The Weblog

Home for the heteronomous

Post #2 (pp.3-80): Bolaño’s Purple Patches

You won’t want to read this list of questions and comments until you’ve hit p.80 of 2666.

1.  How omniscient is our omniscient narrator?  Does he let us in equally on all four of our protagonists?

2.  Why exactly do they love Archimboldi’s writings?  Why do they love being literary critics?

3.  I find the rhythm of the first half of this novel/part to be passages of omniscient narration of a careful psychological realism, complete with an equally well-weighted moral-psychological vocabulary (“will,” “rancor,” “resentment,” “jealousy,” etc.), as well as a somewhat comic chronological narration of a series of academic conferences, interrupted at times unexpectedly by strange events or purple patches.

[Weirdly, Bolaño seems to mock his moral-psychological vocabulary by the way that he describes the first long telephone conversation between Pelletier and Espinoza (p.40=41).  He also at times invokes a very strange vagueness about abstract words, not just by the omniscient narrator, but also in his reporting of what other people say, and even, when the love triangle develops, signals his lack of interest in which of the two lovers proposes something.  To be cleared up in the final revisions he never made, or a deliberate choice?]

3. The purple patches:

a.  The Astounding Swabian!  And the tale of his meeting with Archimboldi, especially Archimboldi’s jacket, hijacked by the fellow diner’s anecdote about her visit to Buenos Aires and the horse races with gauchos (17-23)

b.  The post-coital memory by Pelletier in one hotel room, of seeing a Japanese horror movie with Espinoza in another hotel room (30-31)

c.  The visit to Mrs. Bubis (25-29)

d.  Morini’s reaction to reading about the killings of women in the Mexico desert (43)

e.  Morini’s nightmare, introduced by that odd comment about P & E considering Morini to be like Eurylochus (44-47)

f.  The London bum, his former job at the mug factory, and the recipes of Sor Juana Inés (48-51)

[The Spaniard and his wife looking at the statue of Peter Pan is a private-joke shout-out to his friend Rodrigo Fresán, who finally published his novel Kensington Gardens in 2004.]

g.  The gentrification of a neighborhood based on the painter Edwin Johns’s self-mutilation (51-53)

h.  The Serbian’s literary investigations, and Pelletier’s thoughts about old bachelors and machines celibataires (55-57)

i.  Pritchard’s warning to Pelletier about the Medusa (69-71)

j.  The aside on the new generation of literary critics (71-72)

The scene with the Pakistani cab driver does not, in my opinion, count as a purple patch, even though it looks as though it will not have plot-related after-effects, because of the psychological effects on the lovers and on their relationship. It was by far the most memorable event in the novel for me the first time I read it, and it sums up for me a lot of the novel.  But inso far as it conforms to the episodic aspect of this novel full of conferences and purple patches one after the other, it also reveals the way that meaningful events happen to the four critics in a vacuum –no police, no State interact with their decisions; one is tempted to invoke Kundera’s ideas about the unbearable lightness of being.

k.  Pelletier’s dream (78-9)

By listing these “interruptions” I don’t mean to undermine the narrative excitement involved in becoming involved in the lives of these critics, first as individual critics, then as a sort of team, and then as a lovers’ triangle.  (The only counterpart on the same level as the triangle in this narrative are Morini’s health problems, which also make him seem older than he is –he’s only about twelve years older than Liz, the youngest of the other three.) These are all clearly the forefront of the story while the interruptions serve as…well, do they all serve as comments on the main story in the same way?

So halfway through this 160pp. novel/part, the question is, What is this novel (so far) About?


July 9, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. Just to comment on the first of your questions: It seems like our narrator is omniscient as it relates to these four characters, but for the most part chooses not to let us in on Morini and especially Norton’s thoughts to the same degree as the other two. When we get interior glimpses, it’s usually of the two older men. Norton is largely the same kind of mystery to them as Archimboldi–fascinating yet opaque. That’s the one thing I find sort of frustrating so far. It’s a lesser gesture from a book that otherwise seems to be operating on a higher plane. It would be fine for Norton to be opaque to her two lovers, but I don’t think she needs to be a mystery object to the reader as well, especially when Bolano shows himself willing to occasionally dip into her thoughts.

    What do you mean by “purple?”

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 9, 2012

  2. I think the phrase “lesser gesture” is exactly right. Pelletier and Espinoza are obviously the main protagonists, point-of-view-wise; we’ve got access to Morini’s thoughts and even that elaborate dream; so for the first eighty pages at least only woman is, once again, being constructed as The Enigma –and the depths in her life that have been unearthed so far have basically been a previous husband and a current boyfriend. Liz’s having a boyfriend who compares her to the Medusa doesn’t exactly gain the text points on a feminist scale, either: sure, it says more about the boys than about Liz herself (or Bolaño), but that’s why you’re right in saying that it’s a lesser gesture.

