The Weblog

Home for the heteronomous

The Part About the Crimes II: Watching the Detectives

I said last week (and I appreciate the arguments of people who disagreed with me) that the first half of this Part comes across as not only describing a city’s amnesia in the face of a slowly building horror, but that it also tries to mime that amnesia, containing the facts in forensic vocabulary in short paragraphs while diverting itself and us with the antics of El Penitente, the love affair between Juan de Dios Martinez and Elvira Campos, Florita Almada’s zaniness, etc..  Well, that attitude passes.  But the crimes are not solved, so this Part instead becomes an examination of the psychology and motivation of detectives, of why, and what kinds of persons, pursue the truth despite an atmosphere of impunity.

If you’re a sensitive person you’ll be moved by the description of the very first corpse.  But in one sense, as a city –by which I mean, the judicial and city policemen who find the bodies– the horror of the deaths doesn’t sink in until the 52nd (by my count, of 104): “the first dead girl or woman found in March 1996, a terrible month in which five more bodies would be discovered…The dead girl was ten years old, more or less.  She was four foot three…She’d been stabbed eight times, three times in the chest. One of the policemen started to cry when he saw her”(501).  Presumably the excuses that the corrupt cops of the city make to themselves for deliberately losing evidence about the deaths of the dead women –that they’re prostitutes; that rich men have the prerogative to do what they want to women– don’t hold for a ten-year-old girl.  But they don’t solve this crime either.

 Some people are all too sensitive:  the 68th of the 104 dead women is a suicide poet, a quiet schoolteacher “whose life seemed devoid of scolding or blame” (517).  Bolaño’s novel tries to figure out a useful way to live in a world of injustice, between criminal indifference and suicidal sensitivity.  For this novel the all-purpose solution is:  become a detective.  And as soon as you become a detective, Bolaño finds you interesting, less because of who you were and where you came from, than what you see in the world around you.  Albert Kessler is the example of the person whose presence involves almost pure observation:  he sees, so that we can see.  (He also comes up with no theories, and in fact he seems mostly to be observing how the other, presumably corrupt, cops are being sycophantic and yet also obstructing his view.)

 We learn nothing of Harry Magaña’s past; nothing of Juan de Dios Martínez’s (Elvira Campos tells him bluntly that he’ll never learn anything about her past); we learn almost nothing about the most unlikely detective, the rapist-suspect Klaus Haas’s past. [Am I the only one who thinks that he may be the son of Archimboldi?  The critics threw in the possibility that Archimboldi journeyed to Santa Teresa to meet some dear old friend there (119-120).  Why else make the character German?].  We learn nothing about the past of the minor detectives either, like the honest cop Epifanio or the Phoenix woman journalist Mary-Sue Bravo or the Chicano Spanglish leftist journalist who disappeared.  We only learn of Kessler’s Hollywood past, nothing really important about him.

Three important exceptions to this rule:  the two women “detectives” Florita Almada and Azucena Esquivel Plata, and Lalo Cura.  Lalo Cura’s past is a small comic epic (554-8), and is narrated for two reasons. Clearly, he wants fans of The Savage Detectives to take pleasure in thinking that the two protagonists Belano and Santiago fathered a child, between them, in Sonora, who is the youngest honest cop in Santa Teresa.  And he wants to make the point that, even though there is an almost ancestral history of women abused and abandoned by men in Mexico, these women are often strong-willed and –if they’re not murdered in Ciudad Juarez– get by just fine, and can bring up a child who grows up to defend the honor of women against crooked cops who tell horrible misogynist jokes.  It also changes somewhat the motivation for Lalo –he seemed to be a “pure” detective, who wants to learn the craft of detective work although nobody is inclined to teach him, an autodidact of criminology; but now we also see him as the genuine bodyguard of women (even the wife of a narco, not that he knew that about her), then as the chivalrous cop.  There’s an awful lot of chivalry in Bolaño’s feminism, which is better than misogyny, I suppose.

