I want to direct your attention to Infinite Zombies, where a group read of Moby-Dick is now in progress. Please do join in the fun and post comments with your ideas about the novel. You can also follow along on Twitter with #mobydick. Thanks for organizing this, Daryl!
by Matt Hunte
Nobody really knows or understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do.
Ernest Hemingway (as quoted by his wife Mary.)
In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray lays out his definition of the role of the protagonist in the epic: “Sometimes he may take the action necessary to dispatch evil, but his essential job is to dig up evidence and provide information about the source or sources of specific evils. Once he accumulates enough evidence for an “indictment,” the detective has, to all intents and purposes, completed the job he was hired to do and may collect his fee and move on to the next client. He provides existential information, not millennial salvation.”
Not only did Bolaño revamp the epic for a new generation, the way he also did it arguably places his work well within the blues tradition, in a way that few other contemporary writers, certainly not American writers, have been able to do. This is not to say that the Chilean made any conscious effort to adopt a specific sensibility (though he was greatly influenced by Julio Cortazar, who was explicit about the influence of jazz on his writing, particularly his magnum opus Hopscotch, which served as a model for Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.) but that Bolaño’s aesthetic vision shared much with the blues, whether or not it was a derivation. By this I mean, Bolaño acknowledges the difficulties and absurdities of life but instead of merely resigning, he sees this as something to overcome, primarily through devotion to the literary life.
Not only has Bolaño has restored the idea of the hero but also that of the writer as hero, not in the sense of speaking truth to power (the events of the mid twentieth century having dented that ideal) of why specifically, most of those heroes are writers, forged as always in the Byronic mold. This is not to be taken for granted; many contemporary novels have exchanged irony, however cruel, for base cynicism and thus preclude the existence of genuine epics and by extension heroes, even in the quixotic sense. Protest fiction on the other hand, usually draped with the saran wrap of identity politics, also denies heroism in it’s denial of agency, substituting individuals for cardboard avatars of collective victimhood. We shall no longer overcome, by use of our wits and wisdom; we are to instead appeal is made to the dragon’s better angels. Bolaño, despite being often being puerile and sardonic, is never quite that jaded (probably thanks to being untouched by the academy) ; his aesthetic vision is an extension of his own life, which he described as being marked by “black humor, friendship…and the danger of death.” (In an oft-repeated anecdote, Bolaño was arrested after the 1973 coup in Chile for being a “foreign terrorist” and may well have been murdered if a prison guard hadn’t recognized him as a high school buddy and subsequently released him.)
Despite the common perception, the blues aren’t about wallowing in self-pity, in a resigned, melancholic stupor. The hero archetype is essential to the blues idiom because of it’s preoccupation with overcoming difficulties. Of course, with Bolaño, nothing is ever that easy: Belano and Lima find the great Mexican poet in the desert and she ends up dead as a result. Garcia Madero is accepted by the infrarealists, gets the girl (a few times) but ends up stuck in the desert; there’s no evidence he’s ever heard from again; Fate senses something dark is going down in Santa Theresa, but isn’t able to do anything about it; The various characters in Last Evenings on Earth barely touch success but never really grasp it; Auxilio Lacouture spends much of Amulet locked in the bathroom. Bolaño may be a romantic but he’s certainly not a sentimentalist.
…Literature is the only available tool for the cognition of phenomena whose size otherwise numbs your senses and eludes human grasp.
John Gardner argued that essentially all great literature is seen as correction of that which has gone before, what he referred to as the ‘deconstructive implulse.’ In doing so, Bolaño, along with Kis, serve as corrections to Borges, in that while essentially working within the aesthetic, they take a decidedly less romantic position. In Bolaño’s famous assessment of his experience, and arguably work, he concluded “My life has been infinitely more savage than Borges’s.”
Roberto Bolaño’s earlier work, Nazi Literature in the America’s could be seen as an example of what Stanley Crouch dubbed, in reference to Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy “a novel in blues suite” This is highly appropriate given Borges’s well documented influence on the Bolaño, who modeled himself on the Argentine master though his own life and work were more sprawling, messy, sensual and of course sanguinary. Bolaño’s performance in Nazi Literature in The Americas is the literary equivalent of Shostakovich writing three minute pop singles.
