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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.


July 16, 2012 - Posted by | 2666, boredom


  1. Following on Josh’s belief that the book instructs its reader on interpretation, I too was very taken by the pharmacist who reads only minor, perfect works, in contrast to big possible failures. Another passage like that is the one where Amalfitano begins to attribute everything in the world to his own perception, after the Testamento geometrico shows up inexplicably:

    Anyway these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memories, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.

    Since I can’t stop thinking of the Edwin Johns painting as an emblem for the novel as a whole, I imagine that we are supposed to see this novel as the narcissistic madness that produces order out of brutality by imposing subjective perception on it, or maybe an effort to resist that madness? Because after all, the whole book is built around real, brutal crimes, and it seems like what one writes in the face of real brutality also has something to do with his problem with Chilean authors. Maybe? I think he wants to draw our attention to the Wittgensteinian distinction between “seeing” and “interpreting,” which I don’t really understand because I haven’t much read Wittgenstein but maybe someone else who has can give us the Cliff Notes version.

    You teach Wittgenstein? said the voice. And have you asked yourself whether your hand is a hand?

    Also this has probably something to do with what Josh noted about concealment and omission.

    Sorry this isn’t in better order. I’m thinking it through.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 16, 2012

  2. Page numbers for those quotations: 189, 209.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 16, 2012

  3. I’m moved by the story of Edwin John’s hand, but I’m not sure it should stand as the only or the best image for the book, because Johns cut off his own hand, while Bolaño is aware that he is making art out of the horror experienced mostly by others. He marks that awareness in the first novel by Pelletier’s remembering how Espinoza reacted to the Japanese movie, in which one girl can’t stop laughing as she narrates to the other girl about how the boy from Tokyo died from watching the video: Esp says that the teller is a psychopath and the listener, instead of being scared, should have insulted the first girl in the grossest of terms (I don’t have the translation with me); and Pel feels a great affection for Esp at this reaction, “a tenderness that evoked adolescence, adventures tightly shared and provincial afternoons.” It’s a mark of (adolescent) ethical maturity to not take aesthetic pleasure in the suffering of others.

    But that’s why the quote you copied out is so good. Amalfitano entertains the possibility that he can protect himself from the pain of the real world by interpreting it away, the way crazy people do; but then his madness takes the form of a voice in his head that interprets nihilistically, or destroys all interpretation.

    Can’t help you on the Wittgenstein.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 16, 2012

  4. Hey, can we do Part 3 for Thurs and then get back to weekly Thurs postings? I’m behind. An early one makes sense for this week since we have two, I guess.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 16, 2012

  5. Although this post is long, it’s only about Part Two; I’m planning to do another post on Part Three (which I haven’t started reading) this Thursday, per schedule.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 16, 2012

  6. Thanks. I’ll stop whining now and read my damn book. If I fall asleep on the floor, wake me for dairy.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 16, 2012

  7. OK, starting to catch up. After luxuriating with The Part About the Critics on vacation, I didn’t really allow for how much effort it would take to read it in daily life, and since The Part About Amalfitano was something of an amble (you call it picaresque, but that genre doesn’t really capture Amalfitano’s passivity) compared to the lover’s triangle, academic globe-hopping and weird eruptions of violence in the first part.

    I three was taken by the pharmacist who only reads minor works — interesting to see how it ties into Bolaño’s career. It tied for me directly into the passage that you also reference pages before about how the Kilapán book could have been written by anyone across the Chilean political spectrum. While you were primed to read that as a spoof of dry Chilean writing, I think it’s also a pinprick against the Novel of Everything, the Moby Dicks, Gravity’s Rainbows and 2666es whose errant art flirts ever with utter diffuseness. (Ishmael was the original “Guerran chincuale” (201).) It’s a joke on his own project, and then he changes tack to defend it with full-voice against the pharmacist’s taste.

    The best perspective move in this novella

    But there are so many to choose from! I love the way Bolaño nests storytellers within each others’ stories, dreams within letters, memories within strangers’ tales. (Maybe these are not exactly perspective shifts but something else.) On p. 169-170, Lola and her second-rate poet:

    He told me that he wrote poetry, too, and he wanted the poet to read his poems. There was no need to ask to know that he was gay and very lonely. let me see them, I said, and I pulled the notebook out of his hands. His poems weren’t bad. His only problem was that he wrote just like the poet. These things can’t have happened to you, I said, you’re too young to have suffered this much. He made a gesture as if to say that he didn’t care whether I believed him or not. What matters is that it’s well written, he said. No, I told him, you know that isn’t what matters.

    This is told (as is most of the novella) via Amalfitano’s third-person limited perspective via a letter from Lola who is an extremely unreliable narrator (I think this is part of a recollection of the time she made love with the poet, which Amalfitano knows is untrue because he introduced her to his work after they met), questioning one of the undergirding moral/aesthetic premises of 2666 — as you put it in comments above, “Bolaño is aware that he is making art out of the horror experienced mostly by others.” Or as Amalfitano defends his amusing theory on jet lag,

    Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. [emphasis mine] They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structure story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.

    (It also reminds me of one of my favorite Randy Newman songs (lyrics), which purports to be written by a young girl the singer and his wife met in Mexico, but is then told as if addressed to the singer’s child’s teacher and describes a conversation with Bruce Springsteen, who asks how would he like to be the Boss for a while.)

