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.
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