Week 5: Now We’re Cookin’

by Maria Bustillos

Barry Seaman is a reimagining of Bobby Seale, nurse who founded the Black Panthers with Huey Newton.  There are significant breaks with the real story; for example, salve Newton was murdered in Oakland, not in Santa Cruz.  I don’t really know enough Panther history to compare point by point, but I have just ordered a copy of the real book, Barbeque’n with Bobby (pub. 1988.)

This is the second author we’ve met who brought himself back to reality by writing a cookbook; the first, as you will recall, was Sor Juana.  Another fighter for freedom, and also another oppressed person.  Another incarcerated person, you might say; Sor Juana in a convent, and Bobby Seale in a conventional jail.  My understanding is that both of these cookbooks are very highly regarded qua cookbooks, that is to say, they are the work of serious cooks, not just some kind of literary joke, in either case.  I sympathize greatly with this view of the world.  Preparing and eating food really does bring people back to reality.  It restores perspective.

The underlying message I’m seeing so far in this book is:  art and literature can be made to liberate us, and to show us reality in its true colors, but we’ve built up a million dodges to prevent this from happening.  In The Part About the Critics, the murders in Santa Teresa are completely abstract to the critics, whose concerns are almost entirely selfish, personal; the reality of the crimes is totally distant from them, even when they get to Mexico, until they begin to make contact with Amalfitano.  I think that Bolaño is saying is, what they really ought to be doing, what we all really ought to be doing, is concentrating with all our hearts on the fact of these murders, and doing something about it.  It bears thinking about that traditionally in Latin America, poets and writers have been activists as a matter of course–sometimes, even revolutionaries.  And that is going back to the likes of José Martí. What else could possibly be more important than preventing all these atrocities? Intellectuals in Spain and Latin America see themselves as having a political destiny in a way that we don’t seem to, here in the States. Of course quite a number of them have gotten themselves thrown in jail or even shot, for their pains. Which is a subject for another day.

Amalfitano, getting back to the story, is a little closer to reality than are the critics.  He has been kind of immune to all this blathering about Archimboldi, even though he is a professor of literature.  This is because the dodges of the academy aren’t working, here in Santa Teresa.  Reality is getting harder to ignore, for him.

And now we come to Oscar Fate, who is making the move toward reality, not away from it.  Barry Seaman, or Bobby Seale, is very close indeed to the workings of reality.  Dedicated his life, in however flawed a manner, to redressing the wrongs of the world, in the approved manner of a Latin American intellectual.  Bobby Seale’s political activities were questionable, I believe … are we hearing a Latin American revolutionary who is giving a man like Seale too much the benefit of the doubt, I wonder?  Seale renounced violence, in the end.  His books are said to be worthy.  I will start with the cookbook.


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14 Responses to “Week 5: Now We’re Cookin’”


  • Comment from Dan Summers

    Maria, this is almost exactly my own feeling about how the book is unfolding. We start with self-obsessed academics who live lives almost tragically divorced from the real, material world around them. They live almost entirely in their heads, individually and collectively.

    Amalfitano feels the lingering dread of the reality around him, but is too ineffectual to do anything about it. He sees the glass in the walls around him as his own daughter strolls out the door and down the street. Hell, he doesn’t even know how his books get on his shelf or what diagrams he draws even mean. That geometry text is as much a metaphor for him as anything.

    Fate, despite his flaws (and I can’t argue with my friend @Naptimewriting), comes to Mexico and sees that there’s something more there than his own initial interests. The closer we get to the Crimes, the more obvious it seems to me that Bolaño is criticizing all of these trivial, meaningless activities in the face of the ghastly, horrifying reality of Crimes like these.

    It all comes back to that epigraph.

  • Comment from David Savarese

    Spot on, I totally agree. As I get into the crimes, a hard-hitting chapter to say the least, your suggestion really takes root. What can we do about these crimes? However small an effort we make would be better than nothing as we all read and wax, perhaps there is an NGO that we can contribute to? Perhaps we can put a link on this site?

    I don’t speak spanish, but maybe this is it: http://www.casa-amiga.org/

  • What a great idea, David Savarese. Let’s move something like this onto a permanent spot on the front page!

    And thanks again for the commentary, you guys. This book is more rewarding to read in a group than any other book I can think of.

  • Comment from Steve

    Middle and upper class Americans of the early 21st Century labor under the illusion that they able to purchase a world that makes sense with their money. Indeed, this attitude has spread to the middle and upper classes of other developed nations. Perhaps a better way to put it is that these people feel entitled to a life with meaning in return for their money.

    Liberals believe that if we just spread the wealth a bit, those less fortunate will also be able to purchase a logical world. “Meaning” has become a consumer product. Poor people, at least the ones who cross the border going north from Mexico to the United States with the help of coyotes, apparently believe that they, too, will someday be able to purchase a logical world with some meaning. Likewise, the people who migrate to Sonora to work in the maquiladores.

    A middle class person who pays money for a copy of 2666 believes himself entitled to some logical “meaning.”

    This is an illusion that is dearly held. When the illusion is challenged, there can be much gnashing of teeth. It is an illusion that is extraordinarily difficult to shed.

    • Comment from Dan Summers

      A middle class person who pays money for a copy of 2666 believes himself entitled to some logical “meaning.”

      Um, I’m not entirely sure I understand why a desire for meaning in a novel I am reading has anything to do with my socioeconomic class.

      I do not cry out for “meaning” in every aspect of my life. When I watch or read the news, I don’t try to synthesize a narrative arc. When a person on the highway drives too slowly in the fast lane, I don’t try to fit it into a larger understanding of the world.

      However, if I’m going to sit down and read about 900 pages that critics the world over have fallen all over themselves to praise, then yes, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that there be a coherent meaning. Why these words in this order about these people doing these things? Why collect it all between these two covers and call it a book? Generally speaking, books throughout history have been written in such a way as to convey a meaning of some sort, so an expectation that this particular book do likewise is not unreasonable. Further, if there is no “meaning” to the book, some of us might mount the argument that it has less merit as a work of art than something from which a meaning can be derived.

    • Steve, I take your meaning. But I am no Bolaño. If I were, then maybe I would say something like what Gandhi advised the Jews to do in WWII (along the lines of if they want the world to take notice of their plight, they should stage a mass suicide.) Maybe it would make just as much sense, in a world like this one, to go to Ciudad Juarez and attempt to be murdered oneself, in protest, or it would make sense to adopt the Franciscan scheme of giving every cent to the poor and trying to live a spiritual life in the streets or in a monastery. I’m not kidding about any of that. It might.

      Maybe it seems patronizing or futile to send money to help someone, anyone, who is trying to improve conditions in the maquiladoras; I was criticized myself in much the same way for bothering to bust tail on behalf of Barack Obama (“they’re all the same.”) I understand these criticisms but I don’t regret my small role for a moment. So it’s just one liberal’s deluded attempt to purchase a world with meaning! This is no less absurd than any other course, is it? What have we got but shared illusions, anyway?

    • Comment from David Savarese

      Whoa. I just made a comment about “meaning” in the last post. I don’t feel all that entitled to it. Maybe that is because I ain’t middle class. Potential spoiler: I have heard that he never explains what 2666 stands for, though I have a weak theory. If that is the case, maybe we will flush this out in the end.

  • Comment from Michael Mullen

    Maria writes, ” I think that Bolaño is saying is, what they really ought to be doing, what we all really ought to be doing, is concentrating with all our hearts on the fact of these murders, and doing something about it,” I hadn’t thought so far myself, but this feels right to me. Oscar Fate, a writer of stories about ethical freedom fighters, is thus fated to contemplate the crimes: though this story is not even vaguely quaint like that of the leftover communist, or inadvertantly leftist chic like the story of the Black Panthers.

    But to be honest it’s other things than what Bolano might be ultimately saying that keep me going with the narrative, at least at this point. Seaman’s sermon I’ve mostly re-read already, because it’s stunning and strange and raises so many questions that I can’t answer, and cuts so far down to the bone of what it is to be a sentient being. The passage about stars [p. 152] alone is so connected with other things that have been talked about already.

    This leads to a discussion of metaphor that seems related to things Maria wrote earlier about Plato’s cave. “Metaphors are our ways of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” Stars are metaphoric reflections of the one real star, the sun of our solar system. And that star is real, why? Because if it weren’t we’d be dead? Because it can burn up astronauts in bad sci-fi movies, but isn’t that treading back toward metaphor? Because it’s the ideal from which other stars and their qualities are extrapolated?

    The novel is full of dreams, and dreams within dreams, beneath a dreamlike surface, a swirling narrative. We’re trying to make sense of this all, and hoping to grasp the life jacket that won’t cause us to sink.

    The stars that may be dead remind me very much of Amalfitano’s belief that places don’t exist when you leave them. That jet lag comes not from you being tired, but from the place you’ve arrived at working extra hard to constitute itself. As soon as you leave again, it slips back into semblance.

    And with all of this sort of metaphysical questioning, I still believe that the novel is pointing toward the realities of injustice and exploitation, as you’ve all discussed above. You can’t go to Santa Teresa and expect not to be implicated in the crimes, or some attempt at their solution.

    • Comment from Michael Mullen

      Oops, screwed up the blockquote cite tag. Guess I didn’t do it right.

    • Comment from Michael Mullen

      Sorry. If I hadn’t botched the blockquote tag, the second part of this would read:

      But to be honest it’s other things than what Bolano might be ultimately saying that keep me going with the narrative, at least at this point. Seaman’s sermon I’ve mostly re-read already, because it’s stunning and strange and raises so many questions that I can’t answer, and cuts so far down to the bone of what it is to be a sentient being.

      The passage about stars [p. 252] alone is so connected with other things that have been talked about already. “It might be a live star and it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance.” [252] This leads to a discussion of metaphor that seems related to things Maria wrote earlier about Plato’s cave. “Metaphors are our ways of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” [254] Stars are metaphoric reflections of the one real star, the sun of our solar system. And that star is real, why? Because if it weren’t we’d be dead? Because it can burn up astronauts in bad sci-fi movies, but isn’t that treading back toward metaphor? Because it’s the ideal from which other stars and their qualities are extrapolated?

      The novel is full of dreams, and dreams within dreams, beneath a dreamlike surface, a swirling narrative. We’re trying to make sense of this all, and hoping to grasp the life jacket that won’t cause us to sink.

      The stars that may be dead remind me very much of Amalfitano’s belief that places don’t exist when you leave them. That jet lag comes not from you being tired, but from the place you’ve arrived at working extra hard to constitute itself. As soon as you leave again, it slips back into semblance.

      And with all of this sort of metaphysical questioning, I still believe that the novel is pointing toward the realities of injustice and exploitation, as you’ve all discussed above. You can’t go to Santa Teresa and expect not to be implicated in the crimes, or some attempt at their solution.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    I only just saw this. Speaking of mirrors, Michael; how typical is this? You with your poet’s mind have drawn such rich and true insights from this book, so different from my pragmatist ones but so obvious, so compelling, once they are illuminated. All of which reminds me of this other poem:

    the ocean doesn’t outgrow
    being made of water

    I’m composing a longer reply now.

  • […] that form themselves around food. Early on, we have Morini reading an old cookbook (which Maria wrote about). This takes place alongside a discussion of catch phrases and jokes emblazoned on mugs, and […]


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