Week 8: Speaking words of wisdom: Let it Be

by Maria Bustillos

she wasn’t ashamed of being what she was, because what God takes away the Virgin restores, and when that’s the way it is, it’s impossible not to be at peace with the world.

The extraordinary person of Florita Almada appears right after the terrible murder and burning of Silvana Perez Arjona by Carlos Llonas.  This Llonas is, “according to his friends,”:

a good-natured man, a drinker but not a drunk, and a person who read books in his spare time, which was unusual and gave him the aura of someone exceptional.

Though the jealous Llonas’s “exceptional” cultivation didn’t prevent him from stabbing Silvana Arjona in the chest and setting fire to her dead body any more than their elevated nid-nodding over Archimboldi prevented Pelletier and Espinoza from beating a Pakistani cab driver half to death.  Llonas observes, after he is arrested and confesses to the crime, that “Silvana was a good kid, and she didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”  Oh yes?! Very astute. I really wanted to throw the book across the room at this point in a rage, but it also seemed absolutely like what some drunken macho murdering fool would really say.  How “exceptional” was Llonas? Not much.  He is par for the course, just like every other raping, murdering beast in this horrible place.

So right on the heels of this unbelievably sordid story there appears another reader, the first person with whom I believe the author must have felt a strong identification: Florita Almada, a/k/a La Santa. I certainly find that the two are very much alike (“the miraculous laws of symmetry.”) Florita Almada is a polymath, an almost incredible autodidact whose voluminous stores of information pour out in all directions, voluble expressions like songs or poems, altogether unpredictable, full of tantalizing, half-hidden connections, and delivered in a discursive, dreamy style peculiar to herself and to her creator. Florita, however, is stuffed to the gills with what I believe is called “marianismo,” meaning the feminine opposite of “machismo” in gender-theoretical circles: a doctrine of the superiority of women, or an idealization of the feminine principle. Pious, passive, maternal, giving, chaste. Life-oriented, pure, noble, selfless. Someone to show us that reading has its uses, provided you pay attention.

One guy who made no use of his reading, whose reading didn’t enable him to escape this misdeed.  And then this old woman!!

And what use did she make of her learning? She’s talking about Santa Teresa.

I would say that Florita has got her ear closely attuned to the goings-on in the mine we heard tell of, earlier in this book.

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6 Responses to “Week 8: Speaking words of wisdom: Let it Be”

  • Comment from Steve

    But don’t you see, Maria? Throwing the book across the room would only be answering violence with violence. I suggest that when next you become enraged with the book, the much more appropriate response would be to quietly hang it on a clothesline.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    That’ll show it! hahaha.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    Ahoy, Steve! I will go over and leave this on IZ as well–a really good blog post I dug up that kind of synthesizes your views and mine in re: Florita Almada.

    “What’s going on here? In the first place, the episode offers yet another example of Bolaño’s stylistic reach and daring as a storyteller. Although the “forensic” style of the writing about the crimes is probably what’s made this part most famous among the critics, the reality is that the book alternates third-person descriptions with a multitude of extremely vivid first-person testimonials. In the second place, Florita’s television appearance has important thematic parallels with Seaman’s premonitory speech and with the altered Baudelaire epigraph at the beginning of the novel (“An oasis of horror in the middle of a desert of boredom”). The visions, of course, also remind us of the voices that Amalfitano heard earlier on. In addition, the passage is full of an incredibly provocative irony in that the TV program with Florita also includes a guest who is a ventriloquist. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Bolaño was making fun of himself (the author/ventriloquist whose characters/puppets can’t stop talking to save their lives) or merely drawing attention to a cosmically absurd situation (an old woman who, in a trance, speaks with a voice from beyond the grave having to share the stage with a performer who speaks through a ventriloquist’s wooden dummy), isn’t it ironic that a clairvoyant of all people is the saintly one charged with being the voice of reason in confronting the killings in Santa Teresa? And are there no other prophets to help confront the apocalyptic wrath that’s been unleashed on the city?”

    (from Caravana de recuerdos, a really good blog.)

  • Comment from David Winn

    Maria: Thanks for the pointer to Caravana de recuerdos. Really smart commentary over there on both the style and the politics of the novel.

  • Comment from Daniel

    First of all, I’m glad to know there’s a female equivalent of machismo. I knew that hembrismo couldn’t possibly be right. 🙂

    As far as Florita, I found her to be pretty naive, even infantile. Here are a couple of passages:

    durante los viajes buscaba hierbas o escribía pensamientos mientras los animales pastaban, como hacía Benito Juárez cuando era un niño pastor, ay, Benito Juárez, qué gran hombre, qué recto, qué cabal, pero también qué niño más encantador

    Benito Juárez was president of Mexico for over ten years, a progressive reformer who fought for separation of church and state and civilian control of the military, while defending Mexico’s sovereignty against a French invasion. Here, Florita imagines him as an innocent child shepherd. This reminded me of nothing so much as Ricky Bobby’s insistence on praying to “Little Baby Jesus.”

    A ella, por poner otro ejemplo, le hubiera gustado estudiar y ser maestra de escuela, pues ése era tal vez, a su modesto entender, el mejor trabajo del mundo, enseñar a los niños, abrir con toda la delicadeza los ojos de los niños para que contemplaran, aunque sólo fuera una puntita, los tesoros de la realidad y de la cultura, que al fin y al cabo eran la misma cosa.

    This is the beginning of a section where Florita imagines herself as a schoolteacher in a highly idealized bucolic setting. Maybe this struck a chord with me because I used to be a high school teacher, but I don’t think you can get much more naive than thinking about how nice and simple your life would be if you were professionally responsible for a group of several dozen small children. You start off wanting them to “contemplate … the treasures of reality and culture,” but some days you’re satisfied if they’ll just stay in their chairs for thirty minutes.

    I think what I’m reacting to is the flip side of marianismo: conceding to women the “feminine virtues,” praising them for being nurturing mothers or chaste daughters, is another way of controlling them. The Wikipedia article on marianismo says:

    This ideal woman is emotional, kind, instinctive, whimsical, docile, compliant, vulnerable, and unassertive.

    Sounds to me like someone who it would be easy to murder and get away with it.

    • This is another whopper of a comment. Perfect. I especially love the idealization of teaching–everyone’s got this Mr. Chips idea of it, until you’re actually in charge of a few of the little devils.

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