The Fictional Intelligentsia

by Maria Bustillos

The first thing that struck me about this narrative is the wonderful layering-up of fictional intellectuals over the historical ones. We are introduced to the tenebrous character of Archimboldi, unhealthy the fictional German fictionalist; the scholars who study him, visit themselves fictions; the gentle, sardonic narrator, at least somewhat fictional, who points out all their little flaws and dodges. But when Morini sits down to read in a London park, he’s reading a real book: Il Libro di Cucina di Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, by Angelo Morino (1999). The subject of this book, Sor Juana, is a classic 17th-c. Mexican poet whom Bolaño claimed as an influence, and whom educated readers of Spanish would be expected to recognize at once. Sor Juana was an extremely undeceived writer, a sensualist, a feminist, a nun, a prodigy, an altogether intense character; Morino’s book is apparently an extremely cool transcription of recipes that the poet copied down in the convent where she lived for 27 years, together with her thoughts on the philosophy of cuisine, which are decidedly non-trivial. There’s a suggestion that she conceived of a correspondence between food and knowledge: between sabor and saber. She also said that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more (to which I could not help inwardly responding jeeps, how much more do you want? But I digress.)

I saw the mention of this book as another instance of the literary recursiveness that seems to be developing in 2666: copying and recopying, studying, going back over, the re-re-combination of ideas, words, names into this huge literary palimpsest that the book itself is re(re-re-re)-reproducing, and hilariously we are also most of us reading it in translation. In this way the realm of the imagination folds outward into the “real” world, which is also the literary world, itself imaginary (taking place in the mind,) one that’s already been so much written-over before we ever happened on it ourselves; in the real/imaginary world of the novel, the story also folds back into itself and the mysterious world of Archimboldi. (Where the hell is that guy?)

The warmth, friendliness and humor of the book have been a very pleasant surprise, so far. I suppose I had been expecting something a little more forbidding from an author so widely celebrated. Certainly one can’t help but respond to Bolaño’s overwhelming love of and dedication to literature. He said: “In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.”

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10 Responses to “The Fictional Intelligentsia”

  • Comment from Cesar

    Indeed, the references to Sor Juana Inez de La Cruz surprised me right away. The weave Bolano creates between his fictional fictions and those that are real is seamless. The biggest for me of course is Archimbaldi. The titles of his various novels piqued my interest and what’s more, my imagination. I would say the mysteries surrounding the author are one of my favorite threads of the novel. Masterfully done. I will also note I am reading “2666” in Spanish. Perhaps as a way to explore its themes of copying and re-copying, I will read it someday in the future in English.

  • Comment from Daniel

    and hilariously we are also most of us reading it in translation

    I ought to write down some of my thoughts on this – as I’m not super proficient in Spanish, and yet I’m reading it in the original. This raises the questions: why? What’s different about reading a translation? Would it perhaps be more accurate to say that I’m reading my own translation that I construct in my head, sentence by sentence? And in a certain sense, wouldn’t that be the case even if Spanish were my native language? Is it too glib to say that all writing is translation from thought to word, and all reading is translation from word to thought? What would Bolaño say?

    I’ll let you know once I’ve got my ideas more in order ..

  • Hello, Cesar. I’ve ordered but not yet received my Spanish copy. I hope I can call on you for help now and then, for I read Spanish very badly indeed!

    Also, I’d love to hear from those who are reading both regarding the character and quality of the translation–what do you think?

    Another point I’d meant to make is that the book Morini is reading is itself recursive, the notes and commentary of an Italian scholar on the notes and commentary of a Mexican polymath on the notes and commentary required to make those very rich convent desserts. And mole. (The names of the recipes were enchanting; they reminded me a lot of my old Brazilian cookbook that has a lot of convent recipes.) I thought, somewhere down there under all those centuries and all those sheets of paper is a very buttery sweetie, and maybe a cup of chocolate.


  • Comment from Dan Summers

    I am also very, very curious to know how the translation stacks up. I don’t have nearly the Spanish necessary to attempt 2666 in the original, but since tone is such an important part of appreciating any literary work, it would be nice to know from native or fluent speakers how well the translation stacks up.

    And I was also pleased (and somewhat relieved) by the gentle and warm tone with which the novel starts. I was braced for something far darker, given what we know about the subject matter to be confronted later. Bolano has a wry touch, and thus far it’s been a very pleasurable read.

    I’m still bracing myself, however.

  • Comment from Oregon Michael

    Just wanted to mention a cheap way ($13.57 as of today) to obtain a Spanish language edition of this book:

    It’s a reprint done here in America by Random House Vintage Español. It appears they are going to produce more Spanish editions in the near future.

    My own approach is to read the English translation first, and then read the same material in Spanish while I am listening to the English audiobook version. Definitely a fun way to learn Spanish. Total immersion!

  • Comment from Katya Nelson

    I’m reading it in Spanish — my Spanish is pretty good, and I found the book at a liquidation sale for 40% off. I mostly bought it because it looked like it would have plenty of vocabulary (it does!) and not knowing anything about the author. But now I’m hooked!

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