Week 4: Characters

by Brooks Williams

Amalfitano

Father of Rosa, ex-husband of Lola (164).  Finds a copy of Testamento geométrico that he doesn’t remember buying or packing in a box of books when he arrives in Santa Teresa (185).  Clips it to the outdoor clothesline (190).  Begins to hear voices of his grandfather or father or maybe just a ghost.

Rosa

Amalfitano’s daughter (163).  Seventeen years old and Spanish.  Her mother is Lola (164).

Lola

Amalfitano’s ex-wife.  Rosa’s mother.  Always carries a switchblade (164).  Her favorite poet lives the insane asylum in Mondragón and she believes (although, according to Amalfitano, it isn’t true) that she had slept with the poet at a party.  Runs off with Imma to see the poet (166).  Is able to gain entry into the asylum on the third try and speaks to the Poet, meets Gorka (171).  Has a brief relationship with Larrazabál (175-179).  Has another son named Benoît (182).   Returns to Amalfitano after seven years (182-183).  Reveals that she was diagnosed with AIDS while in France (184).  Leaves again after a few days (184-185).

Inmaculada (“Imma”)

Friend of Lola, who calls her Imma.  Lesbian (167).  Travels with Lola to visit the poet in Mondragón.  Once they are able to meet with The Poet, she essentially stands against the wall, reading poems.  Their money runs out shortly afterward and Imma goes to make some money and never returns (175).

The Poet

Lives in an insane asylum in Mondragón (165).  Gay.  Heavily medicated.  Blows smoke rings “in the most unlikely shapes” (172).

Edurne

Friend of Inma.  Lola and Inma stay with her and her husband (Jon) when they first arrive in Mondragon.  She had been an ETA commando (171).

Gorka

The Poet’s doctor.  He is writing a biography of the Poet (173).  It is entirely possible that Gorka is just a patient at the asylum.

Larrazábal

A driver that picks up Lola on the road.  Takes her to the cemetery in Mondragón, where they have sex (175).  They run into each other again in the cemetery when he has brought another woman there (176-177).  Lola moves in with him and he becomes her lover, gives her money, takes her to the asylum (179).

Silvia Pérez

Professor.  She convinces Amalfitano to take the teaching job in Santa Teresa.  They meet in Buenos Aires and then later in Barcelona (199).  Has a 16 year-old son (204).  Amalfitano and Rosa accompany Silvia and her son on a trip (204-205).  She appears to have a romantic interest in Amalfitano.

Marco Antonio Guerra

Dean Guerra’s son.  Carries a gun.  He gives Amalfitano a ride home from the university, but first they go for a drink outside of Santa Teresa (214-216).  He likes to get into fights – both to give beatings and to get beat up.  He only reads poetry (226).

Week 4: Vocabulary

by Meaghan Doyle

acacia
any of a large genus (Acacia) of leguminous shrubs and trees of warm regions with leaves pinnate or reduced to phyllodes and white or yellow flower clusters

aegis
protection

aquifers
a water-bearing stratum of permeable rock, sand, or gravel

Basque
a member of a people inhabiting the western Pyrenees on the Bay of Biscay

cacique
a native Indian chief in areas dominated primarily by a Spanish culture

candelillas
a shrubby spurge native to southwest Texas and Mexico, having densely clustered, erect, essentially leafless stems that yield the multipurpose Candelilla wax

catatonia
catatonic schizophrenia

chonchon
a mythical bird creature in Chilean folk myth

colocolo
a small striped cat native to the western central South America

cumulonimbus
cumulus cloud having a low base and often spread out in the shape of an anvil extending to great heights

desultory
marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose

doleful
full of grief

ecclesiastical
of or relating to a church especially as an established institution

eugenics
a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed

ex-votos
a votive candle offering

factotum
a general servant

ideologue
an impractical idealist

incubi
evil spirits that lie on persons in their sleep; especially : one that has sexual intercourse with women while they are sleeping

junta
a council or committee for political or governmental purposes; especially : a group of persons controlling a government especially after a revolutionary seizure of power

larch
any of a genus (Larix) of northern hemisphere trees of the pine family with short fascicled deciduous leaves

majolica
earthenware covered with an opaque tin glaze and decorated on the glaze before firing

malheureux
unhappy; miserable

mendicants
beggar

merendero
picnic spot

metawe
jar of 1 to 3 liters

mote con huesillos
a traditional Chilean summer-time drink consisting of a sweet liquid syrup made with dried peaches (huesillo) and mixed with fresh cooked husked wheat

nimbus
a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere

occluded
closed up or blocked off

ocher
an earthy usually red or yellow and often impure iron ore used as a pigment

ontological
relating to or based upon being or existence

osteology
a branch of anatomy dealing with the bones

patina
a superficial covering or exterior

ranchera
Mexican folk song

succubi
demons assuming female form to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep

unvanquished
undefeated

unwonted
being out of the ordinary : rare, unusual

Week 4: Locations

by Sara Corona Goldstein

Mondragón, San Sebastián, Spain – Lola’s favorite poet is institutionalized in an insane asylum here. She lives here for a while. (p. 165)

Barcelona – Amalfitano and Lola live here with their daughter, Rosa. Lola says that she met and slept with the poet at a party he and the gay philosopher have here. (p. 165, 167)

Pamplona, Zaragoza – places Lola and Imma stay on their way to San Sebastián. (p. 166-167)

Mondragón cemetary – Lola is driven here by Larrazábal who she sleeps with and later lives with; she also lives here a short time. (p. 175)

Bayonne, Landes, Pau, and Lourdes, France – Lola travels to these places during her time in France before settling in Paris. (p. 180).

Paris – Lola has a job and a son (Benoit) here. (p. 181)

Sant Cugat, Barcelona – Amalfitano is living here with Rosa when Lola visits them for the last time. (p. 183)

Buenos Aires – Duchamp comes up with the idea of hanging a geometry book on a clothesline outside while staying here. (p. 191)

Rianxo, La Coruña – Rafael Dieste, author of Testamento geométrico, is born here in 1899. (p. 195)

Santiago de Compostela – Dieste dies here in 1981. (p. 195)

A merendero, 10 miles outside Santa Teresa – Amalfitano, Rosa, Professor Pérez, and her son take a trip here. (p. 199, 204)

Colonia Lindavista, Santa Teresa – Amalfitano’s house is here. (p. 199)

Los Zancudos, outside of Santa Teresa – Marco Antonio Guerra takes Amalfitano here, where they drink Los Suicidas mezcal. (p. 215)

Santiago de Chile – Lonko Kilapán publishes O’Higgins is Araucanian here in 1978. (p. 216)

Week 4: Dreams

by Daryl L. L. Houston

185: Amalfitano dreams of Lola walking down the side of a mostly deserted highway, fearless, bearing the weight of her suitcase.

187: Never, even in dreams, has Amalfitano been to Santiago de Compostela.

201: The first time Amalfitano hears the voice in his head, he wonders if it’s part of a nightmare.

202: Lola appears in Amalfitano’s dreams along with two old friends, waving from behind a fenced park and (somehow) a room full of dusty philosophy books.

206: Amalfitano dreams of a woman’s voice talking about signs and numbers and history broken down and the American mirror. He then switches to a dream in which he’s moving toward a woman who was only a pair of legs at the end of a dark hallway.

217: “Maybe [Amalfitano] dreamed something. Something short. Maybe he dreamed about his childhood. Maybe not.”

227: Amalfitano dreams about the last Communist philosopher of the 20th century, who turns out to be a drunken Boris Yeltsin singing a sad song of a Volga boatman who commiserates with the moon about the human condition. Yeltsin explains to Amalfitano what the the third leg of the human table is (apparently magic, the first two legs being supply and demand). He then shows Yeltsin his missing fingers (or their void), drinks some more, talks about his childhood, resumes singing (“if possible with even more brio”!), and disappears into a streaked crater/latrine.

