The Part About Archimboldi II –The Deaths of Literature
That’s all he wrote. The second half of this novel provides a soft landing for the draining, moving seven weeks we’ve spent reading 2666. While the second half of Part V keeps us at arms’ length from the carnage of the twentieth century in Europe, and the new carnage on the Mexico-US border, it affirms the value of Literature with a capital L while gently, sadly, also making fun of it.
The second half of this novel was probably the fastest read of the entire five books for me (I’m writing this blog entry on Monday night). It’s also possibly the only stretch that I felt Bolaño would have edited further, had he had the life and leisure to do so –there’s a shortage of those odd purple patches that I’ve valued throughout the novel, and the parts seem inelegantly or all-too-directly related to each other. Within each section, however, I think he strikes the tone he wishes to achieve precisely.
There are roughly four sections of this part of the novel: Reiter makes his way through post-war Germany and reunites with Ingeborg Bauer; he begins his career as novelist while dealing with Ingeborg’s illness and death, and shortly after, the death of Bubis; Archimboldi continues life in Italy and Germany as a loner, narrated almost entirely from the perspective of Bubis’s widow (and this section tells us about her own life as much as his); and, with quite an abrupt shift, the story of Lotte and Klaus, told from Lotte’s perspective, ending with the long-postponed, almost chance reunion between brother and sister; and the witty punch line about fame from the heir of the Fürst Pucklers.
The first of these sections, Reiter and Ingeborg, continues the picaresque feel of much of the novel, of the slow accumulation of adventures that make up a character (and apparently, material for one’s novels; as for helping one decide one’s vocation, we have to guess at exactly when Archimboldi decided to become a novelist; reading Ansky’s manuscript, including its tale of Ivanov, while he hides (unnecessarily) in the chimney in the outskirts of Kostekino is I suppose when he made that decision). There is a sense that the narrative will stop whenever it is necessary to describe the acquisition of one of Archimboldi’s (pardon the capital letter) Attributes, when he acquires the leather jacket (pp.778-81; the fortune teller gives more than one description of its former owner), when he acquires the typewriter (pp.784-90, one of the best of these purple patches, imho, even though I totally disagree with the shtick about minor works; but the scene in the morgue where the typewriter owner sees a worker with the same eyes as the major writer, who tells him, “I don’t have time, I have to haul corpses,” makes for another great little allegory of the purpose of literature); when he acquires his pseudonym (also p.784, with the owner of the typewriter, but really when talking with Bubis (pp.808-10, although that scene is more important as part of a much larger hero-worship of Bubis).
The tone of the next section seemed to me to try to update or ironize a sort of nineteenth-century tragic love-and-death tale. Ingeborg has tuberculosis, that most 19th-century-Romantic of diseases, and they go to Switzerland and then to that little house in the mountains for her. Especially her escape to climb the mountain to the border, and to see the stars, is right out of that sort of lyric fiction. And yet, which is the point, they’re renting the house from a man who murdered his wife (the fact that no one has punished him for it is a kind of echo of The Part About the Crimes), and when they get to the border they find that one of the guards is (inexplicably) dead; the rural hospital and Ingeborg’s unpleasant moods are also at odds with the romantic lyric death scene. But it doesn’t invalidate the romantic lyricism of death; instead, it’s as if Bolaño doesn’t want his characters to have to experience this romanticism and idealism, just the readers. Having established the tonal pattern, he shifts from German winter to Italian summer, doesn’t pretend to care where Archimboldi and Ingeborg get the money to travel, and refuses to narrate a death scene, implying that Ingeborg’s spirit is nowhere-and-everywhere in the Italian campagna. During this same stretch of the novel the publisher Bubis and his vocation are also romanticized, or idealized; the marriage of old Jewish high culture with aristocratic high pleasure has its own idealized, allegorical implications (where the only irony is that the Baroness clearly has permission to conduct civilized love affairs); Bubis’s death (p.848), while at work, laughing at a satirical novel while everyone in the office can hear him laugh, also partakes of this double consciousness, a nobility he himself takes no notice of (and besides, we already knew from the novel’s first book that his widow will carry on his Work).
