Week 15: La guerre n’est pas finie

by Maria Bustillos

If I became somewhat quiet as our reading progressed, it’s not because I got lazy; it’s because the farther in we got, the more I realized I will be reading this book many, many times, because it rearranged so many of my comfortable ideas about political involvement, about human destiny, and the history of literature, and love relations, and how novels can be structured and written. I could go on with this list, but suffice it to say that this book rocked my little world like nothing since Infinite Jest, another book I have long shared with the brilliant Matt Bucher. So thank you, Matt, for including me in this wonderful project. I’ve enjoyed every moment.

One of the strangest things about the upshot of the book is that it ends on some quite conventional notes. For example, Reiter goes to Mexico for love of Lotte.  So often the human relations in this book are vicious, brutal, murderous, but the way Lotte feels about Hans is utterly tender, and so finely described. I hadn’t expected it to end this way, after the Crimes, with an innocent woman in distress, and people coming to her rescue.  Lotte is a “good guy” whose personal aims and ideas don’t include harming others or trying to take advantage of them in any way.  There aren’t many such in this book, but others have stepped in to protect them more than once: Lalo Cura is rescued from the narcos, Rosa Amalfitano is rescued by Fate. The ones who do the rescuing are relatively impure themselves, maybe, but they recognize the innocence and protect it, champion it, it seems to me. Maybe that, too, is part of what is being said.

(An aside: one of Bolaño’s greatest achievements in this book is to render characters so believably in so many nationalities. We have British, Italian, German and Mexican characters, Americans, a Romanian, a Frenchman. I’ve traveled in most of these places, have certainly met representatives of each, and was just bowled over by the correctness in details of each case.  I can’t think of a richer book, this way.)

I too will close with Fürst-Pückler-Eis.  This is a real kind of ice cream, by the bye. (While I’m at it, I will add that I quite agree that ice cream is far better in spring and fall than it is in summer.  As a quite keen cook myself, another thing I appreciate about the Bolaño, that nonstop polymath, is that he really knows his food, like many a good Latin American.)  So here we have a highly accomplished man, Fürst-Pückler, whose subsequent fame rests entirely on the ice cream treat named after him. Isn’t that absurd?  Okay, I submit that this last bit of reasoning applies also to two others.  One, to Archimboldi, who loved Lotte and Ingeborg, who struggled in war and peace, who made a great and final sacrifice at the end of his long life—one which none of his fans will ever know a thing about—what is left of Archimboldi?  Why his books, of course.  They’re his ice cream, I think.  They are good and satisfying, enjoyed by many, but they aren’t the man, they aren’t his life.

In fact books aren’t life; they seem like life, but they’re not. You may recall that the first paragraph of 2666 finds the nineteen-year-old Jean-Claude Pelletier reading d’Arsonval, Archimboldi’s French-themed novel, in Paris in 1980.  How distant from the actual concerns of Reiter’s life can this scene be?  But the book is so entertaining to Pelletier, so absorbing, so delightful, it really might as well be the ice cream with which the book ends.  It seems we’re being told that this book, all these dreams within dreams of 2666, can’t really teach us a thing. We may enjoy them, but books can never be more than ice cream. (An odd thing to hear from a man whose whole life must have been a positive avalanche of books, but there you go.)

So: thank you very much, Sr. Bolaño, for the ice cream, which is absolutely first-class ice cream, and which I hope to enjoy (if that is the right word) many times in future.

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?

Week 12: Fireworks

by Maria Bustillos

I don’t know about you guys, but I crawled across the finish line of The Part About the Crimes in a state of nervous exhaustion. Even though I found it to be the strongest section of the four, so far, in terms of articulating a different and true way to look at the world (something a novel has achieved only a few times, in my own reading life,) and to think about our own part in it (about which, more anon.)  So emerged into The Part About Archimboldi to find it bursting all around us like a shower of fireworks, as if we’d been dropped suddenly into into the middle of a Russian novel like The Master and Margarita, so full of incident, of sensation–the imagination in this is torrential, suddenly so rich, powerful and poetic.

I don’t know how I will be feeling at the end, but right now my earlier impression that we begin at a great remove from reality and move slowly closer in has only intensified. What I didn’t realize, though, was this: we would go closer and closer to the truth, and finally enter deep inside a human mind to touch the realest reality that there is.