Then there are the two women.  God I love Florita Almada.  I love how she tells the story of her life for no reason at all, and how her “herbalism” is actually very basic nutrition advice they taught us in sixth grade, and I love how small-time and unassuming her magic is.  She’s all the magic realism we’re going to get in this novel (“Stop talking like a tour guide,” snaps Azucena at her detective, Loya, when he says that people can be more or less dead or alive, “I’m sick of Mexicans who act if this is all Pedro Páramo” (624).  But Mary-Sue Bravo has a dream of a dead woman at the foot of her bed that night (624), which is pretty much out of Pedro Páramo.  Hey, that book is only 120 pages long, guys!)  Florita’s not exactly a detective, she’s a seer, a broadcaster, a sibyl.

I find Azucena’s appearance towards the end of this part, taking over a large amount of the text to tell the story of Kelly Rivera, to be very interesting –although once again, I worry that Bolaño longs (I long) too much to be distracted from the gruesome reality of the murders. (The two girls who had been hung upside down, one of whom having had four heart attacks before she died, is one of the longer of these gruesome passages (527-535) and is the one that provokes Juan de Dios to try to cry, and Elvira to tell him of her fantasy of leaving Mexico and getting plastic surgery in Paris to change her life, “a new life without Mexico or Mexican patients”; it’s also the one where the woman neighbor and her family “experienced what it was like to be in purgatory, a long helpless wait, a wait that begins and ends in neglect, a very Latin American experience, as it happened” (528), and thinks that she would like to take a gun and shoot it into the air and shout Viva Mexico so that she would have the courage to dig a hole and bury herself in it “forever and ever.”)

Azucena is such an over-the-top figure that she takes on allegorical importance. I think.  Her back story of being from the upperest crust of Mexican society yet being a rebel, especially a sexual rebel, and being first a journalist and then a congresswoman –well, that’s just piling it on.  I mean, she’s compared to Tongolele, and María Félix:

(That last one is the picture I wanted for the cover of my book, but the publishers wouldn’t let me, so I went with the child ejaculating in front of the belly dancer instead.)

It’s made explicit that her anger over the disappearance/death of her friend generalizes into a collective rage against the system, which doesn’t at all abate when she discovers that, just as she used to fight the system and then got caught up in it, Kelly actually ended up feeding the prostitution-narco machine that ultimately disappeared her.  So Azucena is a strange symbol of a sort of aristocratic feminism that takes on as a cause the radical democratic demands we associate with the Mexican Revolution, but which is betrayed by the new economics of the narco state, which seems to provide a living for members of the Mexican aristocracy but finds upper-class women to be just as disposable as the many lower-class women they also murder.  But I suspect I care about all that for the same reason that I loved Amalfitano’s speech about The Mexican Intellectual, ‘cuz I’m a Spanish professor.

Azucena’s denunciation is divided up in the text, at the same time as Klaus Haas’s denunciation of the Uribe brothers is.  But while each tells her or his story on a single night, the murders just go on and on; Klaus gives his denunciation in June 1997, the day of the discovery of corpse 89, and there will be fifteen more by the time his press conference is finished being narrated; Sergio González listens to Azucena the night before Kessler arrives, but the rest of 1997 passes, and indeed, as we know, the killings are still going on when Kessler is overheard by Oscar Fate as he decides to make a nostalgic return to Santa Teresa in 2000? 2001?.  You’d have to be crazy to be a detective in a city and a country and a continent and a world like that.


August 2, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. Klaus gives his denunciation in June 1997, the day of the discovery of corpse 89, and there will be fifteen more by the time his press conference is finished being narrated

    That’s a really concise expression of Bolaño’s technique. The interminable, steady tally of the corpses is this undeniable bass drum throughout the chapter. At the same time as he’s doing this cinematic, absorbing thing in the final fifth or so, cross-cutting between Kessler, Haas and Azucena, he’s still hitting the drum, driving home the unstoppable brutality, making you bet for guilty distraction in the pockets of lesser carnage.

    And it’s totally unfun to read. This was a punishing slog, made moreso by the fact that when there were “novelistic” passages, or just passages with any momentum or humor at all, they were anchored by that drumbeat, by the guilt of wanting not to hear it for a page or two, by topical connection to the brutal misogyny.

    I like your idea that this is a story of detectives, but I think it’s more perverse than a character study. This is not even a world where no crimes are solvable — it’s a world where some crimes can be solved, but not by detectives. Those that do get wrapped up, the ordinary femicides of maqui Mexico, come by rote police work. I guess Epifanio and Lalo get a few of those, but they are not built around the “hermeneutic code” of the detective story — usually questions answered in the same paragraph in which the bodies are found.

