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The Part About Arcimboldi I: The Shock of the Fictional

Bolaño seems not to have been sure that these five books actually composed a single book, but until now I had thought the transitions between the four books amazingly smooth (even the shift from Amalfitano to Oscar Fate seemed right to me).  But this time the leap from the hyperrealism of The Part About the Crimes to the life of Arcimboldi was very hard for me, which doesn’t mean I’ve disliked this book so far, far from it.  It just feels so…novelistic.

Part of the lore about 2666 is that Bolaño thought he wanted to sell it as five different novels; the reason he gave to his executor was that that way there would be more income for his wife and children.  However, your ever-suspicious professional reader of books is hyperconscious of Bolaño’s own obsession with posthumous fame –we got a very nice riff on that from the utopian science-fiction writer Ivanov this time around, yes?:

What was Ivanov afraid of? Ansky wondered in his notebooks…. Ivanov’s fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Also fear of being overlooked.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear that one’s efforts and strivings will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. (722)

 (The rest of that passage talks about how bad writers think that good writers live in the paradise of “semblances”.  Josh, is this part of that whole reality stuff you were talking about for the last book?)  And so I thought, a 900-page novel, if it’s good, will guarantee him immortality, so Bolaño must be afraid that it’ll be bad.  He must also be worried that this 890pp. behemoth doesn’t work as a unity (the other reason to name his novelist Arcimboldi, whose best-known paintings are gimmicks, in which discrete objects are arranged to look like some other object, usually a face: an Arcimboldo painting mocks the idea of modules composing a unity, by composing a funny unity).  (Let me say that again:  funny unity, funny unity.  Ahem.)  But so far, I repeat, the modules have been beautifully, tantalizingly linked:  the critics lead us to Santa Teresa, Amalfitano is there too, and the tantalizing introductory paragraph in The Part About Fate suggests that his novel is a flashback also from Santa Teresa.  And of course The Part About the Crimes finds us in hell, with the sight of Klaus Haas at the end of The Part About Fate linking them together tightly too.  So if Bolaño is nervous about his novels fitting together, it must be here, between the fourth and the fifth novel.

And he is right to worry:  The reader is dumped (un)ceremoniously into Prussia in 1920, and although we quickly figure out that Hans Reiter will become Arcimboldi, our omniscient narrator gives us no foreshadowings, no prolepses, of his life as an adult; we’re just going to have to wait and see him turn into whatever he turned into.  The omniscience of this particular narrator annoys me more than I suppose it should.  After 600+ pages of being told that he is enigmatic and inaccessible, I didn’t expect Bolaño to give us such full access to him.

A second hurdle Bolaño set up between me and the first half of this text was the streamlined nature of his characterization, what one might call his novella-like habits of characterization (if you edited down the story of his ex-wife, the Part about Amalfitano would be perfectly novella-sized; and much of his best ’90s fiction is novella-length).  Young Hans has one physical characteristic: he’s tall.  He has one obsession:  looking underwater.  He has one book, which feeds that obsession.  He gets one job, which gets him a semi-friendship with one aristocrat, who gives him one work of German fiction (which, annoyingly, I’ve never read, although of course I know what you’re supposed to say about Parzival, because Bolaño tells you (658-9), although typically, Bolaño/Halder talks much more about the author than the book).  Und so Reiter.

But all of this is to say that the first third of The Part about Arcimboldi reads like a novel, it reads like fiction, it reads like books written on the cusp of the Joycean revolution by Gide or Mann or Rilke or Walser who were working out their own ways to incorporate German/ English late Romanticism into a genre, the novel, that had taken realism very seriously for over a hundred years. This is not exactly the Oxen of the Sun chapter, but it seems as if Bolaño wanted to give himself permission to write the story of a life begun in 1920 with a narrative voice, and a series of narrative tricks –you’ve got to love that Transylvanian castle with the nympho aristocrat!–, that would bring us back to that era.

When you feel that a novelist is being deliberately novelistic, it is both frustrating and exhilarating when he walks you through novelistic worlds you’ve never seen before.  I’ve never been to academic conferences in Europe or to Ciudad Juarez/El Paso, but I’ve been to novels that have taken me there before, and I’ve read at least enough of police procedurals to recognize a forensic tone of voice when I encounter it.  So I’m good for the first four books, and the first third of this book.  But to my initial frustration and deeper delight, I don’t really know the literatures of the last half of what we read:  I’ve never read a novel set on either the Eastern or the Western Front of the German Wehrmacht, and seldom watch WWII movies with any historical specificity in them (shame on me for not having read Bill Vollmann’s National-Book-Award-winning Europe Central), and I am especially embarrassed not to have read any of the great Russian writers, Jewish or Gentile, of the first decades of the Revolution, not even the Singers. (I’m less embarrassed to admit not being up on, or even to have been aware of the existence of, early Soviet utopian-sentimentalist utopian science fiction, although I can read Ivanov’s novel as partly an homage to Phillip K. Dick, not that I’ve read any of him either.)  I can’t even tell if Bolaño is making up the story of Leo Sammer, or whether such a story is documented (I’m betting it’s made up, though based on very similar documented stories).

