Week 3: Characters

by Brooks Williams

Augusto Guerra

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Letters in Saint Teresa, makes the introduction to Amalfitano (112).

Oscar Amalfitano

Acts as a guide for Norton, Espinoza and Pelletier in Saint Teresa.  Translated The Endless Rose in 1974 (116).  He is from Chile.  The Critics are fond of him (130).  Norton’s initial impression “was of a sad man whose life was ebbing swiftly away…” (114).

“Exile must be a terrible thing,” said Norton sympathetically.

“Actually,” said Amalfirano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, of what is generally thought of as fate.”

“But exile,” said Pelletier, “is full of inconveniences, of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important.”

“That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano.  “But again, I beg your pardon.” (117)

Has a copy of Rafael Dieste ‘s Testamento geometrico hanging on his clothesline.

Appears to have a close relationship with Augusto Guerra’s son (128, 130).

Rector Negrete

Rector at the University of Santa Teresa.  Tall, lightly tanned (111).  Norton, Espinoza and Pelletier attend a party at his home (127).

Augusto Guerra

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Santa Teresa (112).  Makes the introduction, by letter, between Amalfitano and Norton, Pelletier and Espinoza.

Doktor Koenig

“German” magician and member of the Circo Internacional in Santa Teresa.  Visited by Amalfitano and The Critics (132).  Turns out he’s an American named Andy Lopez.  His act entails making living things disappear – moving from small (flea) to large (child).

Albert Kessler

Mentioned (138).


Girl who sells rugs in the market.  High school age, wants to become a nurse (125).  Espinoza has a romantic relationship with her and takes her and her brother (Eulogio) under his wing.  She has a sister named Cristina (147).


Rebeca’s little brother (149).  Works with Rebeca in the market.

Rodrigo Fresán (1963 – ) – Argentinian writer and journalist.  He was a close friend of Bolaño.

Zócalo -A massive plaza in the center of Mexico City.  The word zócalo translates to “base” or “plinth”.

Plaza Santo Domingo – A plaza surrounding the Church of Santo Domingo in Mexico City.  In the plaza, writers can be found with typewriters, willing to draft legal documents, etc for illiterate people.  “Unfortunately, this area is also very well-known for the falsification of documents.”  (Maybe that’s why Archimboldi wanted to go there…)

Angel on Reforma – A victory column featuring a bronze angel (representing law, war, justice and peace) perched at the top.  The column is at the center of a roundabout in central Mexico City.  It was built to commemorate the centennial Mexico’s War of Independence.  It looks similar to the Victory Column in Berlin.

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) – Russian novelist and playwright.  His most famous work is The Master and Margarita, a novel Bulgakov spent ten years writing and rewriting.  It was in its fourth draft when Bulgakov died and was finished by his wife in 1941.

Situationists – An international revolutionary group active from 1957 – 1972.  The situationists rejected capitalism and held that mass media manufactured a false reality that attempted to cover up the degradation of the working class at the hands of capitalism.

Marcel Schwob (1867 – 1905) – French symbolist writer.  Translated Robert Louis Stevenson to French.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) – Scottish writer.  Author of Treasure IslandThe Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped (among others).

Silvio Berlusconi (1936 – ) – Italian Prime Minister and billionaire.

Willie Nelson (1933 – ) – American country music singer and songwriter.

Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) – Hugely influential German philosopher who questioned the fundamental question of “being”.

Günter Grass (1927 – ) – German writer.  Nobel Prize (Literature) in 1999.
Arno Schmidt (1914 – 1979) – German author and translator.

Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) – German writer.  Notable works include The Metamorphosis and The Trial.
Peter Handke (1942 – ) – Austrian controversial avant-guard novelist and playwright.
Thomas Bernhard (1931 – 1989) – Austrian controversial playwright and novelist.

PRI– The Industrial Revolutionary Party.  Formerly a socialist party, the PRI occupies the center-left of Mexican politics.  The PRI was the dominant political party in Mexico for much of the 20th century.
PAN– The National Action Party.  Theoretically neither a left or right-wing party, the PAN can generally be viewed in a christian context and thus currently occupies a place in Mexican right-wing politics.  The president of Mexico has been a member of the PAN since 2000.
Paul Valéry (1871 – 1945) – French symbolist poet.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961) – French writer.  Real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches.  Notable works include Journey to the End of the Night.

Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (1893 – 1945) – French writer and Nazi collaborator.
Charles Maurras (1868 – 1952) – French writer.  Believed in fascism, but did not support Hitler and the Nazis

The Gorgons – The children of Phorcys and Ceto.  “the term commonly refers to any of three sisters who had hair of living, venomous snakes, and a horrifying gaze that turned those who beheld it to stone. Traditionally, while two of the Gorgons were immortal, Stheno and Euryale, their sister Medusa was not, and was slain by the mythical hero Perseus.”

Rafael Dieste (1899 – 1981) – Spanish writer.
Testamento geometrico – I found this

Pierre Michon (1945 – ) – French writer.  Notable works include Small Lives and The Origin of the World.
Jean Rolin (1949 – ) – French writer and journalist.  Notable works include L’organisation.

Javier Marías (1951 – ) – Spanish novelist and translator.  Since 1986 all of his protagonists have been translators.  Notable works include A Heart So White.

Enrique Vila-Matas (1948 – ) – Spanish novelist.  Notable works include Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady.

Week 3: Locations

by Sara Corona Goldstein

Berlin – El Cerdo is introduced to Mrs. Bubis here at a “cultural charreada.” (p. 102)

Santa Teresa (near Hermosillo), recipe Mexico – according to El Cerdo, here Achimboldi flies here after their night in Mexico City. (p. 104)

Stevenson’s grave in Samoa – Marcel Schwob travels here in 1901 with his manservant, Ting, and nearly dies of pneumonia (the reason Morini cites for not traveling with the other three to Mexico). (p. 106)

Mexico City – Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton travel here together and spend a night in the hotel where El Cerdo met Archimboldi. (p. 107)

Hermosillo, Mexico – the three critics fly here from Mexico City and drive through Sonora to Santa Teresa. (p. 110)

Hotel México, Santa Teresa, Mexico – the three critics stay here while searching for Archimboldi (p. 111); this is also where they first meet Amalfitano. (p. 114)

Tucson, Arizona – Pelletier and Espinoza drive Norton here for her flight back to London. (p. 135)

A ravine near Montreux, Switzerland – Edwin Johns dies here, accidentally. (p. 150)

Turin, Italy – Norton goes to stay with Morini. (p. 152)

Week 3: What a Trip

by Maria Bustillos

We’re parting company with the critics at the moment where Norton has made her choice: she’s in bed with Morini. I certainly did not see that one coming! For all the bed-hopping that goes on in this section, it isn’t even entirely clear to me that the relationship between Norton and Morini is in fact sexual, though I suspect it might be (?) The author has been pretty silent on the subject of Morini’s personal habits, capacities etc., in contrast to those of Espinoza and Pelletier, but he’s presented as something of a sensualist, all the same.

When the three critics dashed to Mexico to find their hero, I thought we might come to learn more about Archimboldi himself, but we really don’t. They don’t even really seem to put their backs into finding the man. They don’t visit any libraries or bookshops, which would be the first place I’d try. If he’d spent any time there at all, he would have gone to both for sure. The critics don’t make what I would consider a concerted attempt to enter into the intellectual life of this place in order to identify possible contacts—to the point where they’re introduced to all the local luminaries and promptly forget all their names. In short, I didn’t get the feeling they wanted to find Archimboldi very badly at all.

What we know of Archimboldi’s actual books doesn’t amount to much, we haven’t heard much about the plots or characters, we don’t know how long they are, or in what style they are written, or what effect they were intended to make. We know tangential things, distanced things, for example that the critics are scandalized to hear that Amalfitano finds Archimboldi no more talented than Günter Grass. (How bad would that be?) By this time maybe the reader feels more comfortable with Amalfitano’s literary judgements than with those of the critics, and we can sympathize with that—after all, we’ve only just heard of Archimboldi ourselves! (plus in Europe, I guess, you don’t get to be a distinguished professor of literature without feeling scandalized on behalf of your subject at the drop of a hat.)

