we encounter this unexpected piece of wisdom from Epifanio, unexpected because it is Epifanio, after all:

Every life, Epifanio said that night to Lalo Cura, no matter how happy it is, ends in pain and suffering. That depends, said Lalo Cura. Depends on what, champ? On a lot of things, said Lalo Cura. Say you’re shot in the back of the head, for example, and you don’t hear the motherfucker come up behind you, then you’re off to the next world, no pain, no suffering. Goddamn kid, said Epifanio. Have you ever been shot in the back of the head?

Page 511.

Earlier in the book we had some very quick allusions to this same subject. At page 298 Guadalupe Roncal had this to say:

On the flight here from Hermosillo I wouldn’t have minded if the plane crashed. At least it’s a quick death, or so they say. [Emphasis mine.]

There is a back-handed reference to this idea in the section concerning Harry Magaña:

Harry said his had died four years ago, a few months after he’d finished the course in Santa Barbara. I’m sorry, said the other man. It’s all right, said Harry Magana, and there was an uncomfortable silence until the cop asked how she had died. Cancer, said Harry, it was quick.

Page 440.

Surely, Harry used the term “quick” in a relative sense there.

It appears to me that through Epifanio, the author from his own personal place of torture is sending a message of truth to his readers who have not yet arrived at their own such personal place. Death with dignity is not possible, as the word “dignity” is so often misused to mean “absence of torture.”

The essence of that message is that everyone will get their turn with more or less torture in the nature of things, even the healthiest among us. I am of course using the word “torture” here in the broad sense. One might be tortured by Mother Nature in the form of a growing cancer, for example. One might be tortured by old age. One might be tortured by three thugs in a small, remote room with a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Moreover, Epifanio suggests that there is no escape in the form of “instantaneous death.” Albert Camus eloquently dispensed with that happy notion in his essay on the death penalty, “Reflections on the Guillotine” in the collection Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays. There is no doubt in my mind at this point that Roberto Bolaño was intimately familiar with Camus if not many others on this same point.

This may be one of those uncomfortable truths about human existence that Bolaño seeks to convey–doubly uncomfortable for those who cling to the illusion that they will be able to purchase “death with dignity” when their own time comes as if it were just another consumer commodity. In other words, the deaths of these young women and the manner of them are in a sense not an aberration but only one part of a larger aspect of human existence.

Although I have repeatedly disclaimed any expertise in matters of Latin American culture, I am convinced at this point, based upon my admittedly limited experience but feverish reading, that a Latin American reader, male or female, would probably be like a fish in the water with this whole concept. The idea of death with dignity would be laughable to the average Latin American reader if the possibility of such were ever presented to him or her. The Latin American reader, I think, would be more apt to aspire to death with courage. For him or her, then, only two questions remain. (1) How long will my own torture last? (2) Will my courage hold out until it is done?

But I could be wrong.

–Steve Brassawe

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Page 466-513: Karl Haas

March 24, 2010 1 comment

In considering Karl Haas, we do well to revisit Guadalupe Roncal’s description of him for the benefit of Oscar Fate in the last part. Karl has eyes so blue that he looks blind.

He has the face of a dreamer, but of a dreamer who’s dreaming at great speed. A dreamer whose dreams are far out ahead of our dreams. And that scares me. Do you understand?

Page 300.

Oscar did not understand, nor could I at that point. In this section at page 488, however, I got a peek at one of Karl’s dreams, the most bizarre dream of the countless dreams recounted for us in this novel. In addition to the graphic content of the dream, Karl also features the prison to be a castle on the edge of a bottomless abyss. At the conclusion of his dream he curls up on the edge of the abyss and falls asleep to dream some more.

It is difficult to come to grips with the meaning of his ruminations that immediately follow to the effect that “[r]aping women and then killing them seemed more attractive to him, more sexy” than Farfán and Gómez’s sexual activities. Are we to take this idea to be a self-incriminating one? I do not think so. It can just as easily be taken as a way of expressing his deep revulsion when considering Farfán and Gómez. In any event this leads him to his fantasy about murdering those two men and throwing their bodies in the abyss. “. . .that will be the last of them.”