Certainly it is only about now, halfway through this novel, that we are getting any signs that our author wants us to make connections between what we’re reading and the four novels we’ve already read:  the mural in the barracks at Kostekino (742) is the equivalent of the murals in Detroit and in El Rey del Taco; and of course Sammer’s murder of the five hundred Jews, narrated again with a lack of moral commentary and with an absolute lack of participation from the perspective of the victims, only this time the narrator is an Arendtian banality-of-evil type and we have heard at least a novella’s worth, in a concealed manuscript, from one of the sort of Jews who was murdered.  Well, I suppose there are some gestures to the continent we’ve spent three and a half books on: the Mexican detective in New York in Ivanov’s novel (719-21); that utterly unjustifiable aside about the similarity between the lives of bad Russian poets and bad Latin American poets (727) and the very entertaining fantasy of Reiter’s girlfriend who doesn’t believe in anything but storms and Aztecs (696-9).

It’s a good thing our author is being very novelistic, because Hans isn’t.  Doesn’t this seem like the least plausible description of the early years of a famous cult novelist that you’ve ever read?  Maybe it will turn out that all of Arcimboldi’s novels were actually written by space aliens who resemble strands of seaweed fluttering in the wind–   


August 9, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. Josh, is this part of that whole reality stuff you were talking about for the last book?

    Yes, but not just in the last book. I’ve been noticing it going back at least to Part II. And of course immediately preceded by:

    Sometimes, when he was alone, and more often when he was alone in front of a mirror, poor Ivanov pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, that it was all real. And in fact it was all real, at least in appearance.

    A far more extended discussion of “semblance” happens on 741, beginning with:

    Semblance was an occupying force of reality, he said to himself, even the most extreme, borderline reality. It lived in people’s souls and their actions, in willpower and pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered. Semblance proliferated in the salons of the industrialists and in the underworld. It set the rules, it rebelled against its own rules (in uprisings that could be bloody, but didn’t therefore cease to be semblance), it set new rules.

    Right before the mural. To me, all this stuff about reality is connected to the stuff about detectives and about that Amalfitano quote I keep returning to about making coherent stories out of facts.

    When you feel that a novelist is being deliberately novelistic, it is both frustrating and exhilarating when he walks you through novelistic worlds you’ve never seen before.

    I felt like this opened with a very famous novelistic image I definitely had seen before: the mummy in the military hospital is very much like the “man in white” who appears right at the very beginning of Catch-22:

    The soldier in white was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze. He had two useless legs and two useless arms. He had been smuggled into the ward during the night, and the men had no idea he was among them until they awoke in the morning and saw the two strange legs hoisted from the hips, the two strange arms anchored up perpendicularly, all four limbs pinioned strangely in air by lead weights suspended darkly above him that never moved. Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. … All they ever really saw of the soldier in white was a frayed black hole over his mouth. … [Nurse Cramer] managed the soldier in white by inserting a thermometer into the hole over his mouth and leaving it balanced there on the lower rim.

    As for figuring out that Hans Reiter will become Archimboldi, I think we are meant to remember that that was the “false” name he used to register at a hotel in Mexico.

    Certainly it is only about now, halfway through this novel, that we are getting any signs that our author wants us to make connections between what we’re reading and the four novels we’ve already read

    The first one I noticed comes on 681, in the discussion of murder, and then the discussion of Vlad the Impaler on 685, sandwiched around General Entrescu’s extremely creepy declaration that he steals into his soldiers’ dreams and sleeps in their lungs.

    Another is the “horror painting” on 734.

    I have more, but I’m not sure how far we’re supposed to have gone into this last Part.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | August 9, 2012

  2. Apologies: I’m way behind. Will catch up for the weekend, and then you’ll see some holy hell. Or comments.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 9, 2012

  3. I’m still reading–well into Part 5–but my wife and I are expecting a baby any day now, and with preparations for that I haven’t been carrying any weight in terms of comments. Keep up the good work! I’m enjoying your insights.

    Comment by Mark E. | August 12, 2012

  4. Cloud Atlas is the version of 2666 that the pharmacist in book 1 would prefer. Oscar Fate = Luisa Rey.

    In book 5, war is a form of cosmopolitanism.

    Baby! Sweet.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 15, 2012

  5. I bought Cloud Atlas when it went into paperback, but have not yet read a word of it. If I have any spare time today, I’m finishing a 1979 novel by an Argentine in Paris about rats, and a YA fantasy fiction about the antebellum South by a friend.

    World Wars are a form of cosmopolitanism. Our war in Iran was a form of tourism.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 15, 2012

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