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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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One More Po

March 19, 2010 9 comments

I want to add another rogue to Steve’s lineup. Like he did, I invite you all to chime in if you disagree—I’m curious about counterarguments. The fellow I’m talking about has actually been getting some positive press this week (in Steve’s post as well), so I expect some pushback. I refer, of course, to Harry Magaña.

Here’s what I recognize as admirable about him: He tenaciously pursues some kind of redress for Lucy Anne Sander’s murder. He works his connections to try to get to the bottom of things. He puts himself to an awful lot of inconvenience in the process, when he’s not really obligated to do so. He seems to be a nice friend to Demetrio Águila. He misses his dead wife.

And I think that’s it. On the other side of the ledger, he’s corrupt, violent, and larcenous, he’s willing (at least) to torture, and he evidently feels he’s above the law.

Look at his first appearance:

When the bartender left work Harry Magaña was waiting for him outside, sitting in his car. The next day the bartender couldn’t come in to work, supposedly because he’d been in an accident. When he came back to Domino’s four days later with his face covered in bruises and scabs, everyone was shocked. He was missing three teeth, and if he lifted his shirt he revealed countless bruises in the most outrageous colors on his back and chest. He didn’t show his testicles, but there was still a cigarette burn on the left one. (414)

The bartender’s explanation is that he was jumped by a group on the street and they beat him up. Yes, I’m sure a cigarette to the scrotum happens all the time in street beatings. I strongly suspect this is our hero’s handiwork, and it’s appalling. We know he whips Elsa Fuentes with a belt to get information from her, threatening to mark her face and even to kill her. He breaks into three houses, cavalierly helps himself to whatever’s there, puts the make on a 16-year-old who’s in love with someone else, and lets his cohort—a police officer—pull a knife on a pimp to get more information. Have I missed anything?

The way he acts in this section, he’s just another lawless cop who thinks that what he’s trying to do is more important than the principles of law and justice he’s supposed to uphold. Are we supposed to be cheering him on? I understand the impulse to root for the only person who seems to be on track to accomplish something (you know, until he disappears), but surely his dehumanizing methods indicate caution there. I read his behavior as more than just dismaying, but as of a piece with (if not, obviously, as horrendous as) the pervasive narcissistic discounting of other people’s humanity that permits the conditions in Santa Teresa to arise. To me it’s clearly problematic to acclaim Harry Magaña in contradistinction to the people he’s trying to catch when they’re in some ways so similar. I’m reminded of the chemotherapy Magaña’s wife may have undergone: It’s effective in its fight, but that doesn’t make it less destructive and dangerous.

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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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A Rare Moment of Real Connection

So many of the human connections in 2666 are superficial. Even Pelletier and Espinoza, whom we think of as a strange mix of bosom buddies and rivals, have a brief chat about loyalty and (if I recall correctly) how it’s not worth much. Their relationship with Norton is strange, at times urgent and yet at other times disposable. Norton and Morini’s getting together was something of a bolt out of the blue and still, frankly, seems kind of strange, as if it fit formally the arrangement Bolaño wanted to create but with no real believable basis in the text itself.

Fate sees some moments of connection at his mother’s neighbor’s apartment, but he’s not really involved in them. He’s not exactly close to Guadalupe and in fact almost abandons her. Rosa Amalfitano he develops something of an across-the-room crush on, and he does wind up rescuing her, but I don’t know that there’s anything to that acquaintance that I’d call an especially close or connected relationship. Rosa’s father and mother are about as distant as can be imagined, and though Lola begins living with her graveyard lover, it seems to me that it’s as much a financial arrangement as one of true and lasting affinity. Lola’s connection — a very close one in her mind — with the poet she pursues is imagined.

In last week’s reading, we met Juan de Dios Martinez and Elvira Campos. He desperately wants connection, but she keeps him at arm’s length. Sure, she’ll nail him on a rigid twice-monthly schedule, but forget pillow-talk afterward, much less anything gesturing in the direction of a meaningful relationship.

The backdrop for all this aloofness, it should be noted, is a series of grisly crimes perpetrated as acts of unwanted connection.

At last, on page 408, we have a real connection. Erica Delmore is looking for her friend Lucy Anne Sander, who is later found murdered. She finally starts going to hospitals to ask if any American women have been admitted. At the last one, she has this experience:

[A] nurse suggested she try the Clinica America, a private hospital, but she answered with a burst of sarcasm. We’re blue-collar workers, honey, she said in English. Like me, said the nurse, also in English. The two of them talked for a while and then the nurse invited Erica to have coffee at the hospital cafeteria, where she informed her that many women disappeared in Santa Teresa. It’s the same in the United States, said Erica. The nurse met her eyes and shook her head. It’s worse here, she said. When they parted, they exchagned phone numbers and Erica promised to keep the nurse posted on any developments.