We begin with the critics, and the sort of intellectual miasma they are in is like a veil between themselves and the world; it hampers their ability to experience anything or even observe it clearly. They’re still human, but they’re lost.

Then we move to Amalfitano, whose grasp of affairs though closer than that of the critics is also very much hampered by convention, by the blindness brought on by being a book of logic or poetical mathematics strung out on a clothesline, the plaything of the elements.

Then Fate, a man who is drawn, too, to learn about what things are really like, far more so than Amalfitano; yet his fleshliness and creatureliness circumscribe his chances of reaching the awareness he seeks. His desire for Rosa at least is real, and creates a real desire to deliver her, and he manages this, or appears to have managed it so far. This is a sort of “pragmatic” level of awareness that many of us live at; to survive, to flee danger, to know something about the world but when it should threaten something we love, our curiosity is at an end and our desire to get on a plane overtakes it at once.

The crimes plunge us headlong into ‘the oasis of horror.’ That is to say, whatever we may feel about what is going on in Santa Teresa, it’s the result of human struggle, desire, real passions. It’s not “false” or “wrong.” It’s the most inconvenient truth there is. These are true things being described to us, things that have been poeticized and repeated over and over like a rosary of pain and death, to freak you out, to bore you and make you crazy, to make you look in the mirror of what it is to be human. We can’t deny that this is our legacy, this bloody mess we have always either been in, or hiding ourselves away from. Those who are caught up in the tangle of influence, corruption and evil that surrounds the crimes are face to face with it, unhindered by the “rules” of law or propriety, conscience or religious scruple; this is the raw face of human nature, and you’ve been forced to regard it.

Now we reach the tale of Hans Reiter, a man who has gone completely his own way from the first instant of his life, practically.  He is the lone diver, separate from all others; he is completely detached and his inner life is the opposite of the critics’; it’s the real life of the mind that is like a compositional tool for reality, that is poetic also, and wild and unconstrained, that takes life as found, alone … that dives to the bottom of the sea.

Week 10: The Infernal Comedy

by Maria Bustillos

Every life, Epifanio said that night to Lalo Cura, no matter how happy it is, ends in pain and suffering.

Here is a fact that recontextualizes the crimes for us. The weight of the crimes, not only the crimes against the murdered women but against the guys in the Santa Teresa prison, the guys who are stuck in the corrupt police force, and the crimes of the mass society, crimes of enforced poverty and ignorance, begin to assume new and different proportions in this week’s section.  As word of the crimes begins to spread, the whole world’s complicity begins to make itself felt.

The “snuff film” section speaks very clearly to this alteration.  There is a real film called Snuff that was filmed in Argentina in 1971, that depicted a “Mansonesque murder cult.”  The film was originally called Slaughter. The directors of the real film are Michael and Roberta Findlay. According to Wikipedia:

Independent low-budget distributor and sometime producer Allan Shackleton later re-released another version of the film, unbeknownst to the original filmmakers. Having just read a newspaper article on the rumor of snuff films being importer from South America, he decided to cash on the urban legend and added a new ending to the film in which a woman is brutally murdered by a film crew, supposedly the crew of Slaughter[2]. Filmed in a verite style by Simon Nuchtern, the new ending purported to show an actual murder. This new footage was spliced onto the end of Slaughter with an abrupt cut suggesting that the footage was unplanned and the murder authentic. This new version of the film was released under the title Snuff, with the tagline The film that could only be made in South America… where life is CHEAP

By this means and others that I’ll be getting to in the next few days, Bolaño demonstrates the involvement of pretty much everyone in the kind of mindset that would find the torture and murder of a woman entertaining.

Week 9: Wall of Voodoo

by Maria Bustillos

The appearance of Klaus Haas produced an absolute brick wall for me in this book. Until now, I’d been able to enter into the narrative in a receptive frame of mind, just fluidly kind of taking it all in, but the incomprehensibility of this character stopped me cold.  I’ve reread the jail passage several times (not a pleasant task, though an absorbing one) trying to get a grip on what is being said, here.

It doesn’t seem to me that anyone could survive being sodomized with a shiv?  That’s one thing.  But the fate of the victim is left unclear, so far as I can make out–I mean it is difficult and expensive to repair a lacerated colon and you might bleed to death pdq in a Mexican jail?  So this guy is really violent, willing to kill, right from the outset. (Intelligence here welcomed.)

