Week 13: Handshake Protocol

by Maria Bustillos

Of all the freakouts in this section (and there are many) this handshake story freaked me out the worst. It’s a joke, we’re told, read by Reiter, recalled by Ansky as having been told to him by Ivanov, who heard it “at a party at the offices of a magazine where he worked at the time.” What the hell kind of a joke is this! It’s a game of Telephone, to start with. “Half truth, half legend.” Fine. But just try to find a punchline.

In this alleged joke, a group of French anthropologists visit an isolated tribe in Borneo. First they attempt to find out if these natives are cannibals (!?) Their “first guess” is that they might be. No, the natives say, they’re not cannibals. A gentle people, very primitive, with one weird feature: when they touch someone, they can’t look him in the face. They have therefore got a method of shaking hands that makes the most esoteric hip-hop greetings seem quite ordinary; they’re passing the arm under the armpit and whatnot, and not looking at one another. When a French anthropologist attempts to engage one of the natives in a Western-style handshake, by way of demonstration, however, they go completely nuts and smash the Frenchman’s skull open. (Still no punchline.)

Having made their escape with some difficulty, the remaining anthropologists figure there must be a clue to the natives’ sudden hostility in the word one of them shouted during the rumpus: “dayiy; you’ll be perhaps relieved to hear I can find no evidence of this terrible word outside the book. In the book, it means any of the following:



Man who rapes me

If you howl first, it can also mean:

Man who rapes me in the ass

Cannibal who fucks me in the ass and then eats my body

Man who touches me (or rapes me) and stares me in the eyes (to eat my soul)

The joke ends here, apparently, still with no punchline in sight. I told Oliver about this story and he said he thinks Bolaño “sounds like he has some very unhealthy preoccupations.” Which, well (insert weak laughter here.)

So … this basic fear on both sides of being eaten, or violated, or both—between this fear and the language barrier between the two tribes (the Frenchmen and the natives,) so much tension and terror are created that the result is bloodshed, ineluctable albeit almost inadvertent, just through misunderstanding and fear. The weirdest fear, of your soul being eaten. So much of this book is about the ineluctability of violence that I cannot help but suppose there is much more here than meets the eye.

In closing, I should like to draw your attention to another series of victims of a similar violation and cannibalism, viz., the many women in Santa Teresa who are raped, sodomized and whose breasts are bitten off. Is this violence a fear of the tribe of women–women with whom men cannot communicate, and who might eat their souls?

And again, is the mutual fear of having one’s soul eaten, of being too much known, at the heart of the violence in men’s hearts generally … and more specifically, Latin American violence. Perhaps we’re being told that the oil of Native America just won’t mix with European water, not ever?

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5 Responses to “Week 13: Handshake Protocol”

  • Comment from Erica W.

    I think a lot of the novel is about the fallibility of humans. In the joke, the Frenchmen were forcing their customs onto a foreign people in their own land. Similarly, Mexico is a colonized country. Are you familiar with the word “Chingada”? Son of the raped woman. It’s a serious insult to a Mexican man and his manhood. I think a lot of the parts about Mexico in the novel (which are sometimes confusing to me) are about the crisis of identity among Mexicans. I suppose one could say that crisis could lead to apathy and the lack of care in values.

  • Comment from Paul

    This is indeed a weird, unsettling “joke.”

    I’m starting to think that Bolano is something of like a cubist painter: he tries to show you every possible angle of a scene in full detail, even things that don’t seem relevant (like this joke). (Or perhaps like the movie Amelie where she imagines everyone’s full life in snapshots whenever she sees someone). And so Bolano trudges along and sees something and investigates it fully. Which leads to this joke.

    I’m just not sure what to make of it besides, well, actually I don’t know what to make of it. This post at <> discusses it at length. I only wish I had something useful to add.

    This book seems to do this to me a lot… I think I have something and as I articulate it, it fades away.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    I’ve already beaten the “Bolaño’s preoccupations” horse aplenty, so I’ll pass.

    Paul, I think your comparison to cubist painting is absolutely right. My gradual appreciation for this novel comes from reading it in that light, though you put it particularly well.

  • Comment from Terrell Williamson

    Maria, I thought your post draws a really important parallel between the Santa Teresa murders. Back in the Part about Amalfitano, Bolano gives us a hint about part of what he’s up to in 2666 when Amalfitano laments about nobody reading the untidy masterpieces of literature any longer. One important aspect of 2666 seems to be Bolano struggling with violence. Whether intentional on Bolano’s part or something that’s happened on some sort of subliminal level, I think Bolano wants us to draw exactly the type of parallel you’ve drawn. To what end, I’m not sure other than to demonstrate one possible origin of man’s violence: Fear of the other.

    Thanks for all of your great posts during this group read.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    Thank you, Terrell W., what a nice thing to say. I’ve really enjoyed your comments, too.

    The more I think about it the more it seems that he’s saying that violence is precipitated by fear, that it’s preemptive in a sense. The world is going to kill you so you kill it first, striking at those things that render you most vulnerable: breasts. The womb. The man who looks in your eyes. Your own hand or arm and its agency to create.

    “Each man kills the thing he loves.” I really don’t know exactly how that unnerving phrase came to Oscar Wilde; he and Bolaño are not too much alike at first blush, are they. But I think maybe they both looked into the abyss, in something like the same way.

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