Whatever the case, Karl Haas is a disturbing man. His dreams have violence and sex all blended together in a truly macabre way. This is displayed in his conduct, also, as we witnessed in the gruesome scene when El Anillo attempted to rape Karl in the prison shower wherein the author finally comes through with the prison rape with blades to which Jeff refers below. Page 484.

Karl illustrates something nicely. Without a confession–and Karl is expert at avoiding that pitfall–the police are essentially powerless to investigate and solve a case.

It is Epifanio who has the lead in the investigation of Karl Haas. On the surface it appears that Epifanio actually does some decent police work for a change. However, I have no faith in the purity of Epifanio’s motives at all. The mere fact that Epifanio is the moving force behind Karl Haas’s incarceration is that which most persuades me that Karl did not commit any of these murders. Karl is a handy scapegoat for the police, and a scapegoat may be just thing that Epifanio is seeking. Obviously, that is saying a much different thing than that Karl is an innocent man, however. There are very few if any innocent men in this book.

Which all brings me back to the observation that I made somewhere else. The issue of who is actually torturing and killing these young working women has become strangely beside the point.

Lastly, there is this intriguing monologue from Karl at page 506 to which Daryl refers below in his discussion of the claustrophobic aspects of this section:

Haas said: the killer is on the outside and I’m on the inside. But someone worse than me and worse than the killer is coming to this motherfucking city. Do you hear his footsteps getting closer? Do you hear them?

So Karl Haas is not Nietsche’s Superman after all. Nietsche’s Superman is apparently yet to come. . .at least that is the way that Karl sees it.

–Steve Brassawe

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Pages 404-465: El Chile

March 18, 2010 3 comments

I post these comments at the risk of appearing as if I am attempting to dominate the conversation. It is just that I am heading into Mexico City early in the morning, and I never know whether I am going to get back out of there. I am optimistic, however. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go. By the time I get back, y’all will be off on your discussion of the next section, and I did so want to write something concerning the dumps.

The subject at hand is garbage. It is a subject on which Bolaño is rather relentless. There is reason for that. Back at page 305 Oscar Fate was contemplating what he thought were beautiful hills in the distance over a cold beer from the patio of a restaurant in the eastern part of the city. A man disabuses him of this notion, explaining with very little English that those hills were really huge piles of garbage.

I have tied to avoid writing any sort of travelogue. A comment is in order here, however. So far up north through expenditures of enormous amounts of money and other resources, garbage has been kept out of sight and out of mind for most of us not employed in the garbage collection industry. That is a little more problematic here.

In a country strapped for infrastructure and money, government funded garbage collection in urban areas can be fitful. In many smaller towns and villages and in rural areas, there is often no organized garbage collection effort. Poverty plays an additional role, too. If one’s choice is paying for food or paying for legitimate garbage disposal, one will pay for food. The only bright side to all of this is that poor people participate a bit less in the world consumer economy. Thus, they generate a bit less garbage per capita. But there are a helluva lot of them.

It should not be surprising then that the illegal dump is one of the less picturesque features of the country. The Mexican people are not particularly slovenly. Quite the contrary actually. It is simply that the circumstances that I have described bear down upon them.

Santa Teresa’s new legal city dump is active. It is “. . . a festering heap a mile and a half long and half a mile wide. . . ,” visited by more than 100 trucks per day. Page 423. It is noted there that illegal dumps proliferate. That brings us to the illegal dump slyly named El Chile by our author. It is in one of the passages about El Chile that we find what is for me one of the more haunting passages in the book. Even though I try to avoid setting out long passages in these outbreaks of mine, I am going to transcribe this one here because I don’t trust you to go to the cited page and reread it.

At night those who had nothing or less than nothing ventured out. In Mexico City they call them teporochos, but a teporocho is a survivor, a cynic and a humorist, compared to the human beings who swarmed alone or in pairs around El Chile. There weren’t many of them. They spoke a slang that was hard to understand. The police conducted a roundup the night after the body of Emilia Mena Mena was found and all they brought in was three children hunting for cardboard in the trash. The night residents of El Chile were few. Their life expectancy was short. They died after seven months, at most, of picking their way through the dump. Their feeding habits and their sex lives were a mystery. It was likely they had forgotten how to eat or fuck. Or that food and sex were beyond their reach by then, unattainable, indescribable, beyond action and expression. All, without exception, were sick. To strip the clothes from a body in El Chile was to skin it. The population was stable: never fewer than three, never more than twenty.