    The interruptions aren’t “purple prose” in the sense of H.P.Lovecraft, no. But the first one, the Extraordinary Swabe, is a single sentence that goes on for three pages; there’s something perverse and Joycean in a very small way about the list of Sor Juana Inés’s recipes, in Italian; and the second dream, of Pelletier’s, goes on and on in ways that no dream I’ve ever had goes on. Bolaño finds ways to raise the stakes of these scenes in a way that are non-realistic.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 9, 2012

  3. Pat, here’s a question for you. On p53 of the English, Edwin Johns’s famous exhibit is described thusly:

    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 feet, in the center of which hung the painter’s mummified right hand.

    In Spanish, does “ellipsis” have the same double meaning of both an oval shape and a… gap? There are a number of suggestions of gaps, lacunae, etc. and that seems like it would be one, especially given that Bolaño’s work seems to be in many cases (though less so this one) elliptical self-portraiture.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 9, 2012

  4. It is mainly about what is to come but, as I remember it, it is also about the inevitability of feeling an outsider of an inner circle.

    I often wonder what would have happened after revisions but it strikes me that if there would have been any, it would not have been about clarifications but about additions (more purple patches if you will). The narrator, to me, is not so much omniscient as pretty average: like all of us he assumes the position of omniscience given it provides the rhetorical advantage of not having to bother too much, but in the end he forgets the essential, or is unable to capture the reasons or invents reasons where there is just co-incidence.

    Maybe it is a form of sympathetic omniscience, more driven by the desire to make sense of stuff people do or say than by the knowledge of why things are the way they are. Whether it was written that way I don’t know but it certainly appeared to me as a story that developed as it was written, much in the way of Luigi Pirandello’s six characters.

    Comment by Guido Nius | July 10, 2012

  5. Well, Josh, technically in both Spanish and English the oval form is ellipse (“elipse”), while the rhetorical form of the three dots/ omission is an ellipsis (“elipsis”), so the word in Spanish and in English only refers to the omission, not to the oval shape. I’m surprised Bolaño didn’t also make a macabre joke about synecdoche, the (mummified/) part standing in for the whole.

    I think this part should be related to the surprisingly angry debate Pelletier and Espinoza have after watching the Japanese movie: to what extent are audiences sadistically involved in seeing a protagonist or an author suffer? Something to think about before we wade into Part Four, certainly. The implication is that London yuppies are ghouls who develop an artsy neighborhood around the artist’s mutilated hand. But if the hand is part of an “ellipsis” of self-portraits, then it implies that it isn’t really a self-portrait at all (‘”one could never be sure of viewing it properly”).

    Comment by poc2666 | July 10, 2012

  6. Guido: While I wouldn’t put it quite that way, I agree that the early biographies of Pelletier and Espinoza are definitely about making a name for themselves, about reputation, about literary fame. By championing a currently under-appreciated writer, they can feel like outsiders to the establishment, even as they storm the gates of the establishment.

    There are also so many signs of nationalisms in this book –“their” faction is cosmopolitan, French/Spanish/British/Italian, while the opposing faction all has German names (we never find out exactly how these factions differ: Bolaño treats his critics the way he treated his poets in his other novels, refusing to quote or summarize their arguments –we don’t get summaries of Archimboldi’s novels either); Archimboldi himself, with the Italian-sounding Prussian name, and his English-Italian-Polish trilogy, is also cosmopolitan. So all four critics “belong” to Europe while none of them “belong” to Germany; they definitely “belong” to the world of letters, to literature, although they had to fight to have a permanent place in it.

    By “belonging” to Europe they seem to be cosmopolitan, although in this first half there are defined limits to the cosmopolitan: Buenos Aires is not yet part of that space, because it has gauchos who would be unsporting if they could get away with it; the women murdered in the Sonoran deserts are not part of the cosmopolitan; if Archimboldi goes off to Morocco (“as so many German old men did”), then he falls off their ability to trace him (coming up soon is another charming example: an English gallery owner who went off to the Caribbean to learn how to make Margaritas and to be a spy, who sees his mother’s ghost). The most obvious proof that they are not cosmopolitan is the beating of the Pakistani cab driver, although that has so many intertwined motives –could it be argued that sexual jealousy is not a “cosmopolitan” emotion either?

    Comment by poc2666 | July 10, 2012

  7. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by 2666, viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly) « The Weblog | July 12, 2012

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: