Week 13: pages 702-765

The Part About Archimboldi continues in this week’s reading (only two weeks left). Hans Reiter is still at war, sickness and he is almost killed in three different battles. The second time he is almost certain he will die “and the nearness of the sea convinced him even more thoroughly of this idea, pharm ” which calls to mind the Part About Fate. The third time Reiter is injured seriously. He has a neck injury that prevents him from speaking, sickness but he does receive the Iron Cross. He is sent to recover in the small town of Sweet Spring. In his house there he discovers a secret hiding place and the papers of Boris Ansky.

I wrote this paragraph of this week’s summary today and then I checked Ijustreadaboutthat and of course Paul has written a much more extensive, much more detailed an insightful summary and analysis than I can dream of doing today. Rather than try to say the same thing differently, I’m going to post an excerpt here and encourage you strongly to read the whole thing. Summaries like this take a lot of time to produce and I want to thank Paul publicly for following along with the group read for 3 months now and religiously taking notes.

Ansky was born in 1909.  At 14, he enlisted in the Red Army, but the recruiting soldier said there was no one left to fight.  When asked if he was Jewish, he answered yes.  The recruiting soldier said he knew a Jew in the army, and that he was now dead.  Ansky was less sure about joining now, but signed up anyway.  He spent the next three years traveling as far as the Arctic Circle.  He also attended to several affairs, including reading and visiting museums, political lectures, and other intellectual pursuits.  Around this time, Ansky met Efraim Ivanov, the science fiction writer.  Remember that name too, as he is also pretty important here.

The vast bulk of the rest of the week’s read comes from Ansky’s diary.  And he begins with Ivanov.

Ivanov was a Communist party member since 1902.  He had tried to write many different types of stories, mostly copying other writers.  And then one day he was asked to write a story about Russia in 1940.  He tossed off a science fiction short story in about three hours. And, it was a huge hit!  No one was more surprised than the author (and his publisher).   And thus began his life as a science fiction writer.

He wrote a series of stories along the same lines as that one: a bright future plus a hero who helps bring about the bright future and a boy or girl in that future (1940’s Russia) who enjoys the fruits of the labors of the hero.

And yet he felt empty writing this formula.  When he met the young Jew Ansky, something stirred inside him which inspired him to become a real writer, a real artist, a creator.

Ivanov convinced Ansky to join the party.  After all of the procedures were followed, Ansky was accepted.  And on the night of his welcome, one of Ivanov’ s ex-lovers, Margarita Afanasievn, grabbed Ansky by the balls and told him that to be in the party they needed to be made of steel.

Ansky tells her a true story (while she is still holding him) about a man he had met.  The man had his penis and balls cut off.  The man spent most of his time scouring the forest for his organs.  And yet despite that he seemed to be youthful and virile.  Then one day he gave up and seemed to age 30 years.  Four months later Ansky’s troops were passing through the village again, and Ansky learned that the man was happily married and looked as young as he did before he stopped looking for his organs.  Afanasievna (letting go now) says it’s a pretty story but she’s been around too long to believe it.

Week 12: Fireworks

by Maria Bustillos

I don’t know about you guys, prescription but I crawled across the finish line of The Part About the Crimes in a state of nervous exhaustion.  Even though I found it to be the strongest section of the four, thumb so far, in terms of articulating a different and true way to look at the world (something a novel has achieved only a few times, in my own reading life,) and to think about our own part in it (about which, more anon.)  So emerged into The Part About Archimboldi to find it bursting all around us like a shower of fireworks, as if we’d been dropped suddenly into into the middle of a Russian novel like The Master and Margarita, so full of incident, of sensation–the imagination in this is torrential, suddenly so rich, powerful and poetic.

I don’t know how I will be feeling at the end, but right now my earlier impression that we begin at a great remove from reality and move slowly closer in has only intensified.  What I didn’t realize, though, was this:  we would go closer and closer to the truth, and finally enter deep inside a human mind to touch the realest reality that there is.

We begin with the critics, and the sort of intellectual miasma they are in is like a veil between themselves and the world; it hampers their ability to experience anything or even observe it clearly.  They’re still human, but they’re lost.

Then we move to Amalfitano, whose grasp of affairs though closer than that of the critics is also very much hampered by convention, by the blindness brought on by being a book of logic or poetical mathematics strung out on a clothesline, the plaything of the elements.

Then Fate, a man who is drawn, too, to learn about what things are really like, far more so than Amalfitano; yet his fleshliness and creatureliness circumscribe his chances of reaching the awareness he seeks.  His desire for Rosa at least is real, and creates a real desire to deliver her, and he manages this, or appears to have managed it so far.  This is a sort of “pragmatic” level of awareness that many of us live at; to survive, to flee danger, to know something about the world but when it should threaten something we love, our curiosity is at an end and our desire to get on a plane overtakes it at once.

The crimes plunge us headlong into ‘the oasis of horror.’  That is to say, whatever we may feel about what is going on in Santa Teresa, it’s the result of human struggle, desire, real passions.  It’s not “false” or “wrong.”  It’s the most inconvenient truth there is.  These are true things being described to us, things that have been poeticized and repeated over and over like a rosary of pain and death, to freak you out, to bore you and make you crazy, to make you look in the mirror of what it is to be human.  We can’t deny that this is our legacy, this bloody mess we have always either been in, or hiding ourselves away from.  Those who are caught up in the tangle of influence, corruption and evil that surrounds the crimes are face to face with it, unhindered by the “rules” of law or propriety, conscience or religious scruple; this is the raw face of human nature, and you’ve been forced to regard it.

Now we reach the tale of Hans Reiter, a man who has gone completely his own way from the first instant of his life, practically.  He is the lone diver, separate from all others; he is completely detached and his inner life is the opposite of the critics’; it’s the real life of the mind that is like a compositional tool for reality, that is poetic also, and wild and unconstrained, that takes life as found, alone … that dives to the bottom of the sea.

Week 12: The Part About Archimboldi

And so we’re out of Mexico, dosage 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.

Week 12: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

641: Hans Reiter often dreams of Leathesia difformis, a seaweed plant that grows on rocks and other seaweed and that he has never seen in person.

652: Hans Reiter’s father, speaking with a member of the visiting National Socialist party committee who has come to Reiter’s house to visit, becomes somewhat confrontational but eventually cowers and wonders if he ought not to throw himself at the feet of the man, whom he describes as a dreamer. Afterward, he “shook his head at each word the other uttered, as if he wasn’t convinced (in fact he was terrified), as if it were difficult for him to understand the full scope of the other mans’ dreams.”

675: A soldier who has gotten lost in the tunnels of the Maginot line on the western front dreams of God in human form. In the dream, he’s sleeping under an apple tree and is awakened by a country squire. The squire turns out to be god, and he offers to get the soldier out of the tunnels in exchange for the purchase of the soldier’s soul. The soldier asks to go back to sleep, and God says that he already owns the soldier’s soul, so the soldier ought not to be a fool and ought to take the deal. The soldier agrees and signs in blood a contract written in some other language (not German or English or French). Then God leaves and the soldier decides to say a prayer. He notices that the apples on the tree have dried up like raisins or prunes, and he hears a metallic noise. He sees long plumes of smoke in the valley, and suddenly a hand grabs him by the shoulder; it turns out to be a real rescuing hand in real life waking him up.

680: Reiter is stationed at Castle Dracula in Romania and dreams about the inside of the crypt. The dignitaries and artsy folk who are visiting the castle (outside the dream) are (inside the dream) in an amphitheater and are laughing, except for one officer, who weeps and looks for a place to hide. One of the men reads a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach (author of the Parzifal poem that Reiter earlier reads and delights in) and then spits blood. The men have agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe, who was one of the visitors and also happened to be the niece of the owner of the estate Reiter worked on when younger.

684: General Entrescu pontificates about art and compares cubism (to its detriment) to “the dream of a single illiterate Romanian peasant.” Baroness Von Zumpe asks what he figures the peasants of Romania dream and how he knows.

692: Reiter and companions, having navigated the secret passages in the walls of Castle Dracula to witness Baroness Von Zump and General Entrescu having what seems to be porn-quality sex (complete with porn-quality penis), begin to masturbate. Comrade Wilke “seemed to be dreaming, or, more accurately, momentarily breaking through the massive black walls that separate waking from sleep.”

694: Reiter returns to his home and to the baroness’s uncle’s estate while on leave. He asks the gamekeeper at the estate about the baroness, and he shrugs. The shrugs, we’re told, “could mean he didn’t know or that reality was increasingly vague, more like a dream.”

Week 12: Deaths

by Nicole Perrin

p.638 — unidentified German soldier — age unknown — World War I –“the mummy, thumb ” a patient next to Hans Reiter’s father, find dies in thehospital at Düren

p.661 — Füchler — around 40 — 1936 — Hans Reiter’s roommate; dies of a vague disease

p.670 — unidentified Polish soldier — age unknown — 1939 — the
Polish soldier punched one of Hans Reiter’s comrades, see then was shot
running away

p.674 — Gustav — 20 yrs — 1940 — one of Hans Reiter’s fellow
soldiers; went mad, escaped from the field hospital, and hanged
himself from a tree

p.676 — unidentified German soldier — unknown — 1940 — according the the story Hans Reiter heard, the soldier was lost in the tunnels of the Maginot line and sold his soul to God in a dream; four days later he was hit by a German car

p.688 — a Romanian mathematician — 71 yrs — 1936 — at the Romanian castle, Popescu tells the story of a mathematician he once knew who “saw something [he] shouldn’t” and ended up in a madhouse; cause of death unknown

Of course, there are also the numberless unmentioned dead of the war Reiter is fighting.

El Cerdo & Archimboldi in Mexico City

In this section of the novel, information pills Bolaño gives us a nice little tour of some of the tourist sites in Mexico City. The story that Alatorre tells the critics is that:
1. El Cerdo received a call telling him to go to a hotel near the airport.

2. El Cerdo meets Hans Reiter/Archimboldi there. Eventually El Cerdo asks if he’d like to take a drive around Mexico City or go out for a drink. It’s two in the morning. Archimboldi has a flight to Hermosillo at 7 am.

The airport in Mexico City is called Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez and it’s not on the outskirts of town: it’s right in the middle of things. It borders ten small neighborhoods and two industrial zones. There are several large chain hotels facing the airport or on the airport grounds: the Hilton, the Ramada, the Fiesta Inn, the Camino Real.

3. El Cerdo takes him to Plaza Garibaldi, a mecca of mariachi music.

4. El Cerdo takes Archimboldi to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s Central Square.

5. They wander over to the Plaza de Santo Domingo.

6. El Cerdo drives them down to the iconic Angel statue on Avenue Reforma, but it’s too dark to see the angel at the top of the monument.

7. They head back to the hotel and El Cerdo drops Archimboldi off at the airport.

Here is a map that shows roughly the route they take from the airport to Plaza Garibaldi, to the Zocalo, the Plaza Santo Domingo, the Angel statue, and then back to the airport hotel (I am doing some guesswork on the driving route here).

View El Cerdo y Archimboldi in a larger map

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