Week 4: Clueless

by Maria Bustillos

Oscar Amalfitano is a bewildered man. He’s got no idea how he even wound up in this horribly dangerous town. Young girls are getting abducted and killed here, all the time, and he has got the sole care of a young daughter. My own daughter is about the same age as Rosa Amalfitano, and if we were living in Santa Teresa, you can bet your sweet bippy that that kid would not be just blithely waltzing around to the movies, not unless she were under armed guard. What is he thinking?!

Notice, though, how Amalfitano has consistently been at the total mercy of these women. So Lola wants to go off with some poet, Oscar peels off some cash for her. Rosa wants to go to a movie, hey okay, see you later. Part of the trouble with Amalfitano is, he’s like Hamlet, kind of. He’s stuck, largely because he has no faith in the significance of his own actions, so it’s like he just can’t move. He is outside all these games everyone else is playing; he can’t understand them. For example, he is neither macho, nor is he gay. He likes Archimboldi just fine, but his head wasn’t turned by Archimboldi as the heads of the critics were. He’s not doing any of that stuff; he’s just a human being, just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Professor Perez’s attempt at romancing him meets with near-total bafflement. Unlike the other men we’ve seen so far (with the possible exception of Morini,) Amalfitano’s basic interface with the world is not sexual (or gender-derived, I should maybe say.) Plus he is nice. He won’t say to anybody such phrases as, the hell you will! Over my dead body! etc.

So he’s not really equipped to deal with this reality.

Amalfitano loved Lola, and he loves Rosa; is this the weakness that makes him incapable of protecting them? You love them, so you can’t say no to them? But they’re putting themselves in such danger. (As I read this all my mom-feelings were going absolutely wild. Go after her! I’m inwardly shrieking.) I have to say, I completely part company with the author, here, if he’s trying to tell me that love weakens men, makes them incapable of protecting, as in, love means never having to prevent a crazy woman from hitchhiking out of a town full of murderers. (?) Then scan the paper with your heart in your throat for some kind of horrible news the next day (echoing the faux-plane crash of Espinoza, remember? Another horror that failed to materialize.)

Because there are all these women getting killed in Santa Teresa. How do you deal with this? Maybe it is, in fact, impossible. You’re up against it, and you have to keep on and hope for the best. About eighteen years ago, my own city, Los Angeles, was basically going up in flames. As in, on fire. It’s hard to believe now, but in fact we really did all behave as if it were a minor inconvenience, tried to get on with our lives, and quite a lot of that meant ignoring the enormity of the smoke in the air, guys with guns on the roof, the burnt shell of what had been a shopping mall. The place I’m thinking of (on Pico, near La Brea) is a tidy supermarket now, it has got a Bank of America in front just as if nothing had happened. There’s not the smallest sign. You let the elements have their way with you, and hope for the best. At some point, though, for some people, the reality won’t let you do that.

In this way, I think the volume of Dieste is a symbol for Amalfitano himself. A rational book, a book about geometry, to serve for a rational man, the Unhappy Readymade: http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Unhappy%20Readymade.html

The book, like the man, is the plaything of the elements. That’s why Amalfitano is in such a panic about the book’s fate, every time he comes home. There is horror and dread kind of circling him, inexorably, and circling the book, and maybe that is what is driving him mad. How he can be spending even one moment making these incomprehensible diagrams of philosophers when he ought to be locking his daughter in her room while he buys them a pair of plane tickets out of there is beyond me. I have not been able to make head or tail of these diagrams, at least not yet, but I hope someone else here has worked on them, and will enlighten us. It really irritates me, though, that Plato should be below Aristotle in the first diagram, when clearly Plato is always above Aristotle, always the in higher, more rarefied, more ethereal air. I guess that is the one diagram that kind of makes sense, because Heraclitus really kind of gave birth to both Aristotle and Plato, you could say?

