The Part About Amalfitano: Madness is Contagious
As life imitates art, I read this section in the isolated provinces, rural Ohio; the isolation I often feel in the summers of Oberlin can feel a lot like this section, almost entirely inside the Chilean exile Amalfitano’s head. Arguably, this section is about the tricks that loneliness can play on a person, those poor “chincuales” who “cannot sit still mentally” (200).
As I’ve said, before his break-out hit The Savage Detectives in 1998, Bolaño wrote almost exclusively novellas or short novels, and two of them in particular, Distant Star and Chile By Night, are real gems; so I’m not surprised that this novella-length section should have the tightness and finish I associate with Bolaño’s other work, except that its ending doesn’t feel complete, much as the ending of the first part didn’t feel complete; maybe that’s going to be a mark of the first four parts, or of all five parts, of this great big book. (It’s hard to ignore his metatextual moment in the penultimate position in this novella, where Amalfitano for no reason remembers a “bookish young pharmacist” in Barcelona who would only read great writers’ novellas and not their huge novels, “the great, imperfect, torrential works” that struggle against “that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench” (227). Presumably he’s Barcelonan, not Mexican, because that’s the price Europe pays for being so Civilized.)
As in his other novellas, there is an episodic, almost picaresque feel to this part, the “one damned thing after another” side of Bolaño’s texts. But what damned things! The description of Amalfitano’s ex-wife’s madness and obsession; then Amalfitano’s own obsession with the geometry book that appears out of nowhere among his books, and his decision to hang it in his backyard; then the voice of his father in his head; then the digression about the Araucanian’s theory of telepathy; then the interactions with the dean’s perverse son Marco Antonio Guerra; finally the gonzo dream (as I say, unsatisfying) of Boris Yeltsin. Running throughout in the background is his meaningless academic life in Santa Teresa, and his fears for his daughter. The book and the dean’s son were presented in the first part; curiously, Rosa was not; conversely, no direct reference is made in this part to the scene (194) in which Amalfitano walks into the swimming pool and seems to intend to drown; Pelletier has to pull him out.
[For those keeping score: Of the two authors and two books in this section, Bolaño does all he can to make it clear that the Kilapán book proving that the Araucanians are/were telepaths and the founders of ancient Greece is his invention: he imagines the book as a prank written by Cortázar, or even by Pinochet, but glumly concludes that everyone in Chile, from Pinochet to the extreme left, writes in the same humorless fashion. Yes, there was a Mapuche warrior at the end of the 19th century named Kilapan, if Wikipedia-en-español is to be trusted. But is it? There is clearly a poet-dramatist from Galicia [the little chunk of Spain due north of Portugal, with its own language] named Rafael Dieste, the first fifty years of whose career is summarized amply by Wikipedia-en-español: he was an avant-gardist Galician nationalist who moved to Madrid to join the other poets around Lorca, got very involved in the revival of puppet theater, and who went into exile after the war in Mexico and eventually Buenos Aires, and who after a stint at Cambridge returns to Galicia in 1961 and dies there. The Wikipedia-en-español entry makes no mention of a stint at the end of his life teaching high school geometry (after two years teaching Spanish in Cambridge?). Luckily, nothing is permanently hidden in this plugged-in world, and WorldCat declares that El testamento geométrico does indeed exist, and is indeed shelved under “geometry”; there are five copies listed, three in the US, one in Canada, and one in Spain. I was really hoping that it would be a Borgesian, apocryphal book.]
After a letter by Liz Norton, a woman writing to the men she’s dumping describing who she’s in love with instead, it’s interesting to see the tables turned in the next section: Lola is not the sensible woman who escapes from a mad situation, she seeks out a mad situation. The story starts in Spain –we don’t hear anything new about Amalfitano’s life in South America before it– and it seems important to Bolaño to set up this part as a move, not from Chilean dictatorship to Mexican anarchy, but from the Spanish libertinism after Franco to Mexican anarchy. (Lola’s friend Imma is the only link to the Franco years; I like the distinction between her working-class-leftist proto-lesbian life and the aristocrat-leftist proto-gay life of the philosopher and poet.)
[Bolaño is regularly good on LGBTQ issues and characters, and he has a lot of gay and lesbian characters in his fiction, often in very important if secondary roles. Like Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, he understands that bromance and heterosexuality are an unstable pair: Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton eventually have that three-way. Civil adults recognize that possibility in their make-up, and move forward. The crazy anxious heterosexuality of Lola, projected onto the gay poet even as Imma is sharing a pup tent with her, is the flip side of the Civilized way to treat these matters. Sure, sometimes Bolaño writes as if he wants us to give him extra credit for being so liberal. But hell, he was born in 1953 and the son of a Chilean boxer/ trucker; of course I give him extra credit for his liberalism on this.]
Amalfitano also thinks about going into an insane asylum, after seeing to sending his daughter back to Barcelona; that would be three insane asylums, after Edwin Johns’s and the one in Mondragón for the gay poet. I think Bolaño does a magnificent job in moving from Lola’s crazy perspective in her letters as a narrator, to a more omniscient narrator over the course of her story, to Amalfitano’s admission that he is making up the last image he has of her hitchhiking on the road. (The best perspective move in this novella is the shift from Amalfitano’s dream after he first hears the voice, to the police discovering the corpse of another murdered girl, to the perspective of the wind itself, hoping to find in the pages of the geometry book something “that could explain it to itself as wind” (201-2).) But I think most readers feel that Amalfitano’s tragic marriage explains his sadness quite as much as any anecdotes from Pinochet’s Chile would.
The geometric section is ridiculous, and I found it only good for laughs.
What starts as sadness as a character note and tone in the novella darkens into dread, in part due to the dean’s perverse son; in part due to the presence of Rosa –the stories of femicide now have a victim that might be claimed one of these days–; and in part because the hectoring voice of the father, who first appears to be the little nihilist in all of us (“There is no friendship, said the voice, there is no love, there is no epic, there is no lyric poetry….,” 209), becomes more and more powerful until Amalfitano seems genuinely crazy by the end. Not that some of the people around him aren’t crazier: it is a fine irony that the solution to his father’s nihilism, or at least the solution one saw in Bolaño’s earlier works –“poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, that isn’t part of the game…only poetry isn’t shit” (226), is in the mouth of the most unpleasant character by far in this novel.
All the more reason for me to be miffed by the final dream. It belongs to some other kind of character, imho; someone for whom the dream of Salvador Allende’s socialism is more present than it is for Amalfitano, who has been apolitical, seemingly angry at the regime for the effect it had on creative writers, not on Chile’s mode of production. Bolaño is notorious for hating both Isabel Allende’s version of magic realism (her The House of the Spirits is full of telepathy, though not from Mapuche theories of the inheritance of Bernardo O’Higgins) and the avant-garde leftist Chilean writer Diamela Eltit, who remained in Chile during Pinochet, writing novels that were so abstruse that Pinochet didn’t even bother to censor them (her work for the art collective CADA was censored). So to be told that Boris Yeltsin is “the last Communist philosopher” and he believes that “supply + demand + magic” is the solution for humanity, seems deliberately ridiculous. Worse, it isn’t sad; it postpones the resolution of the dread that the novella has been building up. I guess we’ll get it in Part Three, or Part Four, or Part Five.
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