In any case, Amalfitano’s glorious allegory of the cave and the stage has a strangely cathartic effect on these three. After having been dismissive and even contemptuous of this hick littérateur, they come to like him—admire him, even. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even though Norton is confused by the allegory of the cave, the meaning of this passage has kind of sunk into the three of them by osmosis. The world has come nearer to them; they see the mouth of the mine. There’s been this lack of contact between the critics and the world outside, a theme repeated over and over in the section. This might seem weird, but I submit that hanging around in Mexico (and even more so, Africa) has itself the effect of bringing reality inexorably, excitingly, and sometimes even frighteningly closer to a person.

So contact with Mexico and/or with Amalfitano begins to thaw the three of them out, a certain amount. They respond to the relative nearness of the world in very different ways, though. Pelletier just sits around reading Archimboldi, the same books over and over, when the author himself could very well be nearby. This seems to me somewhat to symbolize the futility of European academic life. Pelletier withdraws into his intellect, becomes more insular than ever before, rereading, reinforcing his old idea of himself, locking himself up in his mind with Archimboldi, only more so; Espinoza goes quite the other way, headlong into pure carnality; he forgets all about Archimboldi and engages in a blindly lustful sexual escapade, one that is really pretty sordid, I think, because he himself seems to know that it is going nowhere, he’s mindlessly buying rugs and lingerie and obsessing on this poor kid (that beautiful, terrible line about how she’s nothing more than “a tremor in his arms” by the time he’s done with her … and it’s no accident how no mention is made of how she feels about him, about what they’re doing together … how come he doesn’t make some moves to ensure that she can go to nursing school? It’s like he sees her only in relation to himself, his own needs. No chance is he thinking about marrying her, not really. I reckon that’s just not his nature.)

And finally, Norton weirdly flees the premises, rejecting both Pelletier and Espinoza, whose curious, bizarrely shared attachment to Norton is just so strange and difficult for me to understand. I finally came to the conclusion that the two of them were just sugarcoating their real feeling for Norton which is really your basic bestial attraction, pretending to “love” her and want to marry her and whatnot, telling her to choose between them. If a man wants to marry a woman, are we to believe that he would have sex with her, in the same room with his rival? Impossible, surely–? Plus, what the heck is she thinking?! Maybe she has been reading these wacky magazine articles about “polyamory” or whatever? I will welcome everyone’s views on this point.

By the way, I take Norton’s dream of the two mirrors this way: one mirror is Espinoza, the other is Pelletier. The woman reflected therein is both herself, and not herself. She panics and thinks how she’s got to get the hell out of there, which she does. The real Norton is in there, at least, and struggling to get out.

The three dreams after Amalfitano’s allegory are prophetic. Pelletier dreams of reading the same page over and over, which he does; Espinoza dreams of visiting the rug seller and mindlessly buying rugs, ditto; Norton, of scrambling around trying to find a place for the English oak, herself, for she sees herself as both traditionally English, and rootless (or the roots are Medusa’s locks, and she’s already been compared to that dreadful figure.) Which she finally does, as well, go off scrambling to the next place, and planting her roots with Morini.

I can’t tell whether Morini can really help her, though. Is their attachment real, will the roots sink down, or is it just another series of poses, like what she went through with Pelletier and Espinoza?

El Cerdo & Archimboldi in Mexico City

In this section of the novel, 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

Week 3: Deaths

by Michael Cooler

Deaths in the last section of The Part About The Critics (pages 102 – 159):

No actual “deaths” but references to the murders in Mexico.

p. 137 – “Then Espinoza remembered that the night before, one of the boys had told them the story of the women who were being killed. All he remembered was that the boy had said there were more than two hundred of them and he’d had to repeat it two or three times because neither Espinoza nor Pelletier could believe his ears.”

“From 1993 or 1994 to the present day…And many more women might have been killed. Maybe two hundred and fifty or three hundred.”

