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 Bolano 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.

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17 Responses to “Week 2: Mucho Macho”

  • Comment from Lee

    As a mercurial Anglophone Yankee, I em-/Sympathize with our critics’ response to the cabbie, up to at least the first blow or two. Words *are* real, and some, Derrida be D_____, reify kinetically.

    But the Crimes–all against young women–could they be some perversion of this machismo? (Viz Espinoza’s association of sex and death as a particularly Spanish attribute.)

    • Heh! Awesome comment … I agree, totally, the whole situation kind of puts the reader right up close to his own prejudices in these matters. I’m thinking, yeah! But just kick that jerk the one time, though (!@#?)

      Perversion of machismo = YES, totally. Or even: machismo can’t help but be perverse (?)

  • Comment from paravil

    This may be surface-level, but I saw the cabbie as a sort of (albeit very blunt) voice of conscience, and the men’s response as a physical representation of what people often do to their conscience when convicted by it. I wonder if their violent reaction had as much to do with guilt and frustration as it did with protecting Liz Norton.

    • I really do not think that the text supports this reading. This cabbie was already painted as a slightly shady character, for example, he knows which way to get these guys home but then goes by a circuitous route, the better to hear their blasphemies. And then, the correct thing to do according to Iberian protocol I think would be to keep it to yourself, if you were offended in such a situation. That is to say, he transgresses against correct behavior several times before the Incident even occurs. So I can’t see the guy as a representative of conscience.


      • Comment from paravil

        I don’t mean to imply that I think the cabbie was right or justified in the way he handled the situation. As you said, the proper thing to do would be to politely keep quiet. But neither is beating the hell out of him a proper response. I think that the extremity of their response communicates more than offense at Norton being called a “whore.” In other words, in some sense they are defending her honor, but in another they–both sleeping with her, wanting to sleep with her at the same time, etc.–show little respect for her either. Part of why they react like they do could be because they are already dealing with the guilt and frustration of their situation, and the cabbie’s words, rude though they may be, are convicting to them.

  • Comment from miette

    I’m so glad you wrote about this scene, which gave me real pause. At first pass, I thought it completely out-of-character: Pelletier & Espinoza are academics, brain-men, booknerds! The scene demands a double-take, and with it, your realisation. It’s the first moment where their status as men (ruled by machismo) supercedes their academic impassivity. This is my first read, and I’d been simultaneously starting to see these guys as hapless boobs (wrt their non-Archimboldian life) and steeping at boiling point. Oddly, it was a relief to see them explode.

    Regarding the storytelling, I’m trying to avoid IJ-thumping, but it was reminiscent of the Ennet House fight, and -specifically- Clenette H. & Yolanda W.’s spike-heeled Nuck-demapping, which was also described as being more-or-less beyond their control: this is what you to expect if you boil this particular blood in this specific way.

  • Comment from Trent Crable

    Yes, as soon as “whore” was spoken, I knew what was coming. And I have to admit I, and everyone I grew up with (only one or two of whom could be considered “Latin”) would’ve also beat the cabbie. But I like to think we’d have stopped after a few quick blows (but who knows–when the blood gets to a boil, reason tends to disappear). I’d also like to think that if it were me or any of my friends, racism wouldn’t be a part of it, as it seemed to be for our critics (I don’t think racism had anything to do with them starting to hit him, but it popped up during the beating).

    • Right? They were so mad, they would say anything. That was another interesting part of it, it’s like the anger had to find a vehicle, they were just helpless against the flood of it, and so: Rushdie! Valerie Solanis?!?!? He chose such total wtf objects, there.

      And miette, yes, many instances of “losing it,” every variety thereof, in IJ, aren’t there.

  • Comment from dannygutters

    This book club is becoming interesting. I thought this scene was really helpful for establishing characters temperaments. But as a bookish American, I feel like my reaction in this situation would have been closer perhaps to the Dude in the Coen Brothers Big Lebowski (“That’s just..Your Opinion..Man”). On my reading, their reactions seemed really over the top, I kept thinking of ‘The Stranger’ actually, with this explosive violence at a seemingly shrug-offable insult. It’s really fascinating to read these other comments about how others would react, making the scene feel less absurd than it seemed to me on first reading it.