For those interested in literary parlor games, Shostakovich was the main character in William Vollmann’s Europe Central, which was dedicated to and inspired by Danilo Kis, whose magnum opus A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was a dark and brooding response to the aforementioned A Universal History of Infamy. It is not clear whether Bolaño read Kis, who like Bolaño himself died at a relatively young age, but it shouldn’t be out of the question for a man who was considered one of the most widely read in the Spanish literary world.
While in Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño is obviously satirizing far right figures with their obsessive nationalism, coupled with the requisite creation of a mythical past, obsession with racial purity, distrust of modernism and of course morbid lack of a sense of humor. Kis’ characters on the contrary, are more like thepeople that populate Bolaño’s literary world in The Savage Detectives, indeed they are people like Bolaño himself. Indeed, Nazi Literature in the Americas sees Bolaño introducing the techniques he would use in the eponymous middle section of The Savage Detectives.
But nonetheless, it is instructive to juxtapose the fatalism in the portrayals of the young revolutionaries of the COMITERN with Bolaño’s own Lost Generation in Latin America. Kis’ young idealists, like Gould Verschoyle and Karl Taube, are ultimately consumed by the totalizing ideologies that they championed, “the sow that eats her farrow.” Bolaño’s generation, those survived the initial cataclysms of 1968-1973 and weren’t ‘disappeared’, ultimately succumbed to an unacknowledged dictatorship; But then, Auxilio Lacouture did warn that “Dust and literature have always gone hand in hand.”
All stories, if continued far enough, end in death and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.
Most of Bolaño’s works are quite short, falling into the category of the abandoned stepchild of the Anglo-American literary world, the novella. Even his two big novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666 are really compilations of shorter pieces, of varying lengths, which are joined. Indeed, the five sections of are only tangentially linked (The most notable exception being the reappearance of Rosa Amalfitano in The Part About Fate but the most significant perhaps being the (re?) introduction of Albert Kessler in The Part About The Crimes.) One reason for this is that Bolaño’s sparse prose style coupled with his dark subject matter may not necessarily be sustainable over an extended length. Indeed, the most descriptive Bolaño gets is with his Associated Press style documentation of the murders in Santa Theresa. The numbing violence lays the grooves for The Part About The Crimes, indeed the entire novel, providing a solid foundation for his digressions and improvisations: the sections on the young detectives, the seerwoman etc. Bolaño’s work is recursive with various themes phrases and characters constantly reappearing bracketed by the teutonic (and totemic) figures of Archimoldi and Klaus.
Those who plan on reading 2666 with the intention of finding out what happens next probably won’t make it to the end, unless they are blessed with a requisite amount of pure bloody-mindedness. The density, inter-textual references and flat droning prose resist passive reading. But more importantly, 2666 is a departure from the rest of Bolaño’s work in that it is the once least infused with life, his particularly. He had already left Mexico when the murders in Ciudad Juarez started and his alter-egos don’t feature prominently (with one curious exception.)
2666 work assumes a symphonic, as opposed to narrative, structure and rather than telling a cohesive story, is more interested in the exploration and development of themes. 2666 is a find example of this in that it was explicitly composed of five distinctive books which differ, sometimes very subtly, in not just pitch and timbre but indeed genre, skipping from academic satire to psychological thriller to künstlerroman. Bolaño was very influenced by the Symbolism which influenced modernists writers like Proust and Joyce. (The epigraph to 2666, “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom”, is from Baudelaire’s Le Fleurs Du Mal, the seminal text of symbolism.) The eroticism and violence which characterized Symbolism were a reaction to the naturalism of Zola. However, it would be a mistake to place Bolaño’s work into any distinct groupings; like the most essential artists, Bolaño’s work can’t be easily categorized nor to it strictly adhere to the mandate of any project except for that which it creates.
Bolaño himself wrote in “Myths of Cthulhu” that “…Latin American literature is not Borges or Macedonio Fernándezor Onetti or Bioy or Cortázar or Revueltas Rulfo or even the elderly male duet formed by García Márquez and Vargas Llosa.” He instead applied that overarching term, which he regarded as little more than a marketing gimmick, to writers he had little regard for, like Isabel Allende.
As Marcela Valdes wrote in the Nation, reviewing a collection of Bolaño’s nonfiction, “… all writers he really loved–including Kafka–fight against darkness with humor.” This is the essence of the blues aesthetic. Contrary to common perception, the blues come not out of resignation to the pain of life but an attempt to overcome them. 2666 fails to provide this release and is brutally fatalistic. The bodies continue to pileup in Santa Theresa and the authorities remain as helpless as ever.