This is information that the critics were not aware of.  Bolaño has presented the critics as fairly insular up to this point, and finally they are getting a glimpse of the world around them. Espinoza reacts to the news by throwing up in a bathroom stall, while an ominous voice soothes Espinoza.  What are we to make of this?  To Espinoza, the voice seems like a comfort, but there is also something sinister in the voice that says “That’s all right, buddy, go ahead and puke.”  Almost as if the next thing this voice might say is, “And then step out of the stall and I’ll cut your throat.”  But Espinoza is still so privileged or fortunate that he does not detect an evil tone in the voice he hears.

p. 151 “As they drank Cuba libres, Rebeca told him that two of the girls who later showed up dead had been kidnapped on their way out of the club. Their bodies were dumped in the desert.” Espinoza gets unknowingly close to death with Rebeca at the dance club.  Here Bolaño further places the aloof character of Espinoza in close proximity to real and dangerous violence.  Espinoza and Pelletier have been safe in their upscale hotel, but now Espinoza is brushing cheeks with the death that exists in Santa Teresa (although as a wealthy person he will escape Santa Teresa as Rebeca and the women of the city cannot).

Week 3: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

114: Pelletier dreams of his hotel toilet, which has a large chunk missing (which can only be seen to be missing when you lift the seat). The toilet is in fact broken (outside the dream). In the dream, a muffled noise wakes Pelletier and he gets up naked and sees from under the door that someone has turned on the bathroom light. At first he thought it was Norton or Espinoza, but somehow he figures that it can’t have been either of them. When he opens the door, the bathroom is empty, and there’s blood smeared on the floor and shit crusted on the bathtub and shower curtain. The shit bothers him more than the blood does, and he wakes up as he begins to retch.

114: Espinoza dreams a desert painting in his hotel room. The people on horseback in the painting are moving almost imperceptibly, “as if they were living in a world different from ours, where speed was different.” There were also barely audible voices, and he recognized just a few stray words (“quickness,” “urgency,” “speed,” “agility”), which “tunneled through the rarefied air of the room like virulent roots through dead flesh.” One of the voices says “Our culture. Our freedom,” and Espinoza wakes in a sweat.

115: Norton dreams of herself reflected in dim light between two mirrors across from one another in her hotel room. She was dressed in a retro suit of the like she hardly ever wore in real life. She hears a noise in the hall and thinks someone may have tried to open her door. She suddenly realizes that the woman reflected in the mirror isn’t her, though she looks just like her. The woman has a swollen, pulsing vein in her neck. Norton tries to figure out where in the room the woman is standing but can’t. She notices that the woman’s head is turning almost imperceptibly and reasons that if her head keeps turning, they’ll eventually see each other’s faces (compare to Morini’s dream much earlier in the book). As she waits, watching the woman’s head turn slowly, she thinks of her comrades and of Morini, of whom the only image she can conjure is an empty wheelchair and a huge forest that she finally recognizes as Hyde Park. When she opens her eyes, they meet the gaze of the reflected woman at an indeterminate point in the room. Norton begins to cry in sorrow or fear and realizes that the reflected woman is just like her but is dead. The woman smiles and then displays a grimace of fear, causing Norton to look behind her and find no one there. A sequence of “expressions of madness” begin to appear on the woman’s face, and Norton begins taking notes in a notebook “as if her fate or her share of happiness on earth depended on it” until she wakes up.

118: Bolaño teases us by wondering what might have happened had the three not been met by Amalfitano the next morning and had shared their nightmares instead. It lends a particular significance to this series of nightmares, which do seem oddly linked and disturbing. Yet the notion that something of real significance might come to light out of their discussing the dreams seems curious.

130: All three have nightmares again attributed in a vague way, as if not really with any conviction, to the barbecue they had eaten, reminding me of Scrooge’s gob of mustard or whatever before his trio of nightmares. Individual dreams described below.

131: Pelletier dreams of an indecipherable page.

131: Norton dreams of an English oak that she picks up and moves from place to place in the countryside. Sometimes the oak had no roots and at other times “it trailed long roots like snakes or the locks of a Gorgon.”

131: Espinoza dreams about a girl who sells rugs and whom he wishes to tell something important and to rescue from St. Teresa, but her ever-moving arms prevent him from doing so.

