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The Part about the Crimes pp.353-493: (Un)Focusing Our Attention

All the hype about this book, and (in the one-volume, 890pp. version) all the preparation in the previous sections, have been to tell us that this section is about the murders of the women of Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juarez.  So why does our omniscient narrator seem to have trouble focusing on them?

Bolaño the author has made a pretty important decision so far:  we will only know what his detectives know.  This is almost but not quite the same as saying that we only know what the community of Santa Teresa knows.  Not quite:  we follow very closely the Huntsville sheriff Harry Magaña, for instance, even though as we’ve seen he ends up killed by the men who may have also disappeared Elsa Fuentes (who told him about Miguel Montes, who seems to have been involved in murdering Lucy Anne Sander, but some of those links may be false).  How he dies cannot be common knowledge in Santa Teresa.  In the most bizarre case of “being a detective = getting the P.O.V.,” we actually get a few paragraphs from the point of view of Klaus Haas himself (pp.488-90), including a dream, a paragraph of how he’s angry enough to kill two of his cellmates, Frafán and Gómez, and ending with Haas’s phone conversation to Sergio González that while he’s in prison he will need enough time to find out who is really killing the women of Santa Teresa –i.e., he claims to be a detective too.  So if Bolaño wants us to hear what a person is thinking, that person has to become a detective.  (That we have no federal police, judiciales, as point-of-view narrators is damning:  as Epifanio, the city policeman who cracks the one case they hand to him by discovering Klaus Haas, says, the judiciales do no investigating (462).)

What follows from this decision, which is moving in its own way, is that the dead women can never speak for themselves.  In Mexican fiction ghosts talk all the time (Bolaño has written one or two ghost-narrator stories too), but so far we have no stories of women and their lives up to and including their murders (significantly, again the only exception so far is Lucy Ann Sander, the only American woman killed); and we don’t have any detailed description of the mourners they leave behind.  (Most of the non-fiction accounts by women documentarists and journalists spend great amounts of time with grieving mothers and girlfriends.)  Yes, this reinforces the sense we have that men and women in Mexico live in utterly separate spheres, and that the novel has a male narrator who has no access to the female sphere, even though Bolaño of course knows that Mexican men and women share space in the maquiladoras and the discos and the bedrooms.  But it’s as if they don’t share space:  the sexual relationship between Juan de Dios Martínez and the asylum director Elvira Campos excludes confidences.  The only “woman detective” so far is Florita Almada, the seer, who doesn’t begin her career until she is a childless widow.  Maybe she’ll be able to see into the bones of the dead women and tell us about them, but so far her function is to tell us other things.

So our attention is focused on what the detectives focus on.  But this is Bolaño’s big point so far:  no one seems to be able to keep his focus on the dead women.  My favorite, saddest example so far:  pp.455-63, “In August 1995, the bodies of seven dead women were found”:  the sentence is followed by a visit of two Americans to investigate, not the death of Lucy Anne Sander but the disappearance of Harry Magaña, then the second visit of Florit Almada to the radio station is narrated, also Lalo Cura’s being informed that the Pedro Rengifo he’d been a bodyguard for was a narco, and then only then the narrator gets down to narrate the women’s deaths–and he only narrates the finding of six corpses, not seven.

The more entertaining version of the easy distractibility of the detectives is the opening story of El Penitente, which is fun until he kills a priest, and even then, it still stays kind of fun.  The title is, “The Part About the Crimes” –why do we have to dwell on the tragic unsolved crimes? Why not look at the wacky unsolved crimes too? Instead?

Obviously, this makes us detectives too.  But we can’t investigate the material on our own –although I think Bolaño does want us, like the readers of an old-fashioned Agatha Christie or crime procedural, to make our guesses as to Whodunit, or who did which murders (e.g., if La Vaca’s name is in Elsa Fuentes’s address book (447), does that mean that we should retrospectively distrust the story of the two drunk musician friends who killed her in a wrestling match (417-9), and really her death was about drugs and/or something else?)–.  And since we can’t, well, what sort of details are we supposed to be sifting through, to what end?

Enough for now–


July 26, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. A long story from a woman detective is woven into the close of the Part About the Crimes, but still nothing from the point of view of the victims.

    I think Bolaño is dealing with a difficult technical problem here. Ultimately these murders were not solved by the time he was writing this–and have still never been solved–so writing anything from the point of the view of a victim would have required him to set forth some kind of theory about who committed the crimes, and he’s quite obviously refusing to do that. It gets back to that quote from Amalfitano about how his delusions:

    …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.