Page 372.

That is an image worthy of Cormac McCarthy, although I am starting to think that I ought to be measuring Cormac McCarthy again Roberto Bolaño instead of the other way around. The end of the line of the species homo sapiens graphically portrayed.

El Chile is mentioned again in passing at page 404 and perhaps in another couple of instances. Then after another body is found in the vicinity, we come to this great passage that could be right out of Catch 22:

The mayor of Santa Teresa ordered that the dump be closed, although he later changed the order (informed by his secretary of the legal impossibility of closing something that, for all intents and purposes, had never been open) to decree the dismantling, removal, and destruction of that pestilential no-man’s-land. For a week a police guard was posted on the edge of El Chile and for three days a few garbage trucks, aided by the two city dump trucks, ferried trash to the dump in Colonia Kino, but faced with the magnitude of the job and their own lack of manpower, they soon gave up.

Page 464.

A fair number of the bodies of murdered young women turn up in El Chile or the vicinity. It is hard to conceive of a better illustration of young Marco Antonio Guerra’s words, “[l]ife is worthless.” Page 220. So it is in the face of this sort of thing that we look for some hope in characters like Florita or in a different way, Lalo Cura, and that appears to be a grasping at straws.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For those familiar with my fixation on glass shards embedded in the tops of walls, I neglected to mention that this is what Lalo Cura saw on his first trip into Santa Teresa as a child:

The lights of the highway ramps and then a neighborhood of dark streets and then a neighborhood of big houses behind high walls bristling with glass.

Page 388.

I am starting to conclude that with his repeated use of this image, Bolaño is implicitly posing the question of how much longer those walls with glass shards on the top will effectively keep the chaos and the anarchy on the outside from gaining entry to the lives of the wealthy behind those walls. Fences between poor countries and rich countries come into question, too, again by implication.

–Steve Brassawe

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Pages 404-465: The Police

March 17, 2010 4 comments

When I tell you of my own reaction to characters, in this case some members of the police force, I am actually expressing my curiosity as to whether others reacted to them differently. I am not proposing that my reading of them is the reading of them, God knows.

Yet, how can we not be favorably disposed toward Olegario Cura Expósito, a sixteen-year-old kid raised in poverty in Villaviciosa who displays integrity and no small amount of courage? And how does he make it out of poverty? Through his skill and courage amid violence. La locura. Lunacy.

Through him we are introduced to the two scumbags who are also bodyguards for Pedro Rengifo’s wife, one from the state of Jalisco and the other from Chihuahua—Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, to be exact. I do not recall any other mention of Ciudad Juárez to this point in the book. Santa Teresa is in the state of Sonora. (By the way, we are finally told explicitly that Pedro Rengifo is a narcotraficante at page 463.)

Then Lalo is a cop at the age of 17. Did you notice that he underwent any extensive training at some police academy? I did not. Nonetheless, he starts taking home and studying texts on law enforcement, texts in which obviously nobody else at the precinct has ever had any interest. He maintains his distance from drinking with the other cops or partaking in the gang rape of arrested whores in the jail. Page 401. The kid is going to be a good cop if he survives.

That in itself does not give us any hope that he will accomplish anything. This is the lesson that we take from Harry Magaña, I think. Harry is a tough, relentless, smart crime investigator. This place simply swallows him up and kills him.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Juan de Dios Martínez is a good cop, too, but as a veteran he appears to me to be only going through the motions of being a good cop. He seems to accept the incompetence around him as a limit on what he can accomplish with nary a protest. There is a fatalism about him.

Apropos of I don’t know what, consider this passage regarding one of his trysts with Elvira Campos:

Darling, Juan de Dios Martínez would say to her sometimes, sweetheart, love, and in the darkness she would tell him to be quiet and then suck every last drop from him—of semen? of his soul? of the little life he felt, at the time, remained to him?

Page 424.