146: In her long letter to Pelletier and Espinoza, Norton makes reference (without mentioning the dream) to the mirrors in her hotel room. She then says that on the night of her arrival home, she had no dreams at all, which statement suggests that the lack of dreams was an oddity or that dreams and nightmares had become a common enough thing that their absence was worth noting.

155: Espinoza is worried about Pelletier and has his hotel room broken into. Pelletier is sleeping deeply. It turns out he was having a dream about being on vacation in the Greek islands. He rents a boat and meets a boy who dives all day in water that was alive.

155: Norton has joined Morini in Turin, sleeping in his guest room. A thunderclap wakes her up, whether real or in her dream she doesn’t know. She thinks she sees Morini and his wheelchair silhouetted at the end of the hallway, but then she realizes that she actually sees Morini in the sitting room with his back to her and his wheelchair in the hallway. She wakes and goes to Morini’s room to find him sleeping. She’s very upset and insists that what she had seen in her dream was real. She seems especially upset that his back was to her (recall Morini’s very early dream, in which he’s afraid to turn around to face the woman looking at him from behind). After hashing the dream out with Morini, she finally lets it go and laughs it off. This dream, with its components of uncertainty as to what actually took place and how much of it took place within the dream and how much without (the thunderclap), reminds me of Morini’s blind spell earlier in the book that I recorded as somewhat dreamlike and as possibly in fact (though not explicitly described as) a dream.

EDIT: I highly recommend you read Daryl’s catalog of dream motifs and concepts over at Infinite Zombies.–Matt

Week 3: Pages 102–159

This week brings us to the end of The Part About the Critics. I’ll be a little sad to see them go. We pick up with the end of El Cerdo’s story about meeting Archimboldi in the Mexico City hotel. Archimboldi tells El Cerdo that he’s flying to Hermosillo, Sonora, and going to Santa Teresa. The state of Sonora shares most of its US border with the state of Arizona. Even though we know that Santa Teresa is a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez, Bolaño has relocated the city from the state of Chihuahua (just across the border from El Paso, Texas) to Sonora.

Ciudad Juárez / Santa Teresa is the location of the series of murders profiled later in The Part About the Crimes, but the real Juárez is still wracked by violence and death. Just this past weekend, the state government moved from the city of Chihuahua to Juárez to try to better combat the near-constant crime. Last fall, Juárez’s high murder rate gave it the distinction of being The Deadliest City in the World.

Morini decides not to make the trip to Mexico. He regularly travels around Europe, so his disability is not the issue. He compares his ill health to that of Marcel Schwob, who traveled to the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1901. Schwob was a French writer who idolized the Scottish Stevenson. But:

When he got to Samoa, after many hardships, he didn’t visit Stevenson’s grave. Partly because he was too sick, and partly because what’s the point of visiting the grave of someone who hasn’t died? Stevenson—and Schwob owed this simple revelation to his trip—lived inside him.

Morini’s decision proves to be wise. Just as Schwob did not see Stevenson’s grave in Samoa, the critics do not see any trace of Archimboldi in Mexico. Morini has had this same revelation about Archimboldi without having to physically seek it out.

Shortly after the critics meet Amalfitano, they learn that he translated an Archimboldi novel (The Endless Rose) into Spanish for an Argentinian publisher in 1974 (p. 116). When the critics ask him what he was doing in Argentina in 1974, Amalfitano said it was “because of the coup in Chile, which had obliged him to choose the path of exile.” Bolaño himself had been born in Chile, moved to Mexico as a teenager, and then moved back to Chile in 1973 to participate in Allende’s revolution. On September 11, 1973, Agosto Pinochet led a coup d’etat against Allende and the Chilean government. Almost all political dissidents, including Bolaño, were rounded up and arrested. The coup of September 11 is the defining event of Roberto Bolaño’s life. Like Amalfitano, he leads a life of exile from that time forward.

“Exile must be a terrible thing, said Norton sympathetically.
“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”

Next week we discuss The Part About Amalfitano. The whole Part is one 65-page chunk so we’ll try to cover it all in one week. Thanks for sticking around this far.

