Week 8: The Ventriloquist

by Maria Bustillos

A number of readers aren’t quite on board with Florita Almada, it seems.  A consensus has developed on Infinite Zombies around the idea that the legitimacy of her views can be called into question.  I’m posting most of my response here, because I’d like to know what others think on this point.

If you are afflicted by e.g. what you are reading in this book, what you see in the news, then Florita is saying that you can begin to address your own grief, guilt, shame etc. by looking to the quality of your own conduct toward others. It’s a matter of focus. What it’s saying is that human kindness IS fairness and justice. Something you have to think about specifically and put into action. That this is a real and practical way out for each individual man who can’t stand the horror.

There is, however, something in what you say about the author’s distance from this slightly maudlin-sounding prescription—that it’s “a piece of naivete for our affectionate amusement.”

You’ll recall that right before before Florita first goes on TV, there’s been a ventriloquist on. That ventriloquist’s name is, I believe, Roberto Bolaño. He is “an autodidact who had made a name for himself in various places,” and “who thought his dummy was a living creature.” This ventriloquist is really annoyed with, almost panicked by his dummy; the dummy has actually tried to kill him but is very weak, and could never manage it. This dummy (among others, of course, but this one right now) is Florita Almada, who is about to speak, right after the ventriloquist— that’s how it always goes, first the ventriloquist and then the dummy. Florita really likes the ventriloquist, though. And even to him, she shows a great deal of sympathy, she gives him advice, even though she’s not saying the stuff she’s supposed to be saying, just like a dummy who won’t behave.  (Pretty much any fictionalist will tell you how a character comes to life pretty much on his own, and comes to have his own agenda.)

The thing is, Florita really is a saint, with a strong and fixed moral position, with real comfort and advice for the afflicted. The ventriloquist doesn’t care for this! He finds her dangerous … she’s dangerous “for people like him, hypersensitive, of artistic temperament, their wounds still open.

She lets him have it, for sure.

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8 Responses to “Week 8: The Ventriloquist”

  • Comment from Steve

    Maria, you are not going to believe this but I understand exactly what you are proposing regarding the Bolaño/ventriloquist and the dummy/Florita. I find that a fascinating theory. In other words, you are saying that Bolaño’s character, Florita, is giving voice to a philosophy of real value and some effectiveness in spite of Bolaño.

    I want to think about that more. In the interim, I suppose one must say that if Florita is simply another ink blot in Bolaño’s big Rorschach Test here, then our individual interpretation of her must depend on how deeply our own cynicism runs. But that still does not obviate your theory that Florita may have been a character who took the bit in her own teeth. These things do happen I am told and as you say.

    Relevant to this, if Bolaño featured himself as writing one of those “great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” and if he saw his attempt as a “struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench,” [page 227], then Florita’s homely little piece of advice seems pretty weak medicine (as in medicine woman) in the face of all that as it is portrayed here. I do not pretend to speak for Daryl, but as I read his remarks, I think his reaction was similar.

    Still, Maria, having said all that–having said all that–I think you have proposed a very seductive reading of Florita. Perhaps it is not such weak medicine after all. I am not making love with that idea, mind you. But I am flirting with it.

  • Comment from Daryl

    Steve, I think I agree. Well, I agree somewhat with Maria, too. Florita’s advice is nice. But as you say, it’s pretty weak within context. As with the prophecies she’s unveiled so far, it’s not something we don’t already know. Which is part of why I’m tempted to read Florita as another (next to critics, cops, politicians, reporters, et al) sort of untrustworthy purveyor of information. Or not so much untrustworthy as short on usefulness in her case. The things she tells us are valid, and I guess she does actually have the visions, but they don’t add much of real use to the can of worms she’s taken up as her cause.

    I’m still trying to figure out what I think about what you’ve said about the ventriloquist and danger. I don’t think I had quite the same reaction you did, Maria, but I can’t quite unpack mine either.

    • Comment from Maria Bustillos

      Say on, though. We need to know about this bit. My feeling is that it may be as telenovela as all hell, but also it’s true. Like so many embarrassingly maudlin things turn out to be true.

      • Comment from Steve

        Just as some not so maudlin thing turn out to be true. When Barry Seaman says, “. . .markers of class rot only when the corpse that was tagged with them rots,” that has the ring of truth, too. Barry and Florita can coexist in this world, I guess.

        I must say that I did regard Florita as a sweet old crone, an old Latina tuned into things to which I am not. All that does make me want to accept what she says.

  • Comment from Jeff Anderson

    Maria, I like this reading of La Santa, I just don’t know that I can hold it up. She’s a fox (in the “hedgehog and fox” sense) who knows some good things, it’s true: We should eat fiber, the children are our future, that the lower class are often both undernourished and malnourished, that we shouldn’t cheat each other and should treat each other properly. But like Daryl and Steve say, it seems like her prescriptions are basically useless in Santa Teresa, because they have nothing to say to the structural elements of the situation. That’s ultimately why I don’t put that much stock in her.

    And I think we’re given a very good reason, in her introduction, to distrust her (distrust her worth to the book, I mean, rather than her veracity): “And she knew how to find a meaningful explanation for everything that happened to her” (427). Surely one of the things this book has been saying, over and over and in many different ways, is that some meaningful explanations are pure fiction, and some events defy any meaningful explanation.

  • Comment from MIchael Mullen

    Really interesting discussion. I like the ventriloquist-dummy FLorita-Bolano connection.

    I have to admit, I love this character, which I think shows how schmaltzy I really am. In this book very few people show compassion or even consider it. It’s a world of frosty isolationists. You can fall in love, but you’ll fall in love with a psychiatrist who isn’t interested in much about you. There are moments of great passion (Fate taking Rosa across the border), but few of mild and genial warmth, such as Florita exhibits.

    Florita has no reason to love knowledge or learning or books or healing, other than her love of these things. She makes no extravagant claims about what she does, and says mostly sensible things. She cries out against the murders. She’s got a moral compass, and she cares about suffering. She’s called La Santa, but she actually just seems not warped, like in some ways she’s the most normal person in the whole book, except for occasionally going into blackouts and speaking prophetically. And except that, in this book, none of those traits are normal.

    That her efforts are inadequate to deal with the murders in not a criticism of her, in fact, I find no feeling of parody in Bolano’s treatment of her. She knows how to take something valuable from everything she reads, so presumably she would be a satisfied reader of 2666, if perhaps not a sophisticated one.

    I don’t think she’s being proposed as a model; on the other hand, I don’t think she’s not being proposed as a model, either. She feels the magnitude of what is happening, but she is neither crippled from trying take action, nor hopelessly twisted and perverted herself by the contemplation of the situation. Again, that’s the sort of response you would hope people would have, and that one wouldn’t have to be a saint to be that way. But maybe that is what it is to be saint, in this situation; maybe that response is the most difficult of all.

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