    A few other scattered notes:

    Ellipsis: “the wind through the gaps” is as elemental a wind as the winds from the north, the south, the mountains and the sea (163)

    I can’t help hearing Lola’s nickname for Inmaculada, “Imma,” as its homonym the Hebrew word for “mother,” but maybe Bolaño can.

    Cosmopolitanism: Amalfitano’s passport follies with his daughter when entering the EU. (170)

    Also, is it striking to anyone else how small a role the United States plays in the book’s cosmopolitanism? For a story set in a Mexican border town, Europe and South America loom much larger in it than the U.S., which has mostly appeared in the form of a drive from Phoenix, AZ.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 21, 2012

  8. 1. I found a Useful Web Site, from the translator herself, cited on another blog. Among the things that this site told me is that there actually is a famous Spanish poet (I mean, he’s famous if you read Spanish poetry after the death of Lorca, which i don’t) by the name of Leopoldo María Panero, who was pro-Franco, rich, gay, decadent, and checked himself into the Mondragón insane asylum. Likewise, Wimmer found out that Bolaño had a crazy girlfriend in Spain in the late ’70s named Lola. Here’s the whole page from Wimmer:

    I only read the comments on the parts that we’ve already read, but I skimmed the rest, which includes a quote from the London Review of Books review of The Savage Detectives from one Benjamin O. Kunkel. Your line that “Bolaños art flirts ever with utter diffuseness” seems to be Ben’s take on Detectives, too –or maybe it’s Amalfitano’s father’s take, to which Amalfitano responds that he believes in love. And if you love your daughter and you’re trapped in a hell for young women, then suddenly you have a reason to live –to get her out of there. That’ll focus your diffuseness.

    2. Yes, Rosa is more cosmopolitan than her father. It’s partly that he is dragged back by memories of his father and Chile, but it’s also, crassly, that a European passport is worth more than a Chilean one is. But Rosa is also younger than her father, and you can get trapped in a place and lose your cosmpolitanicitosity if you’re not careful –and we’ll see in the next session that Rosa is young and not careful.

    3. Although Bolaño is clearly trying to address the US in the next section, you may decide that he doesn’t get the US right. But I also think that there’s something a little odd, from the perspective of a Total Novel that is also about Cosmopolitanism, to have Europeans from the educated classes represent Europe, while the US is represented by a member of the struggling black journalist world (alas, there’s nothing to my mind odd about having Latin America represented by a border town tourist trap on maquiladora steroids with a demonstrated contempt for human life). My way of thinking on this issue of “representativity” and cosmopolitanism is very much inflected by a movie on a similar theme, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006, three years after Bolaño’s death), which appropriately “represents” the US by Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchard (and of course the children and their Mexican nanny).

    Comment by poc2666 | July 21, 2012

  9. Huh. I hadn’t really been thinking of this as a Total Novel. To me that usually evokes a book that is trying to argue that everything in the world should be understood through its particular lens: paranoia for Gravity’s Rainbow, the stock market for JR, or the history of Western literature for Ulysses. What makes you describe this as a Total Novel, and if it is one, what is its totalizing lens on the world?

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 22, 2012

  10. Josh did, not me. (What Bolaño/Amalfitano says is that some really big books are “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)). By the time they’re finished the novel, a lot of critics claim that everything should be understood through the lens of Evil, the ubiquity of it, the possibility of it everywhere. Just as you’re celebrating how civilly you can conduct yourself in a romantic triangle, some Paki cab driver mouths off and there you are, kicking him almost to death or watching with eager fascination. Und so weiter. (Hey, my spellcheck corrected that to “writer”!) But maybe you want to start working up a distinction between a Total Novel and a Global Novel? That’s be a hit at n+1…

    Comment by poc2666 | July 22, 2012

  11. For reference for everyone, I found this summary of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty helpful. That’s the text about “is your hand really your hand?” Written just before his death.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 22, 2012

  12. Also: Josh can take my TN question as directed at him too.

    kicking him almost to death or watching with eager fascination

    This has a parallel later on in the story of the Uribes. If you hadn’t mentioned it here I wouldn’t have made the connection.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 22, 2012

  13. By the time they’re finished the novel, a lot of critics claim that everything should be understood through the lens of Evil, the ubiquity of it, the possibility of it everywhere.

    It’s possible everywhere, but I don’t think he means us to believe it’s equally possible everywhere. Some classes are far more vulnerable than others.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 22, 2012

  14. If put on the spot, I would guess that some combination of “cosmopolitanism after the American century” and femicide is the totalizing theme of 2666, but I’m still chugging through Oscar Fate.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 23, 2012

  15. […] journalist who’s not on the New York Ladder. I don’t think that Bolaño “doesn’t get the US right“, but I do think that the U.S. is very purposefully decentered from his fictional […]

    Pingback by 2666: Where Everybody Knows You’re Nobody « The Weblog | July 24, 2012

  16. […] its own thread. I’m going to copy out below what we’ve discussed so far (mostly in the thread on The Part About Amalfitano) in hopes that we’ll continue the discussion in comments, and maybe glean enough insight for […]

    Pingback by Is 2666 a “Total Novel”? « The Weblog | July 24, 2012

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