    I have another question about Lalo Cura. You see the family history as him standing up for women against the barrage (another punishing slog) of misogynistic jokes. I am totally in the dark about what happens there, starting on 554. Epifanio tells González and his partner that they need to listen to them. They drive to a secluded spot. “Why hurry to a shit kicking.” Who is kicking the shit out of whom, and how does that translate into a family history, and why do you see that as Lalo standing up to the phallocrat cops?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 3, 2012

  2. so I went with the child ejaculating in front of the belly dancer instead

    Whaddya know.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 3, 2012

  3. It was only $65 dollars when it came out in 2004. I appreciate, or inflate.
    Lalo Cura “clearly” (I had to re-read it three times, and then I checked in English) challenges González to some kind of schoolyard-equivalent fight; Bolaño coyly doesn’t describe the fight, or tell us who wins. But there’s something about the way “they” say, “Tell us your genealogy…your family tree,” that makes me think that Lalo lost, and they are laughing at him for being a bastard (his full name is Lalo Cura Expósito, and expósito usually means abandoned by your parents to an orphanage, which I think happened to one of his female ancestors), and as he’s lying on the ground or whatever he goes over in his mind his actual family tree.
    I didn’t find it to be a slog —more gruesome than grueling–, but I did find myself thinking about the text more than feeling about it; I wanted Bolaño to give us a map of the city that I could put little pins in, and charts I could correlate kinds of victims with times of the year, or whatever. Like when the New York Times insists on showing the map of downtown Damascus after a bombing, or the movie theater in Aurora. The anxious sheltering in fact, in the face of emotional devastation –their 9/11 coverage was almost autistically detailed.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 3, 2012

  4. Am I the only one who thinks that he may be the son of Archimboldi?

    I had that thought too. Or at least a relative.

    For this novel the all-purpose solution is: become a detective. And as soon as you become a detective, Bolaño finds you interesting, less because of who you were and where you came from, than what you see in the world around you.

    But all the detectives are failed detectives. They never ever succeed in turning their collections of facts into coherent stories, as much as they struggle. That struggle makes them interesting, but it is doomed. In fact, the greatest pure detective, Kessler, begins to lose his grip on reality the more he focuses on detecting (582).

    In fact, there is lots of stuff in the back half of this section about reality itself, its detail and its fact, being unmanageable and impossible. That passage on 582, for example, ends with:

    It was just that sometimes reality, the same little reality that served to anchor reality, seemed to fade around the edges, as if the passage of time had a porous effect on things, and blurred and made more insubstantial what was itself, by its very nature, insubstantial and satisfactory and real.

    Or on 588: “Isn’t reality an insatiable AIDS-ridden whore?”

    Or the moment on 590 when Kessler begins to see a roadside in Kansas in the details of the Santa Teresa sunset.

    A few other details: I feel like Daniel Uribe getting excited by his cousin’s rapes is maybe supposed to echo Pelletier getting turned on by Espinoza kicking the Pakistani taxi driver on 74?

    Azucena’s story of the mirrors that you can see in each other but that don’t reflect each other (621) definitely echoes Norton’s dream on 115 about the mirrors. In fact, it almost seems like Norton is having a dream of seeing Azucena in the mirrors instead of herself, which is weird because in context I definitely thought of those two mirrors as being Espinoza and Pelletier, misreflecting her.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | August 8, 2012

  5. I agree that all of Bolaño’s detectives are failed detectives (with maybe the exception of Azucena’s detective Loya, all the more reason for him to be off-stage, so to speak –although I am suspicious of how definitive Loya’s evidence is for the very reason that none of the other detectives can get any answers). Totally in agreement that Norton’s dream is supposed to be redefined by Azucena’s dream.

    So, we’re all supposed to be getting to p.767 by tomorrow, yes? The end of Reiter’s stay in the POW camp. I’ve got about twenty pages to go. I had trouble starting, and felt guilty for liking the parts that were the least realistic, but I really settled into the Kostekino/ Ansky stuff, and now I’m finding this POW stuff an awful slog.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 8, 2012

  6. I was surprised, on looking back to check it, to find that Azucena’s experience with the mirrors is not a dream. I remembered it as one too, because it’s so similar to Norton’s, but it she is not dreaming.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | August 8, 2012

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: