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2666: The Part About the Critics

I’ve been traveling in a low-key way since Monday morning, so I don’t have the English edition of 2666 with me, and I’ve been traveling alone, so Bolaño’s hotel rooms and his rather lonely critics are impacting me more than they might.  No doubt we’ll all have some reason to be affected by this story.

I can’t imagine being satisfied by this as a separate novel –knowing that there’s a next section with “Amalfitano” in the title, and a final section with “Archimboldi” promised, makes a difference to me.  Page by page, the material is wonderful (part of what I called in an earlier post the “purple patches”), but Archimboldi comes across somewhat by the end as the McGuffin in Hitchcock, the reason for the quest, what sets everyone in motion, but unimportant in himself.  Bolaño invites this take on Archimboldi not just because the critics never find him, but also by refusing to characterize Archimboldi’s oeuvre in detail (as I said, he refuses to cite any of the poems of his poets in The Savage Detectives too) or by describing any of the essays written by the critics.  Yet I don’t think Archimboldi’s decision to move to Santa Teresa is supposed to seem random:  we’re supposed to think that he traveled there because he wanted to serve as some kind of witness to the murders of the women.  We don’t yet know what kind of witness, or how that might relate to the lives and stories of the critics.

The second half of the novel has fewer of the purple patches I’ve been so interested in.  I’m not crazy, myself, about dream sequences, so the three dreams in the hotel room didn’t particularly grab me.  Conversely, I’m sure none of you were as delighted as I was by Amalfitano’s gonzo 3pp description of Mexican intellectuals in the pay of the State who have lost their shadows and stand outside of a cave-mine theater backdrop misinterpreting the sounds that come out of it, but I got a huge kick out of that whole section.  I don’t know which of the various possible Mexican novelists I know of is supposed to be The Pig, but I like to wonder. And where else are you going to get a mash-up of Plato’s Cave and the oracle of Delphos and the Socialist-indigenist responsibility to speak for the oppressed?

I don’t have anything to say about the sections after the beating up of the cab driver (P & E’s different approach to going whoring, especially the way nationalities and otherness get differently involved in their sex lives), except that it seems important for Bolaño to end the process with clichés piled on clichés (“Time, which mitigates everything”…”Regrets disappeared like laughter on a spring night”).

“A civilized and discreet madhouse.”  Just before the plot moves to Mexico, Europe becomes represented by only a few spaces: the tiny gallery where they meet Liz, the miserable life of the Mexican student in Toulouse, and the madhouse where the three men go visit Edwin Johns.  I was invited to read The Magic Mountain last year and didn’t, so what do I know of the symbolism of a Swiss sanatorium?  I really love the writings of Robert Walser, who did spend twenty years in Swiss madhouses.  The second one was not very nice, but the first one was, apparently, “civilized and discreet.”  And in general if there is a Theme to this first book of 2666, I would say that it is about what it means to be Civilized in the First World (leaving out the US) at the beginning of the 21st century.

E & P are moved by literature, but they are also consumed by a will to succeed; their academic lives likewise are shadowed by versions of military metaphors –factions, triumphs– and their fight over Liz is a strange avatar of jealousy, like the form of it without the actual substance.  The memory of World War II and the current obsession with immigration is kept at arm’s length, although it is never fully absent and the Muslim-ness of the Pakistani cab driver is of course important; gentrification is anchored in an act of an artist’s self-mutilation; if Europe mostly keeps up the mask of Civilization, then, in order to see Civilization at its limits, you have to go to Latin America, introduced as a theme by Archimboldi’s interpretation of an anecdote about an Englishman in Argentina hosting visitors who rig a racing competition, although the young gaucho is furious about it.

Mexico has Civilization –so does Spain, although their cultural supplements are ‘provincial’–but it is rickety, tainted by the State, and by structural yet informal violence –the way the hotel porters beat up the cab driver allows us to see all the differences between Europe and Mexico on that front, even before any attempt is made to analyze the nature or the causes of the femicides.  On the one hand, the threat of Otherness allows our three critics to have the menage-a-trois they couldn’t have in Europe, although it is strangely unimportant to their lives. In that sense, America/Mexico also tests the limits of the critics’ civility in the face of otherness (the shit in Pelletier’s dream that bothers him more than the blood does).  Over and over passages and scenes seem “unreal” to them, from the buzzing noises that Liz hears in the hotel room in Mexico City through to people in the hotel and on the streets of Santa Teresa.  (They are astronauts on a foreign planet at the faculty barbecue, for instance.) Liz can’t take it, and leaves for Morini; and then, after they learn of Liz’s choice of Morini over the two of them (which is parceled out to the reader in pieces), Espinoza goes native, sort of; Pelletier clings to the books of Archimboldi as a retreat to a European asceticism, sort of.

I invoked Kundera’s phrase “the unbearable lightness of being” in the other post, and I think the analogy is apposite:  of our characters, only Amalfitano has seen actual political oppression close up (a Chilean who leaves Chile when Pinochet comes to power), and he is the one who praises exile with words (“the abolition of destiny”) although his deep sadness seems to belie those words; the only other person to talk about destiny is the painter Edwin Johns:  he says that chance is the other face of the coin of destiny, it is destiny as seen from the perspective of an inhuman god.  But as Johns is saying these things, Espinoza sees the way that the nurse who is looking for the story by Archimboldi in her anthology is framed and placed into a stunningly beautiful picture.

That’s my Big Picture post.  I may go after other strange pretty details, if my hotel room gives me bad dreams–


July 11, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. I don’t really know what to make of Edwin Johns’s confession that he cut off his hand as an investment. I think Bolano wants us to see it as a successful investment–it made his name and his fortune, in fact made the entire neighborhood around him. Not sure whether he’s supposed to stand in for Bolano himself (cutting off poetry to make money writing fiction) or for the project of the novel, which places violence at its center with everything else revolving around it. If it’s the latter, it seems like he’s deliberately introducing cynicism about the whole novel, encouraging us to see his use of violence as a straightforward commercial decision.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 13, 2012

  2. No bad dreams from the Chicago motel, although the White Castle next door was pretty creepy.
    As K’sky points out, Bolaño doesn’t show Johns telling this to Morini directly; Johns whispers into Morini’s ear, and then later Morini suggests to Liz that money might have been the motivation. Probably this is just Bolaño being coy, and postponing the reveal of a piece of information until it is dramatically needed; but you can imagine that he said something else.
    As to in what way it’s cynical (and therefore whether it is an image for the novel or for Bolaño’s career decisions or not), I think you have to decide on the causation here: did he cut off the hand cynically, and then his success drove him mad?, or did he go mad first, and then decide that cutting off his hand would be a good investment (which, Bolaño cyclically concludes, it did turn out to be)?

    Comment by poc2666 | July 13, 2012

  3. Mm. I’m not sure the order of causation matters. It’s still a series of self portraits ringing a shocking act of violence. I read it as Belano either anticipating his critics or warning his fans.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 14, 2012

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