And so we’re out of Mexico, back to Europe—into another era, another world. Even the first sixty pages of The Part About Archimboldi are difficult to summarize because it feels like the narrator is giving us a summary of Archimboldi’s life (with a few diversions) so far.
Right away we learn that Benno von Archimboldi is Hans Reiter. We learn that his father lost a leg in the war and that his mother was blind in one eye. From this pair of misfits (both short) is born the giant Hans. When he is six years old he begins to dive in the waters off the German coast. He becomes a lover of seaweed, and studies the plants in his book Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region, and draws different species of seaweed in his notebook.
Reiter, as a young boy, is rescued from drowning by a tourist named Heinz Vogel. The next time Reiter nearly drowns, local fishermen, who are amazed at the boy’s ability to hold his breath for over two minutes, rescue him. When Reiter is ten (1930), his sister Lotte is born. Reiter leaves school at age 13—the same year Hitler comes to power. That year, a committee of National Socialists makes a stop in the Town of Chattering Girls and discovers that Reiter’s father is a wounded veteran. They are not impressed with the one-legged man’s stories, but when they see young Hans, one of them calls him a “giraffe fish” (how does that work translation-wise? something seems lost).
Hans briefly works on a fishing boat and is hired to work at the country house of a Prussian baron (“a house in the middle of a forest”). There he meets and befriends the baron’s nephew, Hugo Halder (when I first read that name, I thought of Saki, whose real name was Hector Hugo Munro). When the baron closes the country house, in 1936, Reiter follows Halder to Berlin. Here, Reiter’s roommate (Füchler) dies and Reiter practically assumes his identity: he takes the dead man’s possessions and his job. In Berlin, Reiter blossoms with the social interaction of Halder and Halder’s Japanese friend Nisa.
The three friends spend time with an orchestra conductor who is interested in the Fourth Dimension. Hans tells the conductor that “everything is a burned book” and the conductor calls Reiter “a time bomb … an untrained powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected.” The narrator tells us this is untrue. In 1939, Hans Reiter is drafted. He sets off to war alone and his regiment moves into Poland. At one point, Reiter thinks he sees the daughter of the baron, Halder’s cousin, in a car with some general staff officers who are surveying a squadron of planes (btw, I love the description of the officer reading and smoking in the wind on page 671).
Reiter is sent into a battle where his height is an almost certain disadvantage—and yet he emerges unscathed. His superior officer says that “what happened was that he’d gone into combat as if he wasn’t going into combat, as if he wasn’t there or the quarrel wasn’t with him.”
Eventually Reiter’s battalion is moved to Romania, in the Carpathian mountains, where he ends up working in Dracula’s castle. Several dignitaries arrive at the castle, including General Entrescu and the baroness Reiter knew from his days at the country manor. The guests have a dinner part and, on page 681, discuss the meaning of death and murder in ways that I’d say reflect upon Juárez/Santa Teresa. The guests discuss art, culture, and Dracula (Vlad Tepes).
The next morning, Reiter, Kruse, Wilkie, and Neitzke find a passageway behind a mirror. They walk through the labyrinthine passageways and discover peepholes into other rooms in the castle. Of course they end up watching the baroness and General Entrescu have crazy sex.
They leave the castle and Reiter gets leave to return to his home village and can’t help but visiting the baron’s old estate and asking about the baroness. He returns to Berlin looking for Halder, but finds a teenage girl instead—Ingeborg Bauer. Ingeborg kisses Hans and tells him she only swears by two things: big storms and The Aztecs. In great detail, she describes an Aztec ceremony for sacrificing a human being. Reiter swears on the Aztecs that he will never forget her and she tells him that Halder lives in Paris.
A few tidbits below:
• On page 639 we get this fascinating sentence: “Canetti, and Borges, too I think—two very different men—said that just as the sea was the symbol or mirror of the English, the forest was the metaphor the Germans inhabited.” And so right there we have the first direct mention of Borges, but also a marker of a clear narrator, likely unreliable (“I think”).
• This whole Part is filled with odd sentences. Here’s one: “Young Hans Reiter also liked to walk, like a diver, but he didn’t like to sing, for divers never sing.” Is this some allusion to Greek myth (or another famous work) or is it just one of the quirks of the narrator? Here’s another odd phrase (page 654): “A redemption that smelled of mirror” — what? And another about mirrors: “Are they the mirror of our fate or the hammer that will shatter mirror and fate together?”
• On pages 658-659 we learn that Reiter reads Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a medieval epic poem that tells the story of an Arthurian hero’s quest for the Holy Grail.
• On page 663 there is a mention of “a machine that would make artificial clouds.” As pure coincidence, this made me think of a similar detail in Michael Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
• Pages 669-670 seemed to recall parts of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Anyone care to make that connection more explicit?
• On page 670, Reiter imagines that under his uniform he is wearing the “suit or garb of a madman.” There is much in the ensuing pages about going mad, and we have seen asylums featured in almost every part of the book. What is Bolaño trying to say about the relationship between madness and death?
• Jules Verne wrote a novel called Carpathian Castle that seems right up Bolaño’s alley.
• Page 682: “Halder, who was a painter”. You know who else was an Austrian-born German painter….
• A paragraph at the top of page 694 seems reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye. Reiter is amused by his younger sister’s interest in him (Phoebe) and is “swamped by grim thoughts in which everything was meaningless.”
• The references to Lake Geneva and Montreux on page 697 recall the asylum that housed Edwin Johns in The Part About the Critics and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov’s home.