    • Right? The differences go deeper than you think … even than I think, and I’m Cuban but I was born in So. California, and therefore grew up among many Dudes. Plus, my husband is English and has this whole different range of responses. I was a little taken aback at my own assumptions about Espinoza when the dust-up started in that scene, and then they turned out to be right.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    While I can’t say I saw it coming, I wasn’t at all surprised when the two critics laid into the cabbie. I even empathized a bit, given how infuriating it is to be insulted.

    However, whatever empathy I had evaporated with the Rushdie reference. I already had a dim view of those two, and it felt like the cry of a poseur to justify the violence as supposedly defending (or vindicating) the freedoms of a writer. It was pathetic and embarrassing.

    I don’t want to belabor my own interpretations, but I feel this is part of the “oasis of horror” indicated by the epigraph. The critics lives are marked by lassitude and vaccilation, and finally they feel enlivened by doing something horrible.

    • WELL SAID. YES. And it’s like they know it, know how pathetic, how inexcusable, even as the thing is happening. It makes them feel terrible, and stupid, and vulgar, but pretty soon the sweaty half-sexualized excitement and the guilt, too, have passed, and they’re attending conferences and reading out their papers like never before.

  • Comment from Terrell Williamson

    What a great tread. My initial reaction to the scene had been their reactions were over the top, but illustrative of their discomfort, insecurity, and hyper-sensitivity to their unusual relationship with Liz Norton. Maria observations about a machismo put an ever more realistic spin on their reactions.

    The scene is an exemplar of Bolaño’s writing at its best: brutal realism, tinted with absurdity. The absurdity coming with the comments that accompany the kicking. The brutality being just the beat down and Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s.

    One other comment would be about their ultimate reaction to the entire incident, they forget it. In reading these two sections, I’ve notice numerous reference to the characters “forgetting.” The primary instance I have in mind is Morini’s reaction when he reads about the murders in Northern Mexico in the first section. He forgets about the article.

  • […] that he wanted to be a writer rather than a critic. He’s got that Spanish machismo that Maria wrote about (remember that Pakistani cab driver), and the little bit of insight we have into his dreams […]

  • Comment from Pocket Shelley

    I’m just catching up here. I am also really glad you wrote about this passage. Having ridden in a fair number of cabs, I didn’t find it entirely creditable that a cabbie would lay into his passengers like this. Having said that, I’m feeling a certain squeamishness generally about the characters.

    There’s a cat and mouse game of disclosures and secrets going on. We know especially little about Liz, and in fact we’re told at one point that we’ll find out more about her thoughts later. In the absence of that disclosure, she runs the risk of being a kind of lamia or melusine or, well, think the cover of Roxy Music’s “Siren”. She’s the woman at the bottom of the pool (in the dream, for starters), drawing men to their doom. The Blue Angel, who turns civilized men into beasts. The polite version of this story would be “Jules and Jim”, another triangular love story. Pelletier and Espinoza also flicker in and out of being full-bodied, I mean in the way that Clarissa Dalloway or Leopold Bloom or, why not, Little Nell, seem full-bodied. Bolano can make them live and breathe, but then he mystifies them again. They’re in geometrical relationship to each other, and that sometimes seems to be their character.

    So back to the Belle Dame Sans Merci aspect of this, the two scholars who one suspects haven’t been in a donnybrook since childhood, suddenly turn into hooligans needlessly maiming (lost teeth) a Pakistani cab driver. Have they been driven to this by the woman who will be their doom? It’s a preposterous, old-fashioned reading; on the other hand, there aren’t many women characters in the book so far. Liz is pretty much it, and she’s the somewhat bored nexus of desire and violence, which sound familiar. This makes it especially disturbing and yes funny that Pelletier and Espinoza invoke Valerie Solanas while kicking the cabby. Are they acting on behalf of the Society for Cutting Up Men?

    None of this adds up to a point, oh well.

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