It seems an empty enough gesture. How often do we say, even to people we consider to be fairly close friends, that we’ll call, with no real intention of doing so? But get this: Just a couple of pages later, after they’ve found Erica’s friend, she calls the nurse to let her know the body has been found. When she gets to the morgue to identify the body, the nurse has, unasked, come to help her through it:

As they were waiting in a corridor in the basement, the nurse appeared. They hugged and kissed each other on the cheek. Then she introduced the nurse to Henderson, who greeted her distractedly but wanted to know how long they’d known each other. Twenty-four hours, said the nurse. Or less. It’s true, thought Erica, just a day, but I already feel as if I’ve known her for a long time.

It’s tempting to call this a Good Samaritan moment, though I’m not sure the politics of the different cultures (somewhat distrustful of one another) in Bolaño’s vignette quite lines up with those in the source material. Still, it’s a nice little moment of human connection, an oasis of friendliness in a desert of aloofness.

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Of Bladders and Blasphemy

March 13, 2010 4 comments

Up through last week, I turned each page of this book with dread, knowing that every one I left to the left was one fewer between me and the Part About the Crimes. As that wall of pages visibly thinned, I tried to steel myself against the ghastly proceedings to come. Traces of the feminicidios wisp through the first third of the book like fish in a mirror, coalescing around Oscar Fate and rerouting his part of the book. That we will encounter the deaths is obvious; that they will make for distressing reading is suggested by (among other things) the flat brutality of Pelletier and Espinoza’s battery of the cabbie, and by the garish sordidness of Charly Cruz’s den.

I mentioned last week the aggressive shock that the Part About the Crimes begins with—blammo! Here’s a dead body—but after the initial jolt, it’s not as crudely executed as that. I want to highlight Paul’s and Maria’s takes on the start of this part, because my own reaction shares in both. Maria captures the defensive inattention that I find myself wrestling, and Paul is surprised like I am at the strictly comparative ease of reading in this section.

But more surprising than that, for me, is the story of the Demon Penitent. It was only when the “church desecrator” appeared that I finally understood the awkwardness of the title of the Part About the Crimes. Why not “The Part About the Murders”? I had been unwittingly wondering. The answer: Because they’re not the only crimes under discussion. And so far I very much like that the Demon Penitent is included. I find him (his plot thread, etc.) interesting, but I also think he’s very useful to the book.

Dan makes the argument that it is preposterous and ghoulish to aestheticize the situation in Santa Teresa (particularly because of its factual basis), and to a certain extent I see his point. We probably all agree that it would be disgusting to turn the actual violent deaths of the actual women and girls of Ciudad Juárez into a symbol or object to serve some literary purpose. Nobody gets to claim those deaths for personal use. At the same time, the importance and, yes, utility of shining a light on them seems obvious; to draw attention is (hopefully) to inspire or force action. So in making the valid choice to write about those deaths, Bolaño has put himself in a bit of a bind with respect to what he can actually do.

That’s where the Demon Penitent enters the picture. He most blatantly provides authorial cover for Santa Teresa to not care about its women, but that’s pretty gracelessly done. Yes, I get it, the people of Santa Teresa are more concerned with offenses against an incorporeal god than with the murder of those they walk among. The addition of a clumsy countersubject does not improve my outlook on the matter nor increase the artistry with which the point is made.

The best possibility the Demon Penitent opens up is the symbolic, and that’s where he really adds to the section. In the first place, the story of a man who relentlessly imposes his bodily functions on spiritual places is inherently a symbol of the tension between the physical and the supernatural. His focus on serial desecration through excretion, as well as the sheer volume of his bladder, is so outlandish and unusual that it acquires a kind of literary charge; it must mean something, because it’s just too peculiar to be mere plot. With regard to Christianity (the religion I’m most familiar with), there’s a lot we could say about the church(es) in terms of continual appeals to the supernatural as an authority over the physical—look at sacerdotal and conventual celibacy, for one very conspicuous example—and the Demon Penitent draws all this into play. Additionally, he at least activates associations with the religious function of conceptualizing and managing the afterlife; one of the things religion has always been concerned with is the transition from physical to no-longer-physical existence, which is a transition that’s been happening an awful lot in Santa Teresa lately.

In an interesting way, though, the Demon Penitent is also an attack on the symbolic. His intent, remember, is to leave his waste all over the church and behead or destroy statues; the killings are essentially incidental. His goal is to deface the symbols of his faith, and he in fact adapts his methods in order to minimize the chances of feeling forced to harm anyone. I may be pressing the point a little too hard (or the next 250 pages may befool me), but I see his profanations as an assault on the value of any kind of symbolism, at least in the context of Santa Teresa. Facts in that city must be addressed, and to withdraw to a second-order experience of them, to see them as anything other than stark reality, is to refuse to confront them. Symbolism is cold comfort when it substitutes for action or tries to organize a set of events that are so immediate and horrible. In this sense, the Demon Penitent makes the same argument that the Part About the Critics does regarding criticism: The enormity of the events in Santa Teresa requires engagement. There is no neutrality or aloofness in the matter, because more will die without wide-scale intervention.

* I know that should be “sacrilege” in the title, but think of the sonority!

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