Week 5: Now We’re Cookin’

by Maria Bustillos

Barry Seaman is a reimagining of Bobby Seale, nurse who founded the Black Panthers with Huey Newton.  There are significant breaks with the real story; for example, salve Newton was murdered in Oakland, not in Santa Cruz.  I don’t really know enough Panther history to compare point by point, but I have just ordered a copy of the real book, Barbeque’n with Bobby (pub. 1988.)

This is the second author we’ve met who brought himself back to reality by writing a cookbook; the first, as you will recall, was Sor Juana.  Another fighter for freedom, and also another oppressed person.  Another incarcerated person, you might say; Sor Juana in a convent, and Bobby Seale in a conventional jail.  My understanding is that both of these cookbooks are very highly regarded qua cookbooks, that is to say, they are the work of serious cooks, not just some kind of literary joke, in either case.  I sympathize greatly with this view of the world.  Preparing and eating food really does bring people back to reality.  It restores perspective.

The underlying message I’m seeing so far in this book is:  art and literature can be made to liberate us, and to show us reality in its true colors, but we’ve built up a million dodges to prevent this from happening.  In The Part About the Critics, the murders in Santa Teresa are completely abstract to the critics, whose concerns are almost entirely selfish, personal; the reality of the crimes is totally distant from them, even when they get to Mexico, until they begin to make contact with Amalfitano.  I think that Bolaño is saying is, what they really ought to be doing, what we all really ought to be doing, is concentrating with all our hearts on the fact of these murders, and doing something about it.  It bears thinking about that traditionally in Latin America, poets and writers have been activists as a matter of course–sometimes, even revolutionaries.  And that is going back to the likes of José Martí. What else could possibly be more important than preventing all these atrocities? Intellectuals in Spain and Latin America see themselves as having a political destiny in a way that we don’t seem to, here in the States. Of course quite a number of them have gotten themselves thrown in jail or even shot, for their pains. Which is a subject for another day.

Amalfitano, getting back to the story, is a little closer to reality than are the critics.  He has been kind of immune to all this blathering about Archimboldi, even though he is a professor of literature.  This is because the dodges of the academy aren’t working, here in Santa Teresa.  Reality is getting harder to ignore, for him.

And now we come to Oscar Fate, who is making the move toward reality, not away from it.  Barry Seaman, or Bobby Seale, is very close indeed to the workings of reality.  Dedicated his life, in however flawed a manner, to redressing the wrongs of the world, in the approved manner of a Latin American intellectual.  Bobby Seale’s political activities were questionable, I believe … are we hearing a Latin American revolutionary who is giving a man like Seale too much the benefit of the doubt, I wonder?  Seale renounced violence, in the end.  His books are said to be worthy.  I will start with the cookbook.

Week 5: pages 231-290

The Part About Fate

Before officially moving away from Amalfitano’s section, rx we have a couple of pieces of unfinished business that will be posted today. Below is a recap and a few questions about the first part of this week’s reading (up until Fate goes to Mexico). A lot of people hate this section or call it their least favorite in the novel. After the critics and Amalfitano, thumb Bolaño throws a complete curveball with this section. What to make of it? Did it make you want to put the book down? I’ve heard people say that about The Part About the Crimes, but I know that Fate is not the most likable character. Here is Naptime Writing‘s take on this Part.

On the first few pages we get a short story about Quincy Williams and his mother dying. And then suddenly a paragraph opens “At work everybody called him Oscar Fate.” What? And then we get another 24 pages of Fate in Detroit with Barry Seaman before we get any connection at all to Sonora or Mexico or the previous plotlines of the novel. But Oscar “Fate”, really? Isn’t that a bit like naming your love interest Jane Love? I wonder if it’s not some sort of double-reverse red herring that doesn’t refer to fate per se, but rather something like Fatima prayers or the Fates of Greek myth or some specific philosopher of fatalism, just because Bolaño is sneaky like that. But Bolaño does seem to have a fascination with Greek mythology: “The Greeks, you might say, invented evil” (p. 266).

