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, seek 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.

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6 Responses to “Week 3: Pages 102–159”

  • Thanks for this, Matt … I’d really like to talk more about Bolaño’s political involvement. What I know about the history of Chile could be stuffed in a watch, unfortunately. Enlightenment welcomed.

    Amalfitano’s story speaks to the whole idea of an attempt at involvement in the world, rather than the standard Western intellectual’s position outside politics or world affairs generally.

    Also, we should talk more about German literature!!

    This book is very dense!!

  • Comment from Susan Zenger


    Nice summary and “thanks” for pointing out the Santa Teresa/Sonora v. Ciudad Juarez/Chihuahua dynamic. I wonder why he made those changes, as the story of these murders is pretty well known and documented.
    I’m glad you mentioned the Schwob/Stevenson story that guides Morini’s decision not to go to Mexico and illustrates his coming to terms with Archimboldi in relation to himself, as well as his resignation to his own limitations, destiny and mortality.
    Pelletier’s obsessive reading and re-reading of his three books by Archimboldi and his comment to Espinoza that there, in Santa Teresa, although they will never find him in person, they are as close to Archimboldi as they will ever be, made me think that he was developing a resignation similar to Morini‘s, –the most Archimboldi he will ever have is already within him.
    Meanwhile, Espinoza, has gone and forgot what the devil he’s done with the books by Archimboldi that he had put in his suitcase and considered loaning to Pelletier. In turning his attention to his courtship of the Mexican girl from the market, it is as if Archimboldi has shrunk and receded to some unlit corner of his consciousness, at least for the time being.
    All in all, this first part of the book is fairly bleak. Look at what becomes of people who devote their lives to analyzing someone else’s writings. On the other hand, maybe all 4 of the critics are on the brink of making important life changes.

    • Susan, I think it is so perceptive of you to see the transformation that the critics are undergoing at the end. Perhaps I see it as so perceptive only because that is the way that I see it, too.

      It is at page 84 that Mexico is foreshadowed for the first time with the appearance of the Mexican whore who is better than all the rest. In Santa Teresa these critics all slowly fade out intellectually. Morini goes first at page 107. Espinoza fades off into the land of possible marriage to the decidedly unintellectual Rebeca having completely forgotten about the books by Archimboldi in his suitcase. Pelletier fades out by the pool studying the newspapers and Archimboldi texts that he no longer understands. Norton follows the resigned Morini. She starts to depart at page 113.

      It would be too easy, though, to say simply that Santa Teresa got into their heads. That does not address the question of what happened to Morini, who is not there. That troubling passage about Morini at page 107 mystifies me. What is happening to poor Morini there?

      The Part About the Critics winds down and the four critics gradually fade away into incomprehension, lassitude, and resignation. Slowly then Mexico, Santa Teresa, and Amalfitano fade in, to use cinematic terms.

      • Comment from Brooks


        I saw it as quite the opposite. Norton make the first decision to stop chasing Archimboldi and to chase happiness. She thinks of love and James (Jimmy) Crawford and the happy innocence of that love and eventually leads her to Morini. Espinoza, who has been chasing a writer (Archimboldi) rather than his own writing (his most pure desire), essentially leaves all of the layers and accessories of literary criticism and greatly simplifies himself and his life. And in that he finds true joy. Pelletier rediscovers Archimboldi and seems to fall in love with reading all over again. Reading for the love of the written word.
        And so I saw it as a very happy ending. Satisfied and content.

        The thing with Morini on page 107 – I assume you’re talking specifically about the last paragraph. So that whole part sets up the Schwob/Stevenson story and Morini romanticizes that whole thing and sees himself as Schwob – that he doesn’t *need* to go find Archimboldi with his friends. That he doesn’t need to find and meet the man to *know* him. But it’s really just a put-on. Morini sees the youth and vigor of the other critics and sees his own useless body and sees how that stupid body keeps him from running off to Mexico to find Archimboldi and that maybe his life is over. That he’ll never meet Archimboldi. That somehow some part of him will remain incomplete. Broken. Diseased. “…helplessly dissolved…”

        And then so Liz, when she discovers the true object of her love, goes to Morini. And while she’s there she has the dream that she sees Morini standing without his wheelchair. Because Liz restores Morini’s soul. Even as his body will continue to deteriorate, Liz will be there, loving him and bringing him happiness.

        (I really need to go to bed now. I’ve got to be up in precious few hours!)

        • Brooks, thank you for robbing yourself of a bit of sleep in order to write this thoughtful reply. For my part I have nothing better to do than sit in the sun during the day in an interior courtyard surrounded by a wall with glass shards embedded along the top and obsess over this book. Therefore, I have resolved to try to keep my word count under control and limit myself to one posting per day here. This one is it for Wednesday, February 10 anno Domini 2010. (Do I have the day and date correct?)

          The only statement in your reply with which I adamantly disagree is that you “saw it as quite the opposite.” I believe that you said this because you inferred that I consider incomprehension, lassitude, and resignation to be unhappy states of mind. Not so, and I should have made that clear.

          Let me limit myself to Espinoza and Pelletier. You and I both see a transformation. I do think their situation is a bit layered though. (God, I hate that word “layered,” but what is the alternative?) First, with regard to Pelletier, yes, he is rereading Archimboldi but with acknowledgment, for the first time, that he does not entirely understand these works.

          When he returned to the hotel Pelletier was reading Saint Thomas again. When he sat down beside him Pelletier looked up from the book and said there were still things he didn’t understand and probably never would. Espinoza laughed and said nothing.

          Espinoza asked whether he was preparing some article or essay on those three books in particular and Pelletier’s answer was vague.

          Even more important, I think, is that fact that Pelletier spends a good deal of time now studying newspapers trying to figure out what is going on in Santa Teresa.

          As for Espinoza, I do not see any indication that he is now going to realize his dream of being a writer instead of a critic. Instead, he now has daydreams of marrying the decidedly unintellectual Rebeca and running off with her back to Spain. He is startled to realize that he had forgotten all about his copies of Archimboldi stashed in his luggage.

          Moreover, Michael in his latest posting about those brushes with death observes of Espinoza that as a wealthy person he will escape Santa Teresa as Rebeca and the women of the city cannot. Really? Where in this text is there any assurance that Espinoza will escape Santa Teresa or that he can? Likewise with Pelletier.

          These things are what I was speaking of when I used the words “incomprehension, lassitude, and resignation.” Still, I am not contending that any of this is some sort of tragedy. Nor can I characterize it as an unqualified happy ending either. It is difficult to envision any such thing occurring in Santa Teresa. Nonetheless, they do seem content with the idea that they are as close to Archimboldi there as they will ever be. The idea that they will someday lead him on stage to accept his Nobel Prize is long, long gone.

          As for Liz, she believes herself happy in the end. (She did escape Santa Teresa.) More power to her. She does write of her liaison with Morini, however, “I don’t know how long we’ll last together.” I don’t know either. I really do not.

          • Comment from Oregon Michael

            Good point. I should have said “as a wealthy person he can choose to escape Santa Teresa.” I just assumed that even though this part ends with Pelletier and Espinoza still in Mexico, they would soon follow Norton back to Europe.

            I’m also very intrigued about your statement that “I am as sure as I can be that Pelletier will never leave Mexico.” Likewise for Espinoza? Since he has ventured out into the city maybe his new roots are even stronger than Pelletier’s. And what about you? Did Mexico grab you from somewhere else where you now read Bolaño in a sunny courtyard?

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