Week 4: Clueless

by Maria Bustillos

Oscar Amalfitano is a bewildered man. He’s got no idea how he even wound up in this horribly dangerous town. Young girls are getting abducted and killed here, all the time, and he has got the sole care of a young daughter. My own daughter is about the same age as Rosa Amalfitano, and if we were living in Santa Teresa, you can bet your sweet bippy that that kid would not be just blithely waltzing around to the movies, not unless she were under armed guard. What is he thinking?!

Notice, though, how Amalfitano has consistently been at the total mercy of these women. So Lola wants to go off with some poet, Oscar peels off some cash for her. Rosa wants to go to a movie, hey okay, see you later. Part of the trouble with Amalfitano is, he’s like Hamlet, kind of. He’s stuck, largely because he has no faith in the significance of his own actions, so it’s like he just can’t move. He is outside all these games everyone else is playing; he can’t understand them. For example, he is neither macho, nor is he gay. He likes Archimboldi just fine, but his head wasn’t turned by Archimboldi as the heads of the critics were. He’s not doing any of that stuff; he’s just a human being, just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Professor Pérez’s attempt at romancing him meets with near-total bafflement. Unlike the other men we’ve seen so far (with the possible exception of Morini,) Amalfitano’s basic interface with the world is not sexual (or gender-derived, I should maybe say.) Plus he is nice. He won’t say to anybody such phrases as, the hell you will! Over my dead body! etc.

So he’s not really equipped to deal with this reality.

Amalfitano loved Lola, and he loves Rosa; is this the weakness that makes him incapable of protecting them? You love them, so you can’t say no to them?  But they’re putting themselves in such danger. (As I read this all my mom-feelings were going absolutely wild. Go after her! I’m inwardly shrieking.) I have to say, I completely part company with the author, here, if he’s trying to tell me that love weakens men, makes them incapable of protecting, as in, love means never having to prevent a crazy woman from hitchhiking out of a town full of murderers. (?)  Then scan the paper with your heart in your throat for some kind of horrible news the next day (echoing the faux-plane crash of Espinoza, remember? Another horror that failed to materialize.)

Because there are all these women getting killed in Santa Teresa. How do you deal with this? Maybe it is, in fact, impossible. You’re up against it, and you have to keep on and hope for the best. About eighteen years ago, my own city, Los Angeles, was basically going up in flames. As in, on fire. It’s hard to believe now, but in fact we really did all behave as if it were a minor inconvenience, tried to get on with our lives, and quite a lot of that meant ignoring the enormity of the smoke in the air, guys with guns on the roof, the burnt shell of what had been a shopping mall. The place I’m thinking of (on Pico, near La Brea) is a tidy supermarket now, it has got a Bank of America in front just as if nothing had happened. There’s not the smallest sign. You let the elements have their way with you, and hope for the best. At some point, though, for some people, the reality won’t let you do that.

In this way, I think the volume of Dieste is a symbol for Amalfitano himself. A rational book, a book about geometry, to serve for a rational man, the Unhappy Readymade: http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Unhappy%20Readymade.html

The book, like the man, is the plaything of the elements. That’s why Amalfitano is in such a panic about the book’s fate, every time he comes home. There is horror and dread kind of circling him, inexorably, and circling the book, and maybe that is what is driving him mad. How he can be spending even one moment making these incomprehensible diagrams of philosophers when he ought to be locking his daughter in her room while he buys them a pair of plane tickets out of there is beyond me. I have not been able to make head or tail of these diagrams, at least not yet, but I hope someone else here has worked on them, and will enlighten us. It really irritates me, though, that Plato should be below Aristotle in the first diagram, when clearly Plato is always above Aristotle, always the in higher, more rarefied, more ethereal air.  I guess that is the one diagram that kind of makes sense, because Heraclitus really kind of gave birth to both Aristotle and Plato, you could say?

Now, Lola. I’ll be coming back to her but for the moment, I will say that Lola is another person who has been driven straight off her trolley by literature. She’s the flip side of the critics. Her fangirlhood has literally made her lose contact with reality completely. Just like them. More on that tomorrow.

