by Maria Bustillos
We’re parting company with the critics at the moment where Norton has made her choice: she’s in bed with Morini. I certainly did not see that one coming! For all the bed-hopping that goes on in this section, it isn’t even entirely clear to me that the relationship between Norton and Morini is in fact sexual, though I suspect it might be (?) The author has been pretty silent on the subject of Morini’s personal habits, capacities etc., in contrast to those of Espinoza and Pelletier, but he’s presented as something of a sensualist, all the same.
When the three critics dashed to Mexico to find their hero, I thought we might come to learn more about Archimboldi himself, but we really don’t. They don’t even really seem to put their backs into finding the man. They don’t visit any libraries or bookshops, which would be the first place I’d try. If he’d spent any time there at all, he would have gone to both for sure. The critics don’t make what I would consider a concerted attempt to enter into the intellectual life of this place in order to identify possible contacts—to the point where they’re introduced to all the local luminaries and promptly forget all their names. In short, I didn’t get the feeling they wanted to find Archimboldi very badly at all.
What we know of Archimboldi’s actual books doesn’t amount to much, we haven’t heard much about the plots or characters, we don’t know how long they are, or in what style they are written, or what effect they were intended to make. We know tangential things, distanced things, for example that the critics are scandalized to hear that Amalfitano finds Archimboldi no more talented than Günter Grass. (How bad would that be?) By this time maybe the reader feels more comfortable with Amalfitano’s literary judgements than with those of the critics, and we can sympathize with that—after all, we’ve only just heard of Archimboldi ourselves! (plus in Europe, I guess, you don’t get to be a distinguished professor of literature without feeling scandalized on behalf of your subject at the drop of a hat.)
In any case, Amalfitano’s glorious allegory of the cave and the stage has a strangely cathartic effect on these three. After having been dismissive and even contemptuous of this hick littérateur, they come to like him—admire him, even. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even though Norton is confused by the allegory of the cave, the meaning of this passage has kind of sunk into the three of them by osmosis. The world has come nearer to them; they see the mouth of the mine. There’s been this lack of contact between the critics and the world outside, a theme repeated over and over in the section. This might seem weird, but I submit that hanging around in Mexico (and even more so, Africa) has itself the effect of bringing reality inexorably, excitingly, and sometimes even frighteningly closer to a person.
So contact with Mexico and/or with Amalfitano begins to thaw the three of them out, a certain amount. They respond to the relative nearness of the world in very different ways, though. Pelletier just sits around reading Archimboldi, the same books over and over, when the author himself could very well be nearby. This seems to me somewhat to symbolize the futility of European academic life. Pelletier withdraws into his intellect, becomes more insular than ever before, rereading, reinforcing his old idea of himself, locking himself up in his mind with Archimboldi, only more so; Espinoza goes quite the other way, headlong into pure carnality; he forgets all about Archimboldi and engages in a blindly lustful sexual escapade, one that is really pretty sordid, I think, because he himself seems to know that it is going nowhere, he’s mindlessly buying rugs and lingerie and obsessing on this poor kid (that beautiful, terrible line about how she’s nothing more than “a tremor in his arms” by the time he’s done with her … and it’s no accident how no mention is made of how she feels about him, about what they’re doing together … how come he doesn’t make some moves to ensure that she can go to nursing school? It’s like he sees her only in relation to himself, his own needs. No chance is he thinking about marrying her, not really. I reckon that’s just not his nature.)
And finally, Norton weirdly flees the premises, rejecting both Pelletier and Espinoza, whose curious, bizarrely shared attachment to Norton is just so strange and difficult for me to understand. I finally came to the conclusion that the two of them were just sugarcoating their real feeling for Norton which is really your basic bestial attraction, pretending to “love” her and want to marry her and whatnot, telling her to choose between them. If a man wants to marry a woman, are we to believe that he would have sex with her, in the same room with his rival? Impossible, surely–? Plus, what the heck is she thinking?! Maybe she has been reading these wacky magazine articles about “polyamory” or whatever? I will welcome everyone’s views on this point.
By the way, I take Norton’s dream of the two mirrors this way: one mirror is Espinoza, the other is Pelletier. The woman reflected therein is both herself, and not herself. She panics and thinks how she’s got to get the hell out of there, which she does. The real Norton is in there, at least, and struggling to get out.
The three dreams after Amalfitano’s allegory are prophetic. Pelletier dreams of reading the same page over and over, which he does; Espinoza dreams of visiting the rug seller and mindlessly buying rugs, ditto; Norton, of scrambling around trying to find a place for the English oak, herself, for she sees herself as both traditionally English, and rootless (or the roots are Medusa’s locks, and she’s already been compared to that dreadful figure.) Which she finally does, as well, go off scrambling to the next place, and planting her roots with Morini.
I can’t tell whether Morini can really help her, though. Is their attachment real, will the roots sink down, or is it just another series of poses, like what she went through with Pelletier and Espinoza?