    Much of we have seen Bolaño do so far has been at least in part about resisting the urge to weave patterns of facts into a “neatly structured story.” The professor-detectives follow Archimboldi’s breadcrumbs across the world and learn nothing. Amalfitano tries to make coherence out of his own history and starts going mad. Fate gathers facts for stories in the last century’s industrial powerhouse and this century’s, but doesn’t put them together into anything meaningful. And now we have essentially a string of crime scene reports with no theory to hold them together. Some of the murders of women here are ritualistic and seem the work of the same killer, some are not, but Bolaño won’t even speculate that far.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 26, 2012

  2. So you’re a whole week ahead of us, eh? Smartyboots!

    Comment by poc2666 | July 26, 2012

  3. I’ve been going to the beach a lot. Getting some reading done.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 26, 2012

  4. The beach, eh? Leatherface smartyboots! (Not to be confused with a leatherboot smartyface)

    Comment by poc2666 | July 26, 2012

  5. But seriously. He could certainly have invented a fictional girl, given her a fictional life, and at least gotten her to that fictional black Peregrino, and done so from her perspective, without positing a global theory of Whodunit. Instead, in just one case so far he has Epifanio interrogate two of the dead girl’s girlfriends, who will give material details up to a certain point. It’s hard to believe he felt he couldn’t treat that kind of fictionally dead woman with the same respect with which he treats Harry Magaña, whose interiority is pretty amply detailed. I think he’s trying to say that we’ll never know how these girls lived, because we didn’t care to find out when we had the chance, and he has his omniscient narrator and all his detectives mime the ignorance of their internal world that male Mexican society expresses about it. Which is an ethical stance, of course.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 26, 2012

  6. There’s something really powerful about building a novel on clues that we know in advance won’t go anywhere. It’s a constitutive frustration of what Barthes calls the hermeneutic code, the spinning out of clues that push towards a resolution, even though the most elemental fact of the book is that there is none.

    Procedurals aren’t built only on detectives; they also find or create witnesses. In this section, 2666 becomes a witness both prolix and mute. Nothing it can say would stand up in court. Iindeed it becomes slightly perverse to read this litany of invented victims, wondering how close each one tracks to a real murdered woman, wondering why I never would have thought of them so individually before reading this.

    To me, the walled-off lives of the murdered women becomes the book’s way of angrily directing attention. It’s telling that the closely observed male perspectives feel like a distraction, a shifting of focus into something novelistically compelling but morally beside the point.

    Did you see The Hurt Locker? There’s a subplot in it where the main character, a bomb technician, sets off on a hunt to solve the murder of an Iraqi boy he’s befriended. He’s a worse than useless detective. The subplot was criticized by a number of people who thought it distracted from the rest of the plot, but to me it both reinforced the character’s central problem — he was good at nothing but a very important, very specific part of fighting this war — and the most political truth about the war, which was that any attempt to “give us meaning,” by means of solving a crime or a geopolitical problem will end in confusion and failure. The war is only the war.

    I think there’s something similar here — an indictment of detective fiction as a way of imagining justice. Even if the novel caught the killer, the real killer remains. Even if the real killer was caught, he operates in a world where he only needs to dispatch 90 women; someone else can be counted on for the other 310. It’s bleak, and sad, and fiercely angry.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 27, 2012

  7. Yeah, Pat, you’re right, he could have done that, and he probably should. For one thing, we have very little sense from this account of the murders just how pervasive sexual harassment and violence are in the lives of these factory workers. And it seems like it is pretty pervasive, at least from this account. Sorry for the long quote, but all of this is stuff I never would have known from Bolaño’s version and that seems kind of relevant to understanding how a police culture could pretty much shrug off all these killings.

    One of the problems that many Mexican women face while working in maquiladoras has less to do with discrimination in hiring and more to do with discriminating practices in the workplace. While there is no discrimination against women working in maquiladoras, there is pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Women who are pregnant are turned away immediately, while those who are hired can be subject to established practices designed to discourage and prevent pregnancy. These practices are as follows: pregnancy testing, proof of menstruation, and physical harm. First of all, women can be forced to undergo pregnancy testing throughout their work term (Abell 1999). This occurs randomly and without notice and usually consists of a urine test. A second practice is more painful for the women, psychologically and emotionally. Each month, women may be mandated to demonstrate proof of their menstruation by showing sanitary napkins to managers. Also a series of intrusive questions are asked to each female employee, such as the date of her last period, what kind of contraception she uses, and when the last time was she had sex (Koerner 1999). The third practice adds physical harm to the existing emotional and psychological stress. Women may be deliberately punched in the stomach and abdomen by managers to make sure that they are not pregnant or to damage any unborn child. Because of these practices, female maquiladora workers suffer numerous consequences. In relation to reproduction in general, maquiladora workers are likely to have irregular menstruation, miscarriages, fertility problems, and to bear children with birth defects such as premature births or low birth weight (Abell 1999).