Week 4: Pages 163-228

The Part About Amalfitano

The second Part of 2666 is devoted to Professor Oscar Amalfitano. As Steve mentions in the comments of the previous post, this is a dense section, maybe the most dense of the entire novel. We’ll do what we can to unpack some of the details. There are so many topics to cover that it will be hard to cover them in one week (much less one post). I’ll focus on a couple of points today and a couple tomorrow.

The beginning is ominous (or at least bizarre):

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

Amalfitano’s wife Lola travels to see her favorite poet, who lives in the insane asylum in Mondragón, near San Sebastián. Oddly, the poet is never named. This makes me think that the poet is a stand-in for Bolaño. Bolaño always considered himself a poet first and foremost and yet he felt trapped by the commercial appeal of fiction. It could be that the poet is a stand-in for Amalfitano as well.

San Sebastian is a town on the northern coast of Spain, near Bilbao and Pamplona, in Basque country. There are many places around the world named San Sebastián—usually named after the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, who has been depicted shot through with arrows. Also, depictions of the saint have included a subtext of homosexuality, leading many gays and lesbians to adopt Saint Sebastian as the patron saint of homosexuals (c.f. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane). It’s no coincidence that Bolaño has imprisoned his gay poet in the city named for the patron saint of homosexuals. Mondragón is a small town south of San Sebastián on the Autopista del Norte (AP-1). Mondragón is home to a psychiatric hospital, but it is most famous as the headquarters of the worker cooperative MCC. When Lola finally sees the poet in the asylum, the first word he says to her is “perseverance.”

A few more tidbits:

page 173: “When Imma had finished reading a poem about a labyrinth and Ariande lost in the labyrinth and a young Spaniard who lived in a Paris garret, the poet asked if they had any chocolate.” What poem is this? Borges? “Ariadne auf Naxos” by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg?

page 189: how about the beautiful paragraph in the middle of this page? “They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own” reads almost like a mission statement for 2666.

page 189: “the afternoon when he’d ranged over his humble and barren lands like a medieval squire, as his daughter, like a medieval princess, finished applying her makeup in front of the bathroom mirror” This felt like an explicit connection between Amalfitano and Don Quixote. Both have delusions of grandeur, but in some ways it’s Amalfitano’s wife Lola who goes on an adventure (to find the poet). Amalfitano is not daring enough to even track down the full lineage of the Dieste book: “For an instant Amalfitano envisioned a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago” (p. 187), but of course he does nothing except consider the thought.

page 200: “The word chincuales, said Augusto Guerra, like all words in the Mexican tongue, has a number of senses.” I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement at this statement. A couple of months ago I came across the phrase “gatos hidraulicos” and thought “hydraulic cats?” But I discovered that gato has about about ten different meanings, all depending on context and geographic location (hydraulic car jacks, in this case).

page 204: Do we think Bolaño knows the University of Phoenix is not exactly a top-tier university?

page 205: Amalfitano wakes up in the car, sweating. But why is Professor Perez also sweating? Did she molest him?

page 209: “Have you asked yourself whether your hand is a hand?” I think Edwin Johns has the answer to that one.

Week 4: The Part About Amalfitano

It’s President’s Day here in the US and I have the day off from work and so I haven’t fully prepared our overview of the Part About Amalfitano yet. It’s all coming later today or tomorrow. BUT one of our excellent followers has this great recap (and a beautiful image). I encourage you all to check it out:

http://iloveyousomething.com/2010/02/15/the-part-about-amalfitano/

And I encourage you to post your thoughts about Amalfitano and Lola & Rosa in the forums.

Week 3: Institutionalized

by Maria Bustillos

After getting a sense of the rhythms of Bolaño’s sly humor, you can tell that something is up right away when he describes the critics’ first impression of Amalfitano:

[…] a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was, a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field …

Since the critics are generally (but not always) depicted as a pretty oafish crew, we can begin by assuming that there will be more to this character than meets the eye.  As indeed there proves to be.  The first serious conversation between the four scholars concerns the possible whereabouts and motives of Archimboldi.  Has he come to Mexico to visit a friend?  What if Almendro lied to them?

