Arcimboldo and the Composite Character

Whether or not it ever becomes explicit that Archimboldi’s name is a reference to 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, it is certainly a strikingly similar enough name that one is tempted to infer a link. The paintings for which Arcimboldo is most famous will be familiar enough to most of us, I think. After looking them up during my first read of the book a year ago, I was surprised to learn that a friend had had small prints of them hanging on a wall for years. I had simply never known who had painted them. The paintings are composite portraits whose parts are things like vegetables and fruits and fish and other people. Get a look at them here. (Side note: I learned while clicking around today that the familiar or spirit (or whatever; in any case, a humanoid whose body is composed of vegetables) who helps the chef cook soup in the movie The Tale of Despereaux is named Boldo after the artist who inspired that character’s composition.)

From the beginning of my first reading of the book, it occurred to me that the four Archimboldians seem to move and function almost as a single unit. Early on, they can always be found talking to one another in various permutations or walking together with one or another pushing Morini’s wheelchair while the others walk along beside or behind. If Pelletier’s not bedding Norton on a given night, Espinoza is, and for the life of me, I can’t keep the particular attitudes and traits of those two men straight. Norton stands out because she’s a woman and Morini because he’s crippled, but the other two are virtually interchangeable. Matt Bucher suggests that the way Bolaño tosses these people — all of different nationalities, recall — together points to a porousness of national borders, perhaps a comment on the degree to which nationality matters at all to this Chilean author who was himself a man more, in a way, of other countries than of his own. Arcimboldo too was a multi-national, Matt points out.

It strikes me that in the part about the critics (at least early on), it’s less the individual characters Bolaño has given us than the sum total of their collective experience as critics that is interesting. Maybe I’m just a cold fish, but I don’t have much feeling for any of the characters; still, I find their adventures intriguing, their slightly different introductions and approaches to Archimboldi of some interest. But it’s the composite of them all that I’m drawn to, I think, and the good-natured derision that I think attends the descriptions of some of their activities. It’s the critics and not any one critic whose story pulls me along. That they should spend their lives pursuing an author whose namesake seems to be a painter who created composites seems only fitting.

The parts of the book are listed as follows:

  • The Part about the Critics
  • The Part about Amalfitano
  • The Part about Fate
  • The Part about the Crimes
  • The Part about Archimboldi

Note that three of the five sections refer to things in the singular. Since we all know by now that the book is at least in part about a bunch of murders, I don’t believe it’s really so much of a spoiler  to give away in advance that a bunch of bodies will pile up in the part about the crimes and that, as with the critics (though to a more pronounced extent), the particulars of the crimes and their poor offended bodies will begin to run together. Thus the part about the crimes also becomes a composite of sorts, the bodies constituent parts of something bigger (though exactly what, who knows? Evil? The human condition? That oasis of horror in a desert of boredom that Bolaño invoked in the epigraph?). And so, again, the reference to Arcimboldo, with his composite images, seems fitting.

Archimboldi’s portrait of Eve depicts her wearing a low-cut bodice (whether or not immodest for the period I can’t say) with a rose and red bows. In her hand she holds the fateful apple, her pinky upraised (phallic or just dainty?). Her face, in profile, is composed of what look to me like children cavorting, some in possibly sexual attitudes. One has his back turned and his hand apparently down in his lap. Others are embracing. One is bent over, as if presenting for rear entry (though to be fair, he or she is the cheekbone, so the pose may be more pragmatic than risque). In the portrait of Adam, the children seem younger and more innocent (perhaps in keeping with some readings of the Bible in which Adam is lured by temptress Eve), though here and there a hand does seem to be exploring a crotch. Of note with respect to our critics, Adam is cradling a book and wielding a rolled paper, almost as if he’s holding forth (perhaps, paradoxically, from a scripture that didn’t yet exist?), looking for all the world like some literary critic.

I imagine Bolaño working backward from these images of bodies made of bodies, with the Cuidad Juarez murders in mind, and constructing a composite of horror using the pile of murdered bodies and a composite of academic endeavor (with its fun and its follies) from the four critics. It’s a weird intersection of knowledge in the Biblical sense and knowledge in the academic sense. I think it may be useful, as we move forward, to consider our attitudes to reading both sections and what effect the blurring and blending of critics/victims (a parallel Bolaño must have seen if not written purposefully) has on our take on the different portions of the text.

8 thoughts on “Arcimboldo and the Composite Character

  1. Madame Psychosis January 25, 2010 / 11:14 pm

    “It strikes me that in the part about the critics (at least early on), it’s less the individual characters Bolaño has given us than the sum total of their collective experience as critics that is interesting… That they should spend their lives pursuing an author whose namesake seems to be a painter who created composites seems only fitting.”

    This is quite interesting. I agree: I vaguely like the critics, all of them, and yet none of them stands out from the others in any meaningful way. I never would have paired Archimboldi with Giuseppe Arcimboldo, though, and I find his paintings extremely interesting–particularly when considered alongside the collective group of critics.

    I also feel like this post, along with yours from earlier today (I think it was today–the one on the duality you found throughout this first part) sheds quite a bit of light on some of Bolano’s intentions. Thank you!

  2. Jeff January 26, 2010 / 4:31 am

    That’s funny: I had the exact same “cold fish” worry about myself, reading this first section. Glad to see I’m not alone. (I promise I’ll say more when I post in the next day or two.)

    On a tangent: I love the Arcimboldi stuff. When Art & Antiques was still being produced in the office I used to work in, they ran a feature on Arcimboldi, which meant that for a couple weeks I got to see the pages taped up on the wall every day. As a book person, naturally I fell in love with The Librarian, so I was doubly pleased to see it show up on the cover of a press catalog the next season.

    And in the interest of composites, multinationality, and the ’90s, I present Yasumasa Morimura’s Mother (Judith II), from 1991.

  3. Dan Summers January 26, 2010 / 11:40 am

    I was also struck by the interchangeable nature of the critics, though I think Norton is much more vividly rendered than the other three. (I also thought Bolano’s description of the publisher’s widow was wonderfully done, particularly the notion that she would “plunge into the abyss sitting down.“) I’m also relieved to see that I’m not alone in not finding the characters particularly compelling thus far, though the reading itself is a delight.

    I wonder if the endless, recursive cycle of conferences and academic dissection of Archimboldian minutiae is part of that “desert of boredom,” in which the crimes are the oasis of horror.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston January 26, 2010 / 2:31 pm

      Dan, I like your take on the recursive academia as an oasis of horror in the desert of boredom. Let’s be sure to keep that in mind as we follow the critics throughout this section. 🙂

  4. Madame Psychosis January 26, 2010 / 1:16 pm

    “…not finding the characters particularly compelling thus far, though the reading itself is a delight.”

    That’s so funny. That is exactly how I felt, too… but it is so unusual to enjoy reading a book in which the characters are not that interesting or noteworthy or even unique that I couldn’t put my fingre on it.

  5. Jeff Anderson January 26, 2010 / 6:02 pm

    Somehow forgot to mention: Daryl, I love this figure of composite Arcimboldian subjects relating to composite Archimboldian scholars. That’s a nice reading.

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