Week 7: The Part About the Crimes, pages 353-404

The horror.

The evil.

The murders.

Well, at least the most-hyped part of the novel. Or the part that causes many people to put the book aside.

At first, the narrative seems to be straightforward. A girl is found dead. Then another, then another. But, like all parts of this novel, there is complexity upon complexity layered upon the narrative. There are murder mysteries, stories-within-the-stories, character arcs, allusions, black humor, and irony. The pages are dense with details, names, locations, fragments, and dots waiting to be connected.

This is my second read of the novel and I have to admit that I was not looking forward rereading this part again, to curling up with a nice book about female sexual homicides. Although, I knew that the section is full of deeper meanings that need to be teased out, even if the secret of the world is contained within them, I still found it a little hard to get motivated to start that section.

We are plunged into it. In the first five pages, we read about six different murders. As soon as we read about one, the camera pans away and we’re on to the next one. It’s like walking through a cemetery with a flashlight, trying to make sense of each headstone that your light finds. Who was this person? How did they die? How about this woman, too? Or that one over there, only 13?

Over the next month, I hope to look more at the real-world Santa Teresa, Ciudad Juárez, and it’s horrible crimes, but one of the sad ironies of both the fictional town and the real town is that women are attracted to the city because of the easy availability of jobs. Most of the murdered women are workers at the maquiladoras around town. These assembly plants require hundreds of workers, most of whom they pay poorly and treat as interchangeable, but on the scale of unemployment to employment, they are shining stars.

The city is rapidly growing and rapidly dying.

After eight murders in seven pages, we move to the story about the church desecrator, the Penitent, who stabs the church sexton and pees on the floor. Police Inspector Juan de Dios Martínez goes to visit the asylum to see if any of the patients match the description of the church desecrator. He doesn’t find the criminal, but he finds the director of the asylum. Why does Bolaño include the story of the Penitent here? The Crimes are not just the femicides—they are murder-as-murder, a desecration of the sacred, a soulcrime, an offense against God in some way.

More to come.

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9 Responses to “Week 7: The Part About the Crimes, pages 353-404”

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    But doesn’t it feel somehow callous, or even ghoulish to try to see the literary stream that wends its way through these murders? At least, that’s how it feels to me. Here are these murders, and it almost feels profane to discuss them on literary terms.

    A longer version of the same thing here:

    • Comment from Matt

      I sort of see your point, Dan. However, I think there is a correlation drawn between the femicides and the Holocaust and I’m trying to see if the same argument would hold if you replaced “woman murdered in Santa Teresa” with “Polish Jew killed at Auschwitz.” Even in a literary sense, both lives are worth examining. I don’t feel like Bolaño is mocking us.

      • Comment from Dan Summers

        Perhaps “mocking” is the wrong word. I feel somehow defied, or challenged. Hard to put my finger on it.

        Part of the trouble is that, unlike the Holocaust, we are in the middle of these crimes. They are still happening, and we are confronted by their thinly-covered reality.

        Sorry about the “comment eaten” comment below. For some reason, my first comment didn’t show up on the computer, and now suddenly it does.

        Anyhoodle, I remain incredibly interested in what everyone else has to say. My perspective remains open to being widened.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    Hmmmm. My comment just got eaten.

  • Comment from Susan Zenger

    The catalog of deaths is so enervating, it is like reading the phone book but feeling guilty if you can’t keep track of all the data–like your cemetery imagery, Matt. When I started this section, and read the detail with which he attempts to describe the victims, even in some cases vignettes from their personal lives, and I saw the size of this section I became pretty demoralized: he is going to recount each and every one of the deaths of the two hundred women murdered in Santa Teresa, and in agonizing and repetitious detail!
    But the persistent message up to this point in the book has been that the deaths of these people has been ignored, overlooked, brushed aside–gone uncounted, unrecognized, unmemorialized as important by “the word”(I.e.conversation overheard by Fate in the US diner right before crossing the border). So this is like a tribute to each one, individually, as any human being deserves: by being worthy of mention. He is rescuing them from literal oblivion. The cross we have to bear is that we have to slog through the catalog. I’ve decided to look at it like doing the pilgrimage, like walking the Camino de Santiago de Campostela”, it is the least I can do for the victims.
    Reading about all these murders is, frankly, boring. It clogs the main story lines and weighs the book down like mill stone. Still, how else to get the point across that after a while even the most sensitive person starts becoming inured by the overwhelming bulk and repetition of it all unless the reader him/herself has go through it personall and feel the boredom, tendency to start skimming or ignoring, followed by the guilt? Gotta give it plenty of paginated acreage. Sigh.
    When the guilt sets in I just redouble my efforts to pay attention, again, and remember.

    • Comment from Oregon Michael

      Ms. Zenger, gracias for your comment!

      I totally agree when you say:

      “But the persistent message up to this point in the book has been that the deaths of these people has been ignored, overlooked, brushed aside…”

      The first time I read this part I was not aware of the women being killed in Ciudad Juárez, and after finishing it I’m only just a little more aware. It’s too terrifying a reality to imagine. It sounds like Sunnis and Shi’a killing each other in Iraq. Awful death that I’m only vaguely conscious of.

      But for some reason I don’t find this section boring, more fascinating and horrifying. Why fascinating? Why am I attracted to what horrifies me? Is it something I can’t stop looking at, or thinking about? The subject of death. I keep imagining that I might just as easily be killed like the women in the book. So I feel sick but I can’t stop reading.

      You’re also spot on when you say it’s “like a tribute to each one,” because the more we understand someone’s death, I think the more we honor them. Maybe this understanding will lead to positive things now and in the future.

  • Comment from David Winn

    Fictionalizing atrocities must be a tricky business, especially when dealing with real and ongoing events, and I think the question of how well Bolaño’s style serves the subject matter is an interesting one. I’ve posted a few thoughts along those lines here: http://ablogabout2666.wordpress.com/

    I’ve enjoyed following the discussion here and over at Infinite Zombies for a few weeks now, and finally decided to quit being a lurker and jump into the fray.

  • Comment from David Winn

    Tried to leave this comment once before, but it didn’t seem to take, so if it somehow shows up twice, my apologies.

    Fictionalizing atrocities must be a tricky business, especially when dealing with real and ongoing events, and I think the question of how well Bolaño’s style serves his subject matter is an interesting one. I’ve posted my thoughts on this question here: http://ablogabout2666.wordpress.com/

    I’ve really enjoyed following the discussion here and elsewhere for the past few weeks, and thought I’d leap into the fray.

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