In The Part About Fate, one of the ‘minor’ sections of the novels but the one featuring the closest thing to a hero, Fate’s experience parallel’s that the reader exploring this strange, violence place. Like Fate, we sense the evil around and the imminent danger but are’t allowed to truly understand what it is happening, being able only to see through a glass darkly:
“This is more important,” said Fate, “the fight is just a little story. What I’m proposing is so much more.”
“What are you proposing?”
“A sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world,” said Fate, “a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story, for fuck’s sake.”
“Reportage?” asked his editor. “Is that French, nigger? Since when do you speak French?”
This character allows Bolaño to make subtle use of the conventions of detective fiction to explore Santa Theresa, with the macguffin, or to draw another comparison, the great white whale, of the nature of the crimes remains elusive. Stanley Crouch wrote that in Hemingway’s world “…violence is no more a heightened version of what is always happening.”
Some have said, with much justification, that 2666 can not be examined without considering the circumstances of its composition. Ultimately, this was the work of a man on the final stages of a terminal illness. In this book, Bolaño pitched up his reoccurring themes of mortality and literature, nearly pushing them to the edge. Despite it greater size, which speaks volumes, 2666 is a less expansive than The Savages Detectives, a veritable cacophony of voices prevented from spinning off by the centripetal force of Lima and Belano. (Whether or not The Savage Detectives is Bolaño’s magnum opus, it certainly has a strong case for his most quintessential.) 2666, however, comes closer to Cormac McCarthy’s ideal literature, which essentially deals with “issues of life and death.”
In his superb review of 2666 for Open Letters Monthly, Sam Sacks argued that “Save in random corners, 2666 has no lights, and the result is that the unrelieved darkness overwhelms the senses and thereby renders itself uninterpretable.” He finally concluded: “The brutal truth is this: masterpieces are written at the height of an artist’s power. For all its size and sprawl, 2666 was written in a period of surpassing vulnerability.” This is not entirely without precedent; James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake while dealing with the illness of family and his own poor health, most notably his failing eyesight, which required painful operations; Thomas Mann wrote Joseph and His Brothers during the political instability of Germany in the thirties and published the latter books while in exile (indeed, his daughter had to sneak into their confiscated home to retrieve a manuscript of the early sections.) Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment while trying to overcome a gambling addiction that left him destitute and depressed.
Still, Sacks’ conclusion can not be dismissed. While I concede many of his points, I don’t accept 2666 as being merely nihilistic, or an artistic failure. The book’s translator Natasha Wimmer wrote: “He [Bolaño] didn’t set out to do this just to prove something, to experiment, or to make some nihilistic statement. As he said many times, writing was for him a radical way of living, and thus he had to find a vital and arresting and, in some ways, anti-literary approach to fiction.” Yes, Life is hard; it is violent, uncertain and short; it often makes no sense. But so what? We are aware form early on of the fact that we will die but we still make love, get married, have children, go to work; we still read, we still write. The primary question is not whether anything makes sense but whether life is still worth it. Whatever meaning can be derived from life has to be found in the journey because it’s not to be assumed any meaning will be found.
While it is clear that 2666 wasn’t quite finished, there’s little certainty it ever would have been, or indeed what the implications would be for the text we do have. (It has been reported that a manuscript which appears to be a sixth section has been found.) Given the contest of it’s construction, it may be useful to view 2666 not just as a novel but as performance art, an intricate construct to serve as an epitaph to Bolaño’s preening ambition. Much like Scheherazade, Bolaño was attempting to write his way into immortality, a final attempt at self-mythologizing; Death is not just a great career move, it may also be a great muse.
Malraux explored this tension between art and death in The Voices of Silence and concluded: “But we have learned that though death cannot still the voice of genius, the reason is that genius triumphs over death not by perpetuating its original language, but by constraining us to listen to a language constantly modified, sometimes all but forgotten-as it were an echo answering and what the masterpiece keeps up is not a monologue, however authoritative, but a dialogue indefeasible by Time.” True, it was a personal struggle but great art seeks to turn the personal in to the universal. Bolaño may have failed in providing understanding but may be he deserves credit just for not flinching. So it goes.