. . . of the little life he felt, at the time, remained to him? What is that all about? Perhaps it is post-coital depression, something I have only read about. Anyway, I do not know exactly, but this cannot bode well for his state of mind. Beyond that, it is remarkable how little we know of him given the amount of text devoted to him.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Epifanio is a comic incompetent. Someone elsewhere wrote of the incident when he retrieved Isabel Urrea’s address book, obviously a very valuable piece of evidence that everyone else ignored. As was pointed out, he himself did nothing with it either. But he goes further than admitting that he did nothing with it. He congratulates himself on the fact that he did not telephone some of the prominent people whose names appeared there and blackmail them. Page 463.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I was struck by a story told about Inspector Ángel Fernández at page 460. In spite of the fact that the medical examiner’s report stated that Emilia Escalante Sanjuán died of strangulation, in his report Fernández listed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning. Obviously, this was a way to close the file because Emilia was only a whore–practically a whore anyway. Page 460.

There follows immediately some of the most harrowing reading in this section of the book in the form of the cops’ discussion of “three-way” rapes, a full rape of all five orifices, etc. I think that all of us are willing to accept the proposition that policemen become hardened in their profession. They become hardened as a kind of psychological self-defense mechanism. However, coupled with the rape of the whores in the jail, I could not accept this in that light.

The good cops are the exception here, and they are impotent. The bad cops are the rule, and they are nasty bad.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the same sense that I earlier proposed that this is not a “crusader novel,” nor is it a “who-dunnit” novel. Has anyone else noticed that as we read on in this novel, the issue of who is killing the young women becomes strangely beside the point in a very real way?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I still have written nothing concerning the illegal dump known as El Chile as I said I would last week. I will sometime.

–Steve Brassawe

Categories: Uncategorized

Pages 404-465: Florita

March 16, 2010 5 comments

At the half-way point I want to indulge briefly in a generalization about this novel, something that I have tried to refrain from doing. To this point I personally have not encountered one shred of text that leads me in any way to the thought that this is some sort of crusading novel, that it is sending out some clarion call for action along the lines of, “something must be done about these murders” or “something must be done about the working conditions on the Mexican side of the border.” Nor do I detect any sort of message like that from the tone of the novel.

When I speak of a “crusading novel,” I am thinking of something like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It is hard to miss the message in that novel that “something must be done about the corruption and working conditions in the meat industry.” Again, I can detect nothing like that in this novel. Of course, as sensitive human beings I think that we all want very much to see such a message. I simply submit that it is not there.

It appears to me that we are being presented with a particular vision of the nature of human existence by a man who takes pride in portraying the most troubling aspects of that existence with nary a flinch. That’s all. There is not a lick of redemption here nor is there held out the hope of any because that is the way he sees the truth of the matter.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

There is not much question but that Florita Almada is the star of the show in this section of the book. Daryl has thoughtfully discussed aspects of her character below. My own reaction to her was much warmer as has my reaction to Barry Seaman become much warmer as I have reread his speeches. I want to focus on a different facet of the poem to which Daryl referred.

As Florita scans the poem on page 432, she comes to a downright apocalyptic passage:

Old, white haired, weak, barefoot, bearing enormous burden, up mountain and down valley, over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken, though wind and storm, when it’s hot and later freezes, running on, running faster, crossing rivers, swamps, falling and rising and hurrying faster, no rest or relief, battered and bloody, at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten.

After considering this, she comes to this conclusion at page 433:

. . . (4) that if it was true that all effort led to a vast abyss, she had two recommendations to begin with, first, not to cheat people, and, second, to treat them properly. Beyond that, there was room for discussion.

Superficially, that is heartwarming of course, the kind of simple, pithy observation that wise old people are capable of. But then consider it further. How, pray tell, did we get from the premise–the abyss–to that conclusion, the recommendation of fair and just treatment of people? It is a leap that made me laugh. She endeared herself to me with it, but it makes no sense.

Of course the better way to look at it is that it is a piece of homespun philosophy being presented to us rather than a piece of logic. The centerpiece of this philosophy is not human kindness in any form but rather fairness and justice. The idea is that even in the face of the ultimate void, we ought still to act with fairness and justice toward others.

Now is there some redemptive message here? Not for me. I cannot escape the conclusion that this being presented to us as a piece of naïveté for our affectionate amusement. I cannot believe that we are expected to take this from Florita seriously.

In other words, it seems clear to me that the author has spoken to us at times through several characters in this novel. However, I do not believe that he speaks to us through Florita.

–Steve Brassawe

Categories: Uncategorized
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