Almendro who?  Héctor Enrique Almendro? said Amalfitano, who goes on to say that he wouldn’t bet much on a tip from that guy.  Why not?

Well, because he’s a typical Mexican intellectual, his main concern is getting by.

Now Amalfitano launches into the most extraordinary flight of fancy: a series of volcanic, wild, beautiful, splendid lamentations on the subject of the intellectual milieu in Mexico.

“Literature in Mexico is like a kindergarten,” he begins.  (Bolaño slips from “they” to “you” in this passage, indicating that Amalfitano to some extent reckons himself to have been a member of this fraternity.)

You sit in a park and read Valéry (not by accident a big “establishment” figure, protégé of Mallarmé, member of the Académie française, correspondent of Gide and of Einstein,) and then you go hang out with friends.

«Ayant consacré ces heures à la vie de l’esprit, je me sens le droit d’être bête le reste de la journée.» Paul Valéry.

(“Having devoted [some] hours to the life of the mind, I feel I have the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”)

“And yet your shadow isn’t following you anymore.”

This surprising shadowlessness is getting at the loss of some essentially human component, something lost by contact with the conventions of intellectual life, with institutions.  But it’s more than that.  The whole passage is full of poetic conceits, none of them arbitrary.  In the case of the lost shadow, we’re looking at the loss of an ability to matter.  A loss of realness, yes, but recall that one writer may live in the shadow of another, that a writer may cast a long shadow; in short, the shadow represents the chance to leave one’s mark.  (And is there a suggestion of vampirism, as well?)

In any case, dude is just getting warmed up, here!!  I could go line by line and show you some startling new insight or beauty in this passage, which consists, mind-blowingly, of a single paragraph.  But let us get on to the main event:  a complete recasting of the tale of Plato’s cave, adding a whole new level of deafness, blindness and powerlessness to the proceedings.

The intellectual (“you”) arrives on a kind of stage, without his shadow, and starts to “translate reality, or reinterpret it or sing it.”  The intellectual is facing outward, toward an audience, and behind him is a tube which leads to a mine.  “Let’s call it a cave.” (!!)  That is to say, intellectuals could be looking into the cave, even bringing people out of there, maybe; at the very least they should be investigating the cave, mining the reality of the human condition and then showing the results to their audience.  If you can get even partway out, that is what you are supposed to be doing!  But no!  These shadowless intellectuals can’t grasp anything from the cave but “unintelligible noises.”  They’re quite cut off from the reality of what it is to be human, even though the occupants of the cave are making a big racket, “syllables of rage or of seduction  or of seductive rage or maybe just murmurs and whispers and  moans.”  The intellectuals don’t really understand a bit of it; they’re just enjoying the spotlight.  “They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane.”  They make animal noises because they can’t begin to conceive of the enormity of the beast within.

The stage on which the intellectuals ply their trade is comfortable and pretty, but it’s shrinking, which is to say, less and less people in Mexico care about literature because these guys are not saying anything of true interest; they’re not really interpreting correctly what is going on in the cave.  The audience for TV, by contrast, is enormous.  They don’t know what the hell is going on in there, either, but no matter, the audience grows and grows.  Once in a while they let a shadowless intellectual on there.

Man, Mexico is not the only place where this is happening.  I mean, WHOA.  Utterly, wiglet-blastingly brilliant.

There’s so much here, but the predominant message is that artists, writers, could be connecting people with reality, could be articulating for us what it means to be human, could be leading us out of the cave, and yet they do not.  The intellectuals themselves know that there is something missing.  At night one may “wander off course” and drink mezcal and he thinks:

[…] what would happen if one day he.  But no.

Naturally, our own European intellectuals can make neither head nor tail of this blazing fusillade.

“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” says Norton.

“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.

Bolaño’s retelling of this story presents an underlying call to arms, not at all unlike what I remember of Plato’s original one.  In his own sad, funny, clever way he’s saying that aware, thinking people have a real responsibility to engage with the world, and to improve it if they can.




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