As I go back to make these comments I realize that what I’m calling the third section actually overlaps with the second, because I consider the next section, or tone, to be the baroness as the detective, like the critics of Part One seeking an elusive reclusive Archimboldi. Of course that isn’t quite accurate: she almost always knows where she is going to find him. Rather instead, what the Baroness brings to this fifth novel at this point is the idea of civilized love in an autumnal key: Archimboldi and Ingeborg had sex non-stop and everywhere and the passion sometimes mimes violence (Ingeborg said that many of the young girls thought that way, pp.775-6, echoing what Rosa Méndez said about having sex with policemen and narcos), whereas Archimboldi and the Baroness have sex discreetly, with pleasure and affection and without misunderstanding (also opposed to the way Archimboldi has sex with prostitutes after his wife’s death, p.861). But her pursuit of him does take on some of the characteristics of the literary detectives, and the transition from Bubis, who reads manuscripts, to the widow who does not, is no mark of cultural decadence but rather just follows Bolaño’s preference for the author over the work.
Then, screech, there’s the shift to the story of Lotte. I wish I liked it more –part of my respect for this whole novel is that Bolaño chose not to improve the character of the man jailed for the murders in Ciudad Juárez, Abdel Sharif (who had already been indicted in Pennsylvania and convicted in Florida for sexual crimes before being set up for the Juárez murders), when he re-imagined him as Archimboldi’s nephew. But just because I respect Bolaño’s decision, I don’t like the character, and in his haste Bolaño doesn’t really achieve anything in the last 25-30pp.. As I said up top, I’d like to think that a man who wasn’t dying of a liver disease would have made this part work better in relation to everything else in the novel, besides just sketching crudely the necessary plot points and the (properly anti-Romantic) reunion of brother and sister.
As for that return home, before setting out again to be, somehow, the guardian of his nephew and the invisible target of the four critics: everyone knows that the narrative of a homecoming is as old as the Aegean Sea, it’s the story of Odysseus (Archimboldi spends some time on islands in the Aegean, or maybe it’s the Ionian Sea, what do I know, Icaria, as well as the Greek mainland, pp.846-7), and we know that when you’re talking Odysseus, you’re talking Ulysses. I love Bolaño’s scattershot, gonzo erudition just as much as I love his Gothic tales of Romanian loyalty and cannibal revenge (p.850-5, with the coda about Popescu’s Honduran showgirl wife), and so I loved the appearance of Odysseus’s bastard genealogy. Bolaño doesn’t make up the story that Odysseus is not really the son of Laertes, but rather that Laertes’s wife Anticlea, daughter of the swindler Autolycus, is actually pregnant with Odysseus by Sisyphus (we have the story from the Fables of Hyginus, and it also appears as an aside in Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Aulis –all praise Google!), but throughout this novel the references are not to Odysseus, although in so many other ways Hans Reiter/Benno von Archimboldi’s tale is the tale of the adventure over all of Europe/Eurasia with the stalled desire to return home (the fortuneteller who gives him his coat says, Don’t make the classic mistake that they do in the English whodunits, don’t return to the scene of the crime (p.777)). Instead of talking about Odysseus, we get instead multiple references to Sisyphus (esp. pp.820-1), ending with Archimboldi’s letter to Bubis (846-7), where Sisyphus outwits Hades and gets to return to Earth for the natural length of his body’s life, and it is said that “The punishment of the rock had only one purpose: to keep Sisyphus occupied and prevent him from hatching more schemes,” but that someday he would come back to Earth. (One very funny Camus/Sartresque version of Hades, that Archimboldi slips out of: the home for “the vanished writers of Europe” that is also a madhouse (pp.856-61)). So writing novels all your life is like being Sisyphus in hell, it’s something the gods make you do to keep yourself out of trouble. Bolaño gets to have his literary cake and eat it too: the novel challenges Joyce’s Ulysses as a total novel, a modern epic, but while making the argument that Archimboldi (and he) are making the epic novel out of “experience’ and not just “libraries” (the man who lends Archimboldi the typewriter: “‘In a word, experience is best. I won’t say you can’t get experience hanging around libraries, but libraries are second to experience’” (p.787)), he also claims a solidly literary lineage, but one through a trickster villain tyrant who nevertheless challenges the gods by chaining up Thanatos himself, which suggests that Literature is more anarchic (“the Germanic barbarian” vs. Moravia, p.839) than either the idealist publishers or the nauseatingly evil Nazis and narcos with which it comes into contact and represents.
I apologize for going on so long. I also apologize to the readers, and writers on this blog, who think that this novel was supposed to be only and always about evil, murder, and the horror of expendable bare life in the globalized neoliberal hell. No writer, however crafty, can chain Thanatos for long. Bolaño couldn’t even chain Him long enough to finish the book. And after all, I suspect that years from now when I remember the book, what I’ll remember is the evil, murder, and the horror of expendable bare life. Or maybe I’ll only remember Bolaño whenever I eat Neapolitan (“Fürst Puckler”) ice cream. That’s literary fame for you.
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