    Other forms of sexual harassment of women workers are also used by male coworkers and managers. In some instances sexual harassment is used to intimidate; in others, sexual favors means less work (Abell 1999). Additionally, a woman’s appearance often receives more attention that her actual work skills, particularly at the time of hiring. Women employees are then encouraged to wear sexy, revealing clothing to work and to “utilize [their] sexuality” (Livingston 2004). Clothing such as miniskirts, low cut shirts, high heels, and makeup are common accessories to women who work in the maquiladoras. Livingston describes this process in the following way.

    “Supervisors often stalk assembly lines playing favorites and asking for dates. Maquiladoras persuade workers to participate in beauty contests, [and other contests in dance clubs, such as] ‘Most Daring Bra’ and ‘Wet String Bikini’ contents with cash prizes…”

    Salzinger (1997), details the part that managers and supervisors often play within the maquiladoras.

    “[The supervisor] circles behind seated workers, monitoring efficiency and legs simultaneously … Often he will stop by a favorite operator, chatting, checking quality, flirting. His approval marks ‘good worker’ and ‘desirable woman’ in a single gesture.”

    Salzinger also proposes the concept of sexualization of factory life, which suggests that sex plays an important part within the maquiladoras. A seemingly boring and tedious workplace turns into a fantasy-like world. Talk about who is dating who, who is wearing what clothes, and which manager is interested in which employee dominates the conversation within the maquiladoras. Because of this, most maquiladora workers develop relationships, whether sexual, romantic, or platonic, more with managers and supervisors than with other employees. Tensions between employees for this reason may affect women’s attitudes and force them into more sexual behavior. In addition to the sexualization of the maquiladoras, photographs are also taken of women workers on Fridays, where the women are encouraged to act as models. One documentary addressing this behavior suggests that practices such as these help and motivate murderers to select their victims (Portillo 2001). But whether this is true or not has yet to be determined.


    Since some of the girls who work in the maquiladoras sometimes attend bars after work for fun or prostitution, a stigma is attributed to all women who work in the maquiladoras. These girls are considered to be living a “double life” of assembly work in the day and prostitution at night (Nathan 1997). Because of this, Mexican society feels that young maquiladora workers are “bad girls” who are asking for trouble.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 27, 2012

  8. Yep. I told you I “TA’d” a course taught a colleague in History here last year, titled Brutal Borders, yes? (I supervised a Spanish-language section for the course, and attended most of the lectures.) My colleague Steve is an old-school Marxist (he was actually in Chile as a grad student on the day of the coup –had to go to the morgue to identify the corpses of the two Americans murdered by the military–) and therefore his argument about violence on the border was extensively about labor practices, but he is a good Oberlin professor so understands that gender is a separate factor in a lot of social situations. Indeed he assigned some of the Leslie Salzinger book (I met her at Chicago) quoted here –it argued that by the 2000s, after companies like GE became less profitable for their manufacture than for their financial operations, the ONLY thing that the maquiladoras were really producing were gender and class/race distinctions. (Salzinger also noted that not all factories produced gender inequalities in the same way, and sometimes her fellow women workers judged her very harshly for not conforming to local beauty standards (when she did participant observation)).
    So far in the book the ingrained gender inequalities we’re supposed to have seen, besides the crimes themselves, include the indifference when the girl in the disco is knocked down and kicked, the night they drag the prostitutes down to the station house for a gang rape, and the relatively nauseating discussion/jokefest among the policemen about how many orifices you can rape a woman in. I overheard an identical conversation in my boy scout troop in 1970. One of the women American teachers at the English school I taught at in Orizaba, Mexico, in the summer of 1988 told me that social life in Mexico was like junior high, only all life long. I’ve had experiences and seen movies that would add nuance to that, especially in the biggest cities, but that’s clearly still the first impression people get, and there are social and economic policies in place that reinforce those gender relationships.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 27, 2012

  9. Harry Magaña’s interiority is also an example of something he’s done several times now: given us a character’s immediate POV without any accompanying motivation. So we see things through Harry’s eyes, but have no access to why he’s following the leads he is, how he feels about doling out violence to prostitutes himself, any of that. It’s close to third-person objective, but just behind the eyes. Unless I’m misremembering. Does he explain Harry’s theory of what happened?

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 28, 2012

  10. I don’t think you did tell me that.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 28, 2012

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