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.

Week 2: Mucho Macho

by Maria Bustillos

Unfortunately, the reaction of Espinoza and Pelletier to the Pakistani cab driver’s insults came as no surprise to me. The admirable Anglo technique of dealing with insults from other men by means of contempt, ridicule or boredom (q.v. The Scarlet Pimpernel) requires a certain detachment uncommon among those of the hotter blood. And in this case, the offense was huge, manifold: the cab driver insulted the woman under their protection,* as well as each man’s own moral character, and then, that of his friend. My first thought as I read was, oh no no, yikes, I wonder if this cab driver would have said such stuff if he’d had the faintest clue about that difference. Did American readers know, as I did, that there was going to be a fight as soon as the word “whore” was spoken? It was inevitable, any of the men in my own family would have done exactly the same thing, though they’re not alike in much else. This is about the worst thing you could say to a Latin guy, crazy as that may sound, and it is no surprise whatsoever that the first blows administered (predictably, by Espinoza) are described as “Iberian.”

That complex of characteristics both admirable and deplorable, composed of pride, sensitivity, insecurity, potency and belligerence, that is called machismo in Spanish–this exists in every culture, of course, but the Spanish flavor is very pronounced. I think that Bolaño is saying, here, that machismo is a literally uncontrollable source of violence; that no matter how “civilized” a man is, he will always be in some danger of a catastrophe like Espinoza’s (pencil ‘v. true’ in the margin on that one, I reckon.)

The dry, sardonic humor in this passage really is a torment, in kind of a Solondzian way. Why the hell didn’t they stop kicking the guy?! Oh god, why bring Salman Rushdie into it?! The thing that made me really nuts was Espinoza’s subsequent rationalization of the whole thing. The Pakistani guy “had it coming.” If we had a nickel for every time we’ve heard that one!

What a wonderful passage though, 100% insane and 100% credible, funny, terrible, sad. It’s a very deft thing to show us these guys, clownish and absurd and even unhinged and dangerous as they are, and yet evoke sympathy. That to me is the mark of the most skilled novelist: Dostoevsky territory.

* You bet that is how these two think of it, no matter how ‘modern’ they are.

Week 2: Characters

by Brooks Williams

Alex Pritchard

Friend (maybe boyfriend) of Liz Norton. Secondary school teacher (70). He is insulted by Espinoza when Espinoza and Pelletier first meet him in Norton’s apartment (Espinoza calls him “badulaque” (66)). Thinks that “German Literature [is] a scam” (66). Pritchard later tells Pelletier to “beware of the Medusa” (69) in reference to Norton.


A whore to which Pelletier becomes attached. She has a son and a husband, who is a Moroccan and a Muslim (81).

Edwin Johns

Painter who cuts off his own right hand and inserts it into his own painting (52-53). Credited with kicking off an artistic movement – the new decadence or English animalism (52).

Currently resides in a mental institution (the Auguste Demarre Clinic) in Switzerland (87). Has replaced his missing hand with one made of plastic (89).

Visited by Morini, Espinoza and Pelletier on the suggestion of Morini (87-92). Delivers a monologue about coincidence and fate (90). Whispers to Morini why he cut off his hand (91).

The character of Edwin Johns may be loosely based on performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli.

The Gallery Owner

Owner of an unsuccessful gallery/bar/used clothing shop (located on Hyde Park Gate, near the Dutch embassy) where Norton brings Espinoza and Pelletier (87). The gallery/bar/shop is located in his grandmother’s former house. He claims that his grandmother haunts the place (97-98). He formerly lived in the Caribbean, where he learned to make margaritas and worked as a spy.

Rodolfo Alatorre

Young Mexican student/writer who seeks out Norton, Pelletier, Espinoza and Morini at a seminar in Toulouse. During a conversation with Morini, he mentions that a friend (Almendro) had met recently Archimboldi in Mexico (99).

Hector Enrique Almendro (“El Cerdo”)

Essayist, novelist, “cultural official”, friend/mentor to Rodolfo Alatorre. Allegedly meets Archimboldi in a hotel in Mexico City near the airport. Archimboldi may have gotten El Cerdo’s contact information from Mrs. Bubis, who he met at a party in Berlin (103).

Historical Characters

Page 34 Mnemosyne – The personification of memory in Greek mythology

Ulysses – Main character in The Odyssey. Spent ten years getting home after the Trojan War.

Eurylochus – Second in command on Ulysses’s ship in The Odyssey. Portrayed as cowardly and undermining Ulysses.

Zeus – In Greek mythology, Zeus is the king of all the gods.

Prometheus – Stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Punished for all eternity, tied to a rock while an eagle eats his liver – every day.

Page 39 Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) – German politician and head of the Nazi party. Chancellor of Germany from 1934–1945.

Page 41 the Fury – The physical embodiment of ancient gods, portrayed as horrific female figures, sent to punish mortals.

Hecate – Greco-Roman goddess associated with childbirth and nurturing the young, but also with ghosts, witchcraft and ghosts.
Page 52 Emma Waterson – Fictional person.

Page 60 Berthe Morisot (1841 – 1895) – French impressionist painter. Undervalued for over a century because of her sex.

Page 64 Jacob Epstein (1880 – 1956) – American born British sculptor. Pioneered modern sculpture.

Page 69 Medusa – A female monster of Greek mythology. A Gorgon. Anyone that looks at Medusa is instantly turned to stone.

Phorcys – Primodrial sea god of Greek mythology. Father of the Gorgons, husband of Ceto.

Ceto – Primordial sea goddess of Greek mythology. Mother of the Gorgons, wife of Phorcys.

The Gorgons – The children of Phorcys and Ceto. “the term commonly refers to any of three sisters who had hair of living, venomous snakes, and a horrifying gaze that turned those who beheld it to stone. Traditionally, while two of the Gorgons were immortal, Stheno and Euryale, their sister Medusa was not, and was slain by the mythical hero Perseus.”

Hesiod (~8th Century B.C.) – Ancient Greek poet. His work is a major source of Greek mythology.

Stheno – A female monster of Greek mythology. A Gorgon. Sister of Medusa and Euryale.

Euryale – A female monster of Greek mythology. A Gorgon. Sister of Medusa and Stheno.

Perseus – The first mythic hero of Greek mythology. Kills Medusa.

Chrysaor – The brother of Pegasus, son of Poseidon and Medusa. Born from the neck of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. Often depicted as a winged boar.

Geryon – A giant with one head, three bodies and two arms. The grandson of Medusa, son of Chrysaor.

Pegasus – A winged horse, born from the blood of Medusa.

Page 73 Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) – Argentine writer, known mostly for short stories focusing on fantasy and dream worlds.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) – Victorian English novelist. Among the most popular writers of all-time.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) – Scottish writer. Author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped (among others).

Page 74 Salman Rushdie (1947 – ) – British Indian novelist. Notable works include Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses.

Valerie Solanas (1936 – 1988) – American radical feminist writer. Attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968. Her writings encouraged male gendercide and an all-female society.

Page 76 Anthony Perkins (1932 – 1992) – American actor, famous for playing Normal Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Page 87 Auguste Demarre – Fictional “late nineteenth-century Swiss politician or financier.”

Page 89 Hans Wette – Fictional painter

Page 95 G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) – Influential English writer.

Father Brown – Literary character who appeared in 52 G. K. Chesterton short stories.

Page 96 Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) – Italian architect and engineer during the Italian Renaissance

Page 99 Alfonso Reyes (1889 – 1959) – Mexican writer and philosopher.

Sor Juana (1648/51 – 1695) – Mexican writer. Early figure of Mexican literature.

Page 101 Voltaire (1694 – 1778) – French Enlightenment writer, famous for his advocacy of civil liberties.

Page 102 Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778) – Italian Artist. Produced a set of prints called the Prisons, which influenced Romanticism and Surrealism.

Updates to Existing Entries

Jean-Claude Pelletier

Born 1961. Discovered Archimboldi (D’Arsonval) while studying German literature in Paris, Christmas 1980 at the age of 19 (3). Read Mitzi’s Treasure and then The Garden. Translated D’Arsonval into French in 1983. A professor of German in Paris (by 1986). Translated two other (unnamed) Archimboldi works. “…regarded almost universally as the preeminent authority on Benno von Archimboldi across the length and breadth of France” (4). Experiences a sort of rebirth while translating D’Arsonval. Not unlike the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32). “…first, that his life as he had lived it so far was over; second, that a brilliant career was opening up before him, and that to maintain its glow he had to persist in his determination, in sole testament to that garret.” (5) First met Morini in 1989 at a German literature conference. First met Espinoza in 1990 at a conference. First meets Norton in 1993 or 1994 (12). Realizes he loves Liz Norton (16) and is first to sleep with her after the meetings with Schnell and Mrs. Bubis in 1995 (30). Along with Espinoza, beats down a Pakistani cab driver in London and then steals the cab (73-74). Accompanies Morini and Espinoza to Switzerland to meet Ethan Johns (87-91).

Piero Morini

Born 1956, near Naples. Discovered Archimboldi in 1976. Translated Bifurcaria, Bifurcata to Italian in 1988. Shortly afterwards, published two studies – “one on the role of fate in Railroad Perfection, and the other on the various guises of conscience and guilt in Lethaea, on the surface an erotic novel, and in Bitzius, a novel less than one hundred pages long, similar in some ways to Mitzi’s Treasure…” (6). Also translated Saint Thomas in 1991. Has multiple sclerosis, “suffered [a] strange and spectacular accident that left him permanently wheelchair-bound.” (6) Teaches German literature at the University of Turin. First met Pelletier 1989 at a German literature conference. First met Espinoza in 1990 at a conference. First meets Norton in 1993 or 1994 (12). Goes with Espinoza and Pelletier to Switzerland to find Ethan Johns and ask why he (Johns) cut off his own hand (87-91). He disappears directly after the meeting and goes to London to visit Norton (92-97).

Manuel Espinoza

Younger than Pelletier and Morini (no date of birth given). Originally wanted to be a writer and studied Spanish literature. Had a brief period of interest in Ernst Jünger before becoming interested in German Literature. Completed his doctorate in German literature in 1990. Never translated any German author “since the glory he coveted was of the writer, not the translator.” (6) First met Morini and Pelletier in 1990 at a conference. First meets Norton in 1993 or 1994 (12). Realizes he loves Liz Norton (16) and sleeps with her after the meetings with Schnell and Mrs. Bubis (33-34). Along with Pelletier, beats down a Pakistani cab driver in London and then steals the cab (73-74). Accompanies Morini and Pelletier to Switzerland to meet Ethan Johns (87-91).

Some additional thoughts:

• Bolano infers that in The Sorrows of Young Werther Espinoza would find a “kindrid spirit” (6). As a plot device it infers that Espinoza is chasing a career in writing that he will never have and he ought to just murder that desire and get on with it. At the same time Espinoza’s character is illuminated – he is emotional and likely to perform mellow dramatic acts of passion that have grave consequences. Or maybe not.
• Espinoza seems fundamentally immature. Example – “He also discovered that he was bitter and full of resentment, that he oozed resentment, and that he might easily kill someone, anyone, if it would provide a respite from the loneliness and rain and cold of Madrid.” (7-8) I guess it’s supposed to reflect some kind of Spanish passion, but to me it just feels immature. Rather emo, really.

Liz Norton

Born 1968 in England (9). She is divorced (33). Discovered Archimboldi in 1998 when visiting Berlin – was loaned The Blind Woman by a friend. Later discovered Bitzius in a college library (9). Teaches German literature at a university in London. Not a full professor. Discovered by Pelletier, Morini, and Espinoza via an article in Literary Studies (#46) in 1993 or 1994. Met them around the same time at a conference (12). Has no close friends (44). Sleeps with Pelletier in 1995 (30). Some time afterwards sleeps with Espinoza (33-34). Introduces Ethan Johns to Morini through a story (51-54). In early 1997 she summons Espinoza and Pelletier to London in order to end her romantic involvement with them (57, 59).

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