Matt Hunte is a writer living in Saint Lucia. He is working on a book. You can follow him on twitter at @matthunte.
by Daryl L.L. Houston
851: Popescu listens to Romanian intellectuals who are asking him for loans as if he’s asleep or in a dream.
864: As a child, after Reiter goes off to war, Lotte hears him in her dreams, stepping like a giant homeward. Other times she dreams that she too is at war and finds Reiter’s body on the battlefield, riddled with bullets. Lotte’s father asks what the faces of the dead soldiers in her dreams look like, whether they look as if they’re asleep. He says that the faces of dead soldiers are always dirty. Reiter’s face is always clean in Lotte’s dreams, “as if despite being dead he was still capable of many things.”
868: Lotte dreams that Reiter appears outside her bedroom window and asks why their mother is going to get married. He then tells Lotte (in the dream) never to marry.
869: In the country, Lotte dreams about dead animals. Once she dreams of seeing a wild boar in its death throes in the bushes, surrounded by hundreds of dead baby boars. (Her strange response to this dream is to consider becoming a vegetarian but to take up smoking instead.)
870: Lotte’s nightmares have stopped. In fact, she never dreams at all. She suggests that she must dream like everybody else but is lucky enough not to remember the dreams when she wakes up. I think this is a close echo to Kessler’s reported experience of dreams.
875: Lotte dreams that her expatriate son has married and lives a normal domestic American life, but his wife has no face. Lotte sees her only from behind. When she dreams of him with children, she knows the children are around but never actually sees them. There are echoes of two prior dreams here, the first of Norton’s dream in which she sees the back of a head in the mirror and one in which Pelletier is living a domestic life with Norton and is aware that she’s around but never actually seems to see her. Also on this page, Lotte dreams that Klaus’s wife is cooking Indian food. She (Lotte) is sitting at a table with a pitcher, an empty plate, a plastic cup, and a fork, but she doesn’t know who let her in, and it troubles her. This becomes for her what she and her husband call “the Klaus nightmare” for its recurrence.
878: Lotte dreams (her first in a long time) of Archimboldi walking in the desert, wearing shorts and a straw hat. The landscape is all sand. She shouts to him to stop, but he keeps moving farther away “as if he wanted to lose himself forever in that unfathomable and hostile land.” She tells him it’s unfathomable and hostile, realizing that in the dream she’s a small girl again, and he whispers in her ear (sort of a god voice from afar, I guess) that it’s “boring, boring, boring.” Cue here a look back at the book’s epigraph.
880: Lotte is in Mexico and falls asleep with the TV on. She dreams of Archimboldi sitting on a huge volcanic slab, dressed in rags and holding an ax, looking sad. In the dream, she thinks that maybe her brother is dead, but her son is alive. She tells Klaus that she’s been dreaming about her brother, and he confesses that he’s been having bad dreams about his uncle too. When she admits that her dreams aren’t good ones, his reaction is to smile, and they move on to talk about other things.
882: Lotte dreams (back in Germany now) that a warm, loving voice whispers in her ear the possibility that her son really was the Santa Teresa killer. (Recall the dream a few pages back in which her brother is whispering in her ear from the desert.)
883: Klaus tells Lotte (having called from an illicit cell phone) that he had had a dream. She asks what it’s about, and he asks whether or not she knows what it was about. She doesn’t, and he says he’d better not tell her and hangs up.
884: Klaus’s trial passes as if in a dream.
889: Lotte is trying to reach Mrs. Bubis while in Mexico. She goes to sleep with the TV on but muted and dreams of a cemetery and the tomb of a giant. The gravestone splits and the giant begins to emerge. The head is crowned with long blond hair. She wakes up.
890: Archimboldi visits Lotte in Germany, and she tells him of Klaus’s dream that he’ll be rescued from prison by a giant. She tells Archimboldi that he doesn’t look like a giant anymore, and he says he never was one.
by Michael Cooler
by Maria Bustillos
If I became somewhat quiet as our reading progressed, it’s not because I got lazy; it’s because the farther in we got, the more I realized I will be reading this book many, many times, because it rearranged so many of my comfortable ideas about political involvement, about human destiny, and the history of literature, and love relations, and how novels can be structured and written. I could go on with this list, but suffice it to say that this book rocked my little world like nothing since Infinite Jest, another book I have long shared with the brilliant Matt Bucher. So thank you, Matt, for including me in this wonderful project. I’ve enjoyed every moment.