Barry Seaman preaches from the pulpit on five topics:






He recites whole recipes verbatim. He talks in extended metaphors. In fact, I think mostly Bolaño is using the characters and situations in this section as metaphors for the scenario in Mexico, reflections of the same mirror. Mentions of money and poverty grapple with some of the root causes of the horror in the Sonoran desert. When Antonio Jones (Scottsboro Boy) tells fate that “poverty didn’t cause only illness and resentment, it caused bad temper,” it recalls the poverty of the Mexican factory workers or Rebeca selling rugs in the market, surrounded by poor macho men, certainly some with bad tempers. (And yet the upper class Marco Antonio Guerra is the “ticking time bomb”, constantly exploring the limits of his temper, his violence, feeling stifled by the atmosphere around him.) The poor of Detroit are no different than the poor of Santa Teresa.

Antonio Jones’ full name is Antonio Ulises Jones. For readers of The Savage Detectives, I wonder if your ears perked up at the sight of that word on the page. Ulises Lima.

Page 245: “How does rap lead to suicide?” asked Fate.

Page 249: I had to circle this beautiful line:

And he waves his hand toward the sea, because he’s incapable of expressing what he feels in words. And then I’m afraid, even though it’s my brother there beside me, and I think: the danger is the sea.

Page 254: Seaman’s talk about how nobody smiles anymore and everyone is just trying to sell you something reminded me of David Foster Wallace and the attempt at a new sincerity in American fiction. “They want us to look at them, that’s all” sounds as much like a rebuke of Twitter, Facebook, and oversharing bloggers as it does of smiling.

Week 4: Characters

by Brooks Williams


Father of Rosa, for sale ex-husband of Lola (164).  Finds a copy of Testamento geométrico that he doesn’t remember buying or packing in a box of books when he arrives in Santa Teresa (185).  Clips it to the outdoor clothesline (190).  Begins to hear voices of his grandfather or father or maybe just a ghost.


Amalfitano’s daughter (163).  Seventeen years old and Spanish.  Her mother is Lola (164).


Amalfitano’s ex-wife.  Rosa’s mother.  Always carries a switchblade (164).  Her favorite poet lives the insane asylum in Mondragón and she believes (although, visit web according to Amalfitano, purchase it isn’t true) that she had slept with the poet at a party.  Runs off with Imma to see the poet (166).  Is able to gain entry into the asylum on the third try and speaks to the Poet, meets Gorka (171).  Has a brief relationship with Larrazabál (175-179).  Has another son named Benoît (182).   Returns to Amalfitano after seven years (182-183).  Reveals that she was diagnosed with AIDS while in France (184).  Leaves again after a few days (184-185).

Inmaculada (“Imma”)

Friend of Lola, who calls her Imma.  Lesbian (167).  Travels with Lola to visit the poet in Mondragón.  Once they are able to meet with The Poet, she essentially stands against the wall, reading poems.  Their money runs out shortly afterward and Imma goes to make some money and never returns (175).

The Poet

Lives in an insane asylum in Mondragón (165).  Gay.  Heavily medicated.  Blows smoke rings “in the most unlikely shapes” (172).


Friend of Inma.  Lola and Inma stay with her and her husband (Jon) when they first arrive in Mondragon.  She had been an ETA commando (171).


The Poet’s doctor.  He is writing a biography of the Poet (173).  It is entirely possible that Gorka is just a patient at the asylum.


A driver that picks up Lola on the road.  Takes her to the cemetery in Mondragón, where they have sex (175).  They run into each other again in the cemetery when he has brought another woman there (176-177).  Lola moves in with him and he becomes her lover, gives her money, takes her to the asylum (179).

Silvia Pérez

Professor.  She convinces Amalfitano to take the teaching job in Santa Teresa.  They meet in Buenos Aires and then later in Barcelona (199).  Has a 16 year-old son (204).  Amalfitano and Rosa accompany Silvia and her son on a trip (204-205).  She appears to have a romantic interest in Amalfitano.

Marco Antonio Guerra

Dean Guerra’s son.  Carries a gun.  He gives Amalfitano a ride home from the university, but first they go for a drink outside of Santa Teresa (214-216).  He likes to get into fights – both to give beatings and to get beat up.  He only reads poetry (226).

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