Now, Lola. I’ll be coming back to her but for the moment, I will say that Lola is another person who has been driven straight off her trolley by literature. She’s the flip side of the critics. Her fangirlhood has literally made her lose contact with reality completely. Just like them. More on that tomorrow.

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16 Responses to “Week 4: Clueless”

  • Comment from Daryl

    You and I arrive at some of the same conclusions about Amalfitano (whew, maybe I didn’t get it all wrong!). I don’t think it’s that love weakens you but that horror weakens weakens you, though I suppose Amalfitano was weak with respect to Lola before he moved to Mexico, so maybe that theory goes up in smoke. Like you, I’m baffled by the diagrams. I guess I think of them as a subconscious attempt to impose order, almost as a way of trying to control something in his life. A weak effort, that, though. I like your view of the book as a symbol for Amalfitano himself. He does just kind of dangle in the wind, doesn’t he, waiting to see what the elements make of him?

  • Comment from carolina

    I think Almafitano has no other choice concerning Rosa than letting her go out. Otherise he’ll be castrating her adolescence. Nad whether we like it or not, she could also be endangered in any other part of the world.

    But I like the metaphor you see in the book hanging there as a shadow.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the geometry book being a metaphor for Amalfitano. Amalfitano doesn’t know how he ended up in Santa Teresa, and doesn’t know how the book got their, either. Both of them are kind of stuck in the elements, and we’re watching to see what happens to them in that particular environment. The geometry book symbology was my favorite part of this section.

  • Comment from Daniel

    As I read the Part about Amalfitano I kept thinking of Meursault in The Stranger. No matter what happens to him, he doesn’t seem to care about it one way or the other. He’s in such a daze.

    (There may be spoilers below, not sure about the pagination of the English-language version.)

    The difference is that he seems to have this crazy dream life: philosophico-geometric diagrams that he draws without realizing/understanding; a disembodied voice that talks to (insults) him in his house; a visitation from Boris Yeltsin. It’s almost like The Stranger by Italo Calvino, or maybe Gabriel García Marquez. Instead of killing people as Meursault did, he develops/revisits an obsessive interest in Araucan mysticism and revisionist Chilean history.

    He also seems to think a fair amount about nationality: his grandfather (the Voice?) was Italian; his father felt more Italian than Chilean; he’s Chilean but lives in Mexico; and Rosa (in the Part about Fate) self-identifies as Spanish. Maybe his sense of personal disconnection is related in some way to his family’s geographical rootlessness: wherever he belongs, it’s not in Santa Teresa.

    But then, who in 2666 does belong in Santa Teresa?

  • Comment from Jimmy

    Thanks for the illuminating post Maria. I don’t really agree with the “love weakens you” thing though. I don’t think we should extrapolate Bolano’s general philosophies based on what just one character does. More likely, Bolano is talking specifically about this one character, Amalfitano, and how he deals with things. It seems like the Part About Amalfitano starts after something horrible has already happened to Amalfitano. He seems like a defeated person, and it makes me wonder what event/person/episode made him this way? I really think he is depressed, and that Bolano has left out his back-story on purpose. But for what purpose?

    • Comment from Hugo

      I’m not sure why I was never tempted by this one. I saw the book list but since I don’t only read in English I wasn’t aware that the books were hard to find in English. I’m ssreriupd it was translated in that case.I think the length put me off as it didn’t sound as there was all that much of a plot.I do prefer non-fiction about books or something like The Jane Austen Book Club, entertaining but still about books. Good taste is something I find suspicious and it sounds as if this is the concept this book is based on. Sounds like rules and regulations.

  • Comment from marc nash

    I felt this part of 2666 to be the weakest of them all. It just seems strung out, a road movie shot entirely in a gas station where no one stops by. Lola’s death is touchingly written, but other than that the stuff with the daughter doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and Amalfitano seems to be a shade of a person, as he was in Part 1, the host who is always in the kitchen and never gets to mingle with their own guests. Sorry, but this section just did not work for me at all, unlike Part 1.

    marc nash

  • Comment from Steve

    I agree with everyone’s assessment of Amalfitano. The word I would use is “impotent.” He is now impotent on every level. I have been writing a little piece in anticipation of the discussion of The Part About Fate, and I could not help mentioning my own daughters, too, Maria. This Part About Amalfitano is a brilliant setup for The Part About Fate by the way.

    As Daryl pointed out over in Infinite Zombies, the wind noodles around with the ideas in the book on the clothesline, and then the wind tries on Rosa’s underpants. All this professor of philosophy’s learning, this man from a highly cultured Barcelona, is useless in the face of the primal stuff that is going on here in Santa Teresa. He cannot even see any coherence in his own learning anymore. See below.

    And I like him.

    Notice he doodles those diagrams without thinking and then goes back later and tries to make sense of them. They are like automatic writing. Is that what it is called? I must say that I was gratified to see that blow-hard Harold Bloom down at the bottom of Diagram 6 with the other nobodies. [p. 194] Amalfitano cannot see anything funny about it when he looks back at it, but I’ll bet Bolaño saw something funny in it. I surely did.

  • Comment from Trent Crable

    Just a possible correction: When you say “love means never having to prevent a crazy woman from hitchhiking out of a town full of murderers.” It seems like you’re suggesting that they are in Santa Teresa at the time. I’m pretty sure they were living in Barcelona when Lola came back and then hitchhiked away.

    About the LA riots (I assume you’re talking about the riots that happened after the Rodney-King-beating-cops got acquitted): I was 15 and living in an LA suburb and the riots were definitely a big deal to me at the time–my friends and I certainly felt like the world is coming to an end. But maybe that was because we were young and had never really experienced anything like that before. I do agree though, that after they ended, people tended to forget, or at least act like they forgot.

    • Comment from Maria Bustillos

      Trent, of course you are right, and they were in Spain during this meeting!! The nature of his fear for her so that he was lying about the trains and stuff made me confuse the two. Thank you for setting me straight.

      The riots, yes. I was five months pregnant and living pretty much spang in the middle of that thing in a loft on Pico near 4th Street, if you can believe. A building two doors down from ours burned down, a liquor store across the street–several buildings in each block, by the time it was over. We were all like hmm, should we leave? The view from the window was absolutely insane, cars full of screaming guys with their fists out the windows, looting in every shop. This woman who brought two little kids along to plunder a mini-mart, sauntering along laden with bags but still managing to munch placidly on stolen potato chips. Another who had dressed up for the occasion, wobbling but still weirdly regal in a turban and matching dashiki-ish dress, just freighted with malt liquor. You literally couldn’t believe what you were seeing. So we went to my sister-in-law’s place in Pasadena and watched television for the next 24 hours or so. But when we got back there were so many people outside, cleaning up, everybody had black plastic bags and brooms and we all kind of patched it up, in this very otherworldly state we were in. The phones kept ringing, you still needed to go buy milk and bread, and do your work, which in most cases was pretty much unaffected unless you owned a shop in our nabe. Most of the little shops on that street were cleaned out and had to close, antiques shops and places like that.

  • […] this is late, but let’s talk about the Testamento geométrico. It seems to have captured some interest, and I want to push it a bit. As a preliminary matter—even though I’m disinclined to trust […]

  • Comment from Steve

    Maria, I neglected to mention that confetti flew here when I read of your flabbergastedness at Plato having been situated below Aristotle. I am with Dame Rebecca West on Aristotle: “The world had gone too far in its enthusiasm for moderation, and the thing had to be stopped.”

  • Comment from janet

    As I recall, there are diagrams at the end of the Savage Detectives. I don’t have my copy handy, but maybe someone who does could take a look at them and see if there are any comparisons to be made. Bolano does seem to like diagrams, although I (like others) could not make any sense of them. Sometimes I feel as if he is pulling my leg or making fun of people who do put alot of stock in these things.

  • Comment from Michael Mullen

    I was formerly posting as Pocket Shelley, but am reverting to my name from now on.