One of the strangest things about the upshot of the book is that it ends on some quite conventional notes. For example, Reiter goes to Mexico for love of Lotte. So often the human relations in this book are vicious, brutal, murderous, but the way Lotte feels about Hans is utterly tender, and so finely described. I hadn’t expected it to end this way, after the Crimes, with an innocent woman in distress, and people coming to her rescue. Lotte is a “good guy” whose personal aims and ideas don’t include harming others or trying to take advantage of them in any way. There aren’t many such in this book, but others have stepped in to protect them more than once: Lalo Cura is rescued from the narcos, Rosa Amalfitano is rescued by Fate. The ones who do the rescuing are relatively impure themselves, maybe, but they recognize the innocence and protect it, champion it, it seems to me. Maybe that, too, is part of what is being said.
(An aside: one of Bolaño’s greatest achievements in this book is to render characters so believably in so many nationalities. We have British, Italian, German and Mexican characters, Americans, a Romanian, a Frenchman. I’ve traveled in most of these places, have certainly met representatives of each, and was just bowled over by the correctness in details of each case. I can’t think of a richer book, this way.)
I too will close with Fürst-Pückler-Eis. This is a real kind of ice cream, by the bye. (While I’m at it, I will add that I quite agree that ice cream is far better in spring and fall than it is in summer. As a quite keen cook myself, another thing I appreciate about the Bolaño, that nonstop polymath, is that he really knows his food, like many a good Latin American.) So here we have a highly accomplished man, Fürst-Pückler, whose subsequent fame rests entirely on the ice cream treat named after him. Isn’t that absurd? Okay, I submit that this last bit of reasoning applies also to two others. One, to Archimboldi, who loved Lotte and Ingeborg, who struggled in war and peace, who made a great and final sacrifice at the end of his long life—one which none of his fans will ever know a thing about—what is left of Archimboldi? Why his books, of course. They’re his ice cream, I think. They are good and satisfying, enjoyed by many, but they aren’t the man, they aren’t his life.
In fact books aren’t life; they seem like life, but they’re not. You may recall that the first paragraph of 2666 finds the nineteen-year-old Jean-Claude Pelletier reading d’Arsonval, Archimboldi’s French-themed novel, in Paris in 1980. How distant from the actual concerns of Reiter’s life can this scene be? But the book is so entertaining to Pelletier, so absorbing, so delightful, it really might as well be the ice cream with which the book ends. It seems we’re being told that this book, all these dreams within dreams of 2666, can’t really teach us a thing. We may enjoy them, but books can never be more than ice cream. (An odd thing to hear from a man whose whole life must have been a positive avalanche of books, but there you go.)
So: thank you very much, Sr. Bolaño, for the ice cream, which is absolutely first-class ice cream, and which I hope to enjoy (if that is the right word) many times in future.
And so we came to the end, not with a bang but with a whimper. At the end of this week, the group read of 2666 is officially over. But I feel like there is a lot of unfinished business. There are a lot of sections in the novel that I still want to investigate further. The book is so dense with names and allusions that it will take a lot of work to explicate all of them. There are lists to be made, connections to tease out, and maps to be drawn.
But I am proud of what we have accomplished here. The level of discussion throughout has been superb. I have learned so much from my fellow contributors here on the site and on the other blogs.
I want to thank the lovely and talented Maria Bustillos for graciously agreeing to co-host this project with me. Her posts have been the highlight of the group read for me. It’s been so thrilling to see her reactions and interpretations of things I missed or couldn’t pinpoint. Thank you, Maria.
I want to thank Daryl Houston for consistently tracking one of the most complex pieces of data in this novel: who dreams what. Daryl’s analysis and posts at Infinite Zombies are some of the best extant scholarship on 2666. I look forward to reading Moby-Dick with him and the other zombies.
I want to thank Michael Cooler and Nicole Perrin who meticulously tracked every death in 2666. For those who wondered, Bolaño documents the murders of 112 women in The Part About The Crimes. Thank you both for volunteering your time and your excellent work every step of the way.
I want to thank Lorin Stein for talking about 2666 with me on this blog, and for helping to bring Bolaño to the forefront of world literature.
I want to thank everyone who commented here, on the forums, on Twitter, and Facebook. Your participation has added to everyone’s understanding of the novel. This is the end of the schedule, but it’s not the end of this blog, posts about 2666, or your welcome here. Please stick around.