Week 6: Dream dreams the dreamer

by Maria Bustillos

Michael Mullen wrote an extraordinary reply to an earlier post, ampoule and I’d like to draw attention to it.

Seaman’s sermon I’ve mostly re-read already, information pills because it’s stunning and strange and raises so many questions that I can’t answer, and cuts so far down to the bone of what it is to be a sentient being. The passage about stars [p. 152] alone is so connected with other things that have been talked about already.

This leads to a discussion of metaphor that seems related to things Maria wrote earlier about Plato’s cave. “Metaphors are our ways of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” Stars are metaphoric reflections of the one real star, the sun of our solar system. And that star is real, why? Because if it weren’t we’d be dead? Because it can burn up astronauts in bad sci-fi movies, but isn’t that treading back toward metaphor? Because it’s the ideal from which other stars and their qualities are extrapolated?

The novel is full of dreams, and dreams within dreams, beneath a dreamlike surface, a swirling narrative. We’re trying to make sense of this all, and hoping to grasp the life jacket that won’t cause us to sink.

The stars that may be dead remind me very much of Amalfitano’s belief that places don’t exist when you leave them. That jet lag comes not from you being tired, but from the place you’ve arrived at working extra hard to constitute itself. As soon as you leave again, it slips back into semblance.

And with all of this sort of metaphysical questioning, I still believe that the novel is pointing toward the realities of injustice and exploitation, as you’ve all discussed above. You can’t go to Santa Teresa and expect not to be implicated in the crimes, or some attempt at their solution.


This approach to this book, through its poetics rather than through its politics, seems essential. If the novel were only a call to action, demanding that we “do something” about the crimes, it would surely be something quite different, would be a pamphlet in blazing red letters or a call-in radio show. Now that we’re reading something like a police procedural (in the next section,) I’m starting to appreciate the difficulties of the “pragmatic” approach to this subject a lot more. The clarion call alone would not be enough to change anyone’s mind; that kind of writing only separates us from the reality, sets us apart from it. We have to think about what it means to be human in a bigger sense in order to understand both the dream and the waking.  If we could really understand it–maybe only then would we have a shot at changing how the world works.

All this by way of observing that throughout, both Oscars have been grappling with an attempt to make sense of, or to synthesize, the physical and the metaphysical–culminating at the end of this section in the successful rescue of Rosa Amalfitano. Could they have saved her if they’d been “men of action,” openly concerned with the outward manifestations of things in Santa Teresa?  Wouldn’t we have seen some kind of Sam Peckinpah bloodbath if they’d gone in all macho and confrontational?  The very dreaminess of their conduct seems to have disarmed the bad guys, both literally and figuratively.

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5 Responses to “Week 6: Dream dreams the dreamer”

  • Comment from Steve

    This is such a great contribution, Matt. It has helped me to no end in putting some form to my thoughts about the book at this point. When you write, “This approach to this book, through its poetics rather than through its politics. . . ,” you are right on the money, I think.

    Your thoughts cause so many other things to run through my mind. Just a couple. It is hard to ignore this statement at page 348: “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”

    The question is not, “why doesn’t somebody do something?” The question is “what is the great secret hidden in these killings?” Bolaño is approaching this question with the tools of poetry. One can only think back to Marko Antonio Guerra’s statement that poetry is the only thing that is not contaminated.

    Perhaps part of the answer is that this is the end of the sacred, as is alluded to at the top of page 315. That is a working theory of mine right now anyway.

    I think it would be fair to say, also, that in The Part About The Crimes, we are going to see the poetic technique of repetition put into play.

    Anyway, a really remarkable contribution to the discussion by you here.

    • Comment from Matt

      Thanks, Steve, but this is the work of Maria Bustillos. I can’t take credit for her wonderful insights!

      • Comment from Steve

        You’re quite right, Matt. Sorry. Got confused by your name down there at the bottom. And my profuse apologies to you, Maria. Your name is quite obviously up at the top.

        Maria, you are hitting on the subject that I was trying to address at the end of my rant about meaning some time ago. However, you are saying it so much better.

        The book does not remind me of any novel so much as it reminds me of Eliot’s The Wasteland, another work in five parts, rife with obscure allusions to myth, literature. It has a similar feel to it as that poem does with its grand tour of the wasteland.

        I could blather on. My point is that the more we approach this book as we would a poem like Eliot’s rather than as a novel, the better off we will be.

  • Comment from Terrell Williamson

    I’ve thought about this book in a number of different ways and it usually works to some degree in each. In one way The Part about Fate may be a summation of a particular philosophy (in the broad sense of that word) which views the way through chaos as not a reordering of society, but through our one individual decisions to act. Fate can’t save every woman in Santa Teresa, but he can save one, Rosa Amalfitano. So Fate does act, one of the rare moments in this novel, thus far, where someone makes a conscious decision to act on behalf of another human being. Sure, he’s not clear about the why of his actions, Is it because he thinks Rosa is a beautiful woman after whom he lusts? Sure, that’s part of it. But his motivation doesn’t have to be purely altruist as long as he acts on behalf of Rosa. I think some eariler posts mentioned Camus, which seems particularly relevant to this part of the novel.

    Carrying it somewhat further (though I admit I may be reaching and I’m just riffing on this idea at this point), Seaman exhibits a feelings of failure for not acting to protect his friend Marius Newell. I think that some form of existentialism may be as good an overarching philosophy in this novel as we get.

    Of course, I may be way off base, but I trust that someone will let me know.

    • Comment from Steve

      I have been waiting for somebody to say the “E” word, Terrell. Thank you for breaking the ice and typing “existentialism,” a thing much out of fashion but a useful perspective on The Part About Fate, I think. Oddly, I cannot remember one single explicit allusion to it or any of its proponents in this novel, not even in Amalfitano’s geometrical doodles. On the other hand I do not claim to be like a fish in the water with every one of the names listed there either.

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