I had been operating under the assumption that the next time we run across any kind of a tall guero in Mexico, that person is going to be Archimboldi.  But Haas is not, in fact, Archimboldi, because it turns out he’s only forty.  What is the relationship then between these two tall Germanic blonds? I’m now guessing that they are blood relations, maybe? On the other hand, the internal landscape of Haas seems to feature no kind of reference to books or writing. I can’t really tell how educated Haas is but on balance the evidence is that he is smart but not literary, at least he’s not wallpapered on the inside with books the way most literary people are (including Amalfitano and the critics.)

Another point on Haas that struck me deeply. His mind works on these really grotesque lines, and I will not be surprised if he killed some of these girls. However, there is a freakish extra ingredient to the remarks and interior workings of Haas:  they’re intensely poetic. His nightmares are full of Boschianly horrible and yet intense and painterly imagery.  Also, he’s calling down in a kind of oracular way (as if he were the reverse of Florita Almada) the coming of an even worse evil than himself.  His warnings spook even these seriously vicious men in the jail; they have almost the lurid smack of santeria.

As a final point: the events in this section are real in two senses.  First, they are an imagined version of what has really been going on in Ciudad Juarez, events we’ve read about in real newspapers. Second, they’re real within the context of the novel; by this I mean, as we discussed earlier, the critics lived in a sort of bubble that real events of any kind just couldn’t seem to penetrate; they’re reading about the world rather than living in it.  Good luck with that in Santa Teresa! Look what happened to Amalfitano, reality in all its bloody splendor is positively stalking him until (thank god!) Oscar Fate comes along and saves Rosa. Actually any kind of horrible thing could have happened to him afterward. We didn’t exactly leave him in good hands.

And now we’re in the belly of the beast, right? Are Archimboldi’s books so fascinating to the critics because they partake of reality, which is what we desire no matter how dangerous and terrible it is?  Is this why the critics take their opportunity to beat up the Pakistani cab driver, when it comes, because all men are at bottom bloodthirsty, bestial creatures?  And they sort of subsume their real nature in literature, and subsume as well any feeling of connection with or responsibility to real events, whether criminal, political etc? Are we also absolving ourselves of the claims of reality just by reading this book?

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.

Week 7: Big Black Car

by Maria Bustillos

There’s a feeling of having arrived at a destination when the book begins to describe the crimes.  I’d somehow gotten the impression, having read about 2666 off and on before I tried it myself, that this section was an even drier kind of catalogue, almost without narrative.  It’s not really like that.  There is a catalogue of murders here, and it’s as numbing as advertised, but here’s the thing. The layering-up and rewriting and twisted, doubled-over reportage mirrors Bolaño’s treatment of other phenomena like books and authors (some of the victims described being real ones, and others, I think, fictional, though I have not looked up every single victim, and perhaps all their names wouldn’t appear on the Internet? I should welcome intelligence on this point, if we’ve got any.) In any case, it appears that some of what is being described is real, and some not. The nature of 2666 invites us to investigate these things for ourselves, gets us thinking about how much of what we’re being told in other writings, other media, is likewise being distorted, exaggerated, invented or just left out completely.

Clearly, we’re meant to be numbed here before we are shocked into consciousness. The clinical nature of these multiple accounts deadens the attention, too, and deliberately so. This mirrors the way we are numbed and deadened by all the other real horrors we hear about every day, in faraway places we’ve never been like Baghdad and Mosul and Kabul, or even in places we may have been, like Washington D.C. or Fort Hood or New Orleans.

We might become so numb that we even miss the elusive patterns in the flood of similar horrors described in this novel; many but not all of the victims are tall, are young, have been multiply violated and strangled—but some have been stabbed, or not raped, and sometimes the perpetrator is caught, and turns out to have been involved with the victim for a long time. There is an evil truth underneath all these incoherent, jumbled accounts, however. A mass murderer who drives or is driven in a black Peregrino—I’ve never heard of such a make, and Google offers no enlightenment—but I guess it is the same one waiting outside Amalfitano’s house when Fate and Rosa make their escape.