    I really loved this part of the book. Having never read this book before, and never read Bolano before, I wasn’t certain whether the critics would appear again. When they didn’t appear in this section, and it started with Lola’s strange and beautiful fugue, I began to relax in the strangeness.

    The geometry book seems key, as do the diagrams. The book seems organized according to a series of geometrical relations, or repeating patterns. The critics aren’t quite characters. A writing seeking for us to feel we know them as we know people in our life (the way we feel to know Dorothea Brooke, for example) would make different choices then Bolano does. He veers into mystery, he obfuscates, he keeps secrets, he omits. At one point in this section, Amalfitano is invited to dinner by Professor Perez, and agrees to go, but then is picked up by Guerra and ends of drinking mescal with him. But when he gets home he cooks dinner for his daughter anyway, though there is no sign of his daughter. It doesn’t actually make sense, it’s not supposed to make sense. In a novel full of dreams, the surface of the novel shimmers dreamlike as well.

    I’m being kicked of this machine. More shortly.

    • Comment from Michael Mullen

      Repeating patterns: the painter in an asylum; the poet in an asylum. When I first read about Dieste, I wondered if this was the unnamed poet in the asylum. He’s not, but he’s also occupies the poet’s post on the relational field of the novel. (The real poets in this book, as opposed to the co-opted intellectuals Amalfitani dissects in The Part with the Critics, are capable of doing damage to themselves and leading others on a Dionysian dance toward disaster.) The author of the Chilean history (with telepathy!), somehow he fits in this gallery of damaged artists.

      Meanwhile there’s the missing Archimboldi, who like Johns and the Mondragon poet, can drive people to undertake quests (Morini to the asylum in Switzerland for Johns, Lola to the asylum in Spain for the Mondragon poet, the critics to Santa Teresa for Archimboldi). We know from scanning the table of contents that there’s a part about Archimboldi at the end of the book, but what that might entail there’s no way of knowing. He could be the murderer haunting Santa Teresa, he could be Godot, he could be none of those things.

      I love that Amalfitani thinks the B in one of the diagrams could stand for God. Clearly a god whose name is Bolano.

      I also loved the bit about the pharmacist and his love of second tier masterpieces: Bartleby, not Moby Dick. I thought: Ah yes. This is “Moby Dick” we’re reading here, not “Bartleby”. “A Christmas Carol” is a perfect gem, but “The Pickwick Papers” is barely a novel, it’s so splintered and jammed with work in different genres, a handful of repeating characters and a seething world of fascinating passersby, including ghost and goblins. “Moby Dick”, if I remember correctly (don’t have access to a copy right now) ends with another kind of mysterious geometric proof, the carefully described physical relation of the components of the final scene. “The Trial” is a miracle of obfuscation and inconclusiveness. So this passage also gave me confidence in what I was experiencing with the book, and a good tip about how to read it: Just take it on faith, he’s giving you a world. It could get messy, but all the real poets leave messes.

      • Michael: yay, you are here! Hawaii (whence the above posts came; I have inside information) appears to have the opposite effect on you from its effect on me, viz., it makes you even more brilliant. Being there costs me about ten IQ points per day.

        Every single thing you said above is so fascinating and true. I especially loved your remarks about the sprawling, Dickensian messiness of this created world. I also remember thinking, ha!, this Chilean is a cheeky devil, letting us know what kind of magnum opus we are reading just now.

        On the other hand, this book is like Infinite Jest in the manner of charming you with its characters. I feel this tenderness toward everyone in the book that proceeds, as think I’ve mentioned before, from the voice of the author. The way he lets us into their minds is gentle and knowing, full of humility and forgivingness, but also implacable. I have the sense of being with a sly but also great-hearted docent in this strange-but-familiar world.

        The farther into it I get the more I feel like Alex in A Clockwork Orange: head in the straps and eyes held open. You’re gonna look at this, the author seems to be saying. Only in Spanish.

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