2666, viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly)
Following the maxim that a work of art contains instructions for its own interpretation, it’s reasonable to infer that an introductory section, bearing the title “The Part About the Critics”, will be an especially good place to look for those instructions. I believe the description of Edwin Johns’s masterpiece contains a few clues. From pp. 52-3:
Still, the show wouldn’t have been so successful or had such an impact if not for the central painting, much smaller than the rest, the masterpiece that years later led so many British artists down the path of new decadence. This painting, viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly), was an ellipsis of self-portraits, sometimes a spiral of self-portraits (depending on the angle from which it was seen), seven feet by three and a half feel, in the center of which hung the painter’s mummified right hand.
There are reasons not to map this artwork too closely onto 2666. For one thing, this book is clearly not “much smaller than the rest.” But I think 2666 would like us to view it both as an ellipsis and as a spiral.
“Viewed properly, [it] was an ellipsis of self-portraits.” As Pat points out, “ellipsis” is not the same as “ellipse.” Bolaño may be punning on the shape “ellipse” (since a visual omission is conceptually imaginable but visually paradoxical), but the word is unambiguous. As far as “an ellipsis of self-portraits,” “this novel doesn’t have Arturo Belano in it”–although according to the afterword, “among Bolaño’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: ‘The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano.’” The absent presence of the author’s alter ego is one way in which 2666 is elliptical. Are there others?
Josh M. commented on the opacity of Morini and especially Norton’s thoughts: “As for what passed through Liz Norton’s head, it’s better not to say” (p. 16). Elliptical (censorious) omniscience, indeed. Archimboldi’s corpus is a giant ellipsis, although I’m intrigued to see what we learn about him in future chapters. And Edwin Johns’s reason for mutilating himself is also omitted: “He bent toward Morini, saying something into his ear” (p. 91). These don’t strike me as throwaway lines, but deliberate, almost frustrating omissions of parts of the story the narrative dangles in front of me.
I’m less confident of how to read 2666 as a spiral. I’m interested in this: a spiral is a line connecting the center to the margin, and 2666‘s cosmopolitanism does something similar as it moves our characters from the metropole to the periphery. It’s not just the critics’ movement from bouncing around Western European conferences to cooling their heels in the sticks out Santa Teresa way. There are fractal spirals, whorls within whorls: consider the story (told to the critics in Amsterdam) of the Swabian, who, when he was “a cultural promoter in towns that were far-flung”, specifically in the Frisian boondocks, got to hear Archimboldi’s story of horse racing in Buenos Aires. (The nesting of stories is another recurring form, although I don’t know that it qualifies as a “spiral” per se.)
I found one other passage besides the description of the artwork that combines these two ideas, of ellipsis or omission and of geographic movement away from the center to the fringe (p. 117):
“Exile must be a terrible thing,” said Norton smpathetically.
“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”
“But exile,” said Pelletier, “is full of inconveniences, of skips and breaks that essentially kepp recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important.”
“That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano. “But again, I beg your pardon.”
Are there any other ellipses and spirals in “The Part About the Critics?”
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