I never met Lily Burk, the 17-year-old girl who was abducted and killed last summer here in Los Angeles, but she was an acquaintance of my daughter’s. This murder was more along the lines of a botched robbery; the murderer was a recently paroled drug addict who was found just a few hours after killing Lily, high as a kite, we heard, and in possession of her keys and other effects.  Practically everyone I know has some connection with the Burk family through temple, school or work, and for many months we were all laser-focused on this disaster, talked about it constantly, read about it in the papers, learned everything we didn’t already know about the victim and her family. This is just one lovely child who was killed, the tenderly-raised daughter of a professional family, raised in an atmosphere where all the moms are very concerned together about such things as planning school fundraising events, and we also know how each kid is doing, because we’ve known them all since they were little, and we also have firm ideas about what the “in” appetizer is to bring to a party, and where the best Pilates studio is, and where to buy good dessert wine.  All of which seems simply obscene, or crazy, or both, in the face of the unbelievable shit that goes on.

It will be impossible for any of the victims in Santa Teresa to receive anything like the kind of attention accorded to the murder of Lily Burk (for what that’s worth, if anything,) or for the perpetrator to be caught and put away so quickly (which is worth something.)  The murder of a young girl doesn’t really shock anyone in Santa Teresa, because it happens once every few days. They’re even number than we are; they have to be. The community has no resources for preventing the next murder. At this stage of the novel, they haven’t really even figured out yet that there is a pattern; the police, even if they are willing, are operating in an absolute circus of disorder, corruption and mismanagement; they are powerless.

I am having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea that this is a real thing, that it started in the early 90s, and that it’s still going on right this minute.

Week 6: Dream dreams the dreamer

by Maria Bustillos

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

Seaman’s sermon I’ve mostly re-read already,  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.

Week 6: More than Meets the Eye

by Maria Bustillos

Here’s a rundown of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, via Wikipedia.

According to official Catholic accounts of the Guadalupan apparitions, during a walk from his home village to Mexico City early on the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw a vision of a young girl of fifteen to sixteen, surrounded by light. This event occurred on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in the local language of Nahuatl, the Lady asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor. From her words, Juan Diego recognized her as the Virgin Mary. When he told his story to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop asked him to return and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her claim. The Virgin then asked Juan Diego to gather some flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, even though it was winter when no flowers bloomed. There, he found Castilian roses (which were of the Bishop’s native home, but not indigenous to Tepeyac). He gathered them, and the Virgin herself re-arranged them in his tilma, or peasant cloak. When Juan Diego presented the roses to Zumárraga, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared imprinted on the cloth of Diego’s tilma.

This same alleged tilma is still on view in the Basilica of Guadalupe, and over five million people make a pilgrimage and/or attend the festival there every year.  It’s the most visited Catholic  shrine in the world, according to the Vatican (http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/ZSHRINE.HTM).

One of the weirdest aspects of the cult of Guadalupe is the idea that images of people appear in her eyes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhScF5BBHzE Most commonly, it seems, these images are thought to reflect the scene at the moment the image appeared on the tilma in 1531. Even ordinary people’s eyes exhibit such reflections, which are called Purkinje images. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purkinje_images Difficult though it is for gringos to believe, Mexico is chockablock with people who literally believe this tilma to be a supernatural object, made from unearthly materials and pigments, literally not painted by human hands, its subject literally containing the reflections of 16th-century personages in her eyes. Attempts to force the object and the story to yield to scientific and/or historical inquiry have been many, and futile. That people see what they wish to see in the image of Guadalupe speaks directly to the mysterious, multifarious nature of Mexico itself.

Bolaño transposes this supernatural image, Mexico’s most durable and iconic image, onto the cement wall of Charly Cruz’s garage. It’s not at all surprising that such an image would appear in such a lowly place, by the bye. Those of us who live in L.A. or other places with a large Mexican population will be familiar with this image, which appears on everything from t-shirts to pencils to murals on a thousand restaurants here in Los Angeles alone. But the image has been distorted in Charly Cruz’s garage:  one eye is open, and one closed.  I don’t doubt that this is of major significance to our narrative, but I’m not convinced of any of my own ideas about it, which are as follows:

1. “One eye open and one closed” is a figure of speech in Spanish, indicating something along the lines of, “more aware than I appear to be.”

2. Or it’s a deliberately blasphemous image, in which the Virgin is winking at what is going on here.

3. Maybe the Virgin doesn’t like what she sees, and is closing at least one eye against it.

4. Given that Charly Cruz and his pals are up to a lot of questionable things, maybe he doesn’t want the Virgin seeing him, and that’s why he caused the picture to be painted this way. Or he’s painted it shut, in order to conceal his own reflection.

5. Since we are getting closer to the truth, but can’t see it completely yet, and since the Virgin is a redemptive figure, a figure symbolizing Mexico itself, maybe she’s just starting to open her eyes on our behalf, or Mexico is starting to open its eyes.

In any case, the whole passage is full of mirrors, and reflections, and eyes, and cinema—“optical illusions,” if you like.  Much of it is about mistrusting what we see with our own eyes.  Amalfitano points out to Charly Cruz that “images linger on the retina for a fraction of a second.”  We carry the impress of what we see with us; it’s recorded in our eyes, but our eyes can also deceive, and we can willfully blind ourselves, “refuse to believe our own eyes.”

Then we have the story of the “borrachito” or “little old drunk,” a description of a different kind of optical illusion, one in which a spinning disk convinces us that the laughing little old drunk is behind bars, although the bars of the prison are drawn on the opposite side of the disk; Amalfitano concludes that the little old drunk is laughing at our credulity, because he’s not really in jail at all. Or we could say, we don’t know what side the bars are on. Charly Cruz seems to be suggesting, I think, that Amalfitano himself is in jail. But Amalfitano isn’t going down so easily.  Maybe he is less clueless than he seemed at first.

And indeed, so he turns out to be. But I’m really worried about what happens to him after Fate and Rosa take off.

Week 5: Now We’re Cookin’

by Maria Bustillos

Barry Seaman is a reimagining of Bobby Seale, who founded the Black Panthers with Huey Newton. There are significant breaks with the real story; for example, Newton was murdered in Oakland, not in Santa Cruz.  I don’t really know enough Panther history to compare point by point, but I have just ordered a copy of the real book, Barbeque’n with Bobby (pub. 1988.)

This is the second author we’ve met who brought himself back to reality by writing a cookbook; the first, as you will recall, was Sor Juana. Another fighter for freedom, and also another oppressed person. Another incarcerated person, you might say; Sor Juana in a convent, and Bobby Seale in a conventional jail. My understanding is that both of these cookbooks are very highly regarded qua cookbooks, that is to say, they are the work of serious cooks, not just some kind of literary joke, in either case. I sympathize greatly with this view of the world. Preparing and eating food really does bring people back to reality. It restores perspective.

The underlying message I’m seeing so far in this book is: art and literature can be made to liberate us, and to show us reality in its true colors, but we’ve built up a million dodges to prevent this from happening. In The Part About the Critics, the murders in Santa Teresa are completely abstract to the critics, whose concerns are almost entirely selfish, personal; the reality of the crimes is totally distant from them, even when they get to Mexico, until they begin to make contact with Amalfitano. I think that Bolano is saying is, what they really ought to be doing, what we all really ought to be doing, is concentrating with all our hearts on the fact of these murders, and doing something about it.  It bears thinking about that traditionally in Latin America, poets and writers have been activists as a matter of course–sometimes, even revolutionaries.  And that is going back to the likes of Jose Marti­. What else could possibly be more important than preventing all these atrocities? Intellectuals in Spain and Latin America see themselves as having a political destiny in a way that we don’t seem to, here in the States. Of course quite a number of them have gotten themselves thrown in jail or even shot, for their pains. Which is a subject for another day.

Amalfitano, getting back to the story, is a little closer to reality than are the critics. He has been kind of immune to all this blathering about Archimboldi, even though he is a professor of literature. This is because the dodges of the academy aren’t working, here in Santa Teresa.  Reality is getting harder to ignore, for him.

And now we come to Oscar Fate, who is making the move toward reality, not away from it.  Barry Seaman, or Bobby Seale, is very close indeed to the workings of reality. Dedicated his life, in however flawed a manner, to redressing the wrongs of the world, in the approved manner of a Latin American intellectual. Bobby Seale’s political activities were questionable, I believe … are we hearing a Latin American revolutionary who is giving a man like Seale too much the benefit of the doubt, I wonder?  Seale renounced violence, in the end. His books are said to be worthy.  I will start with the cookbook.

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