The Magnanimous Cuckold

Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynk wrote a play entitled The Magnanimous Cuckold (sometimes translated The Magnificent Cuckold). Its protagonist (if it can be said to have one; let’s call him an antagonist in a play with no real protagonist) suspects his wife of cuckoldry and, through mounting paranoia and a bizarre need to confirm his suspicions, forces his innocent wife into cuckolding him with not only his brother (I believe it was his brother) but with the whole village, including himself in disguise. On a side note, the staging for Meyerhold’s 1922 production of the play bears some resemblance to certain elements of Duchamp’s machine céibataire, whose topic is at least obliquely (perhaps inversely) related to the idea of a cuckolding.

Having set myself up last week to establish a seating in literary tradition or convention (e.g. comedy for the first section of the book) and with Crommelynk’s play in mind, I latched onto Amalfitano’s cuckolding. It’s not exactly a convention, but it is certainly a recurring theme in literature. And for lack of anything more solid to latch onto, I decided to explore the topic a little more deeply.

Before I go on, I’m going to posit that there’s a relationship between the way a man feels about his daughter’s purity and his wife’s fidelity. The disturbing phenomenon of the purity ball takes the idea rather to the extreme, but it’s really no coincidence that we joke about shotgun weddings or polishing the (phallic, by the way) shotgun when dear daughter’s boyfriend comes to pick her up for a date. The deflowering of a man’s daughter is often taken as an assault on the man’s honor (of his property, really, I suppose), and so it seems to me like a variant of cuckolding.

That Amalfitano is raising a nubile daughter in an environment saturated with the fear of sex crimes perpetrated on young women makes him doubly and justifiably afraid of a filial cuckolding. We learn on page 198 that he feels spied on. On page 196, he asks himself why he brought his daughter to this horrible place. On the next page, he confides in Pérez that he’s a nervous wreck with fear for his daughter. Later, the voice in his head tells him to do something useful for his daughter. On page 202, we’re told that the wind is slipping into Rosa’s underpants.

But there are other significant things that are more suggestive of a fear of infidelity (of a sort) on the daughter’s part that goes beyond typical fatherly hand-wringing. Imma reads for the poet Lola is chasing a poem about Ariadne lost in a labyrinth. Ariadne, recall, was the daughter of King Minos, who kept a horned beast in his labyrinth. She betrayed her father first by helping Theseus kill the beast and second by eloping with the same lad. Ariadne’s name is figured by some to come from a word meaning “utterly pure.”

Later, after Amalfitano has learned to embrace the voice he hears, Bolaño tells us he feels like a nightingale. Oscar Wilde wrote a story (perhaps informed by Persian literature, which tells of the nightingale’s love for the rose?) entitled “The Nightingale and the Rose” (remember that Amalfitano’s daughter’s name is Rosa) about a professor’s daughter’s refusal to dance with a student and subsequent faithlessness to the student once he offers her the rose she requires. She opts instead to favor a man who sens her some jewels, ruining the notion of true love for the student and abandoning frivolously what we can assume must have been the sort of true love one would expect a father to want for his daughter.

Even the separation of Amalfitano from his daughter in airports because of their different citizenships points to a sort of infidelity (if not one she’s really culpable for), as he goes through one line while his daughter is frisked by strange men (one can imagine) in another.

And then there’s the voice’s repeated exhortation for Amalfitano to do something useful for his daughter. He is essentially telling Amalfitano to snap out of it and be a man, a reasonable enough suggestion for a character who displays nothing of manhood anywhere so far in the book. Professor Pérez all but throws herself at him (dressed like a ’70s movie star, caressing his face, touching his thigh, taking his arm as if they’re lovers), but he’s ever a cold fish. Several times, he considers planting a tree in his yard, an act that would produce fruit and demonstrate fertility and a lapse the voice reminds him of, but he never follows through, with telling symbolism.

I believe it’s even worth considering whether or not Rosa is Amalfitano’s child. The origin of of the word “cuckold” lies in the habit of the cuckoo of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. Lola expresses a desire to carry the poet’s child, and at some point she has her son Benoît. Having left a child in Amalfitano’s nest before running off to seek the poet, has Lola in fact left behind Amalfitano’s child or the child of another with whom she’s cuckolded him? (“Lola” is a diminutive form of dolores, meaning “sorrows.” On pages 204 and 210, we see references to “birds of sorrow” and to “tiny little eggs.” Is it reasonable to put these things together to give weight to the Lola-as-cuckoo and Rosa as bastard conceits?) The lack of anything like passion in descriptions of their interactions or their history certainly leaves the possibility open.

Yet Amalfitano takes his matrimonial cuckolding in very gracious stride. Lola writes to him of her experiences with the poet, but he doesn’t seem angry. It’s clear that he loves her (that beautiful image he has of her typing him a letter, reflected in the sky outside an office window), and after her long-overdue return, he sends her away with most of his savings when she leaves. He is the very definition of a magnanimous cuckold.

Much has been made over whether or not Amalfitano is gay, and whether Guerra is gay. (Incidentally, back on the matter of the cuckold as a man with horns, I had trouble not imagining the Guerra of page 218, decked out like a cowboy and jumping out to sort of attack Amalfitano, as a man in conquest of a bull.) Although he seems passionless, I don’t think of Amalfitano as gay. He’s more sexless, something of a bachelor (remember Pelletier’s meditation on the machines célibataires as he himself contemplated aging and the search for fulfillment?) unsure of his relation to the women in his life. Or, for that matter, to the men. Amalfitano seems to me like Prufrock without the yearning.

I can’t quite find a way to bring this to a tidy conclusion. The cuckold is usually a comic figure, and yet Amalfitano is, to me, a sad, sympathetic man. Maria may have it right that Bolaño is saying something, with Amalfitano, about how alien homosexuality is to a virile Hispanic man. But this seems an awfully heavy section of the book for describing what seems to me to wind up being a pretty shallow cultural artifact. In a follow-up comment, Maria says “We do know that it’s men, not women, who are abducting a ton of girls and then torturing and killing them in that strange, sad border town. And this is a real thing that is really happening, in a real border town, to this day.” And maybe that is what really lies at the heart of the Amalfitano section. He’s more or less as helpless to do something useful for his daughter as he is to keep his wife from abandoning him and screwing around on him. What does it mean to be a man in a world in which men are so powerless to hold onto and protect those they would cling to?

6 thoughts on “The Magnanimous Cuckold

  1. Dan Summers February 17, 2010 / 1:49 pm

    One of this things that strikes me as I read this post is how differently sex is handled in this Part, as compared to the Part About the Critics. (As an aside, can I just say how very glad I am to be done with the critics?)

    In the previous Part, sex happens almost accidentally, and the characters seem somehow simultaneously detached from it and swept away by it. Pelletier and Espinoza all but fall into bed with Norton, finally all at once toward the end, yet both try to maintain this faux distance from her while she makes up her mind, and she feels genuine affection for neither. On the other hand, sex has both a menacing aspect in the Part About Amalfitano (all the posturing about homosexuality, the looming threat of sexual violence) and a tragic one, illuminated in your discussion of cuckoldry.

    Somewhat unrelatedly, I was also struck by how much more real Amalfitano feels than the four critics. None of them seem all that fulfilled by their professional lives, but he actually seems to inhabit the space in which he lives (for better or worse) more than the four of them, in the various cities and countries they visit for various purposes.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston February 17, 2010 / 9:08 pm

    Great observation about accidental vs. menacing/tragic sex. And I agree wholeheartedly that Amalfitano feels much more real. There’s an air of tragedy about him that one can sympathize with, but no such thing, really, for the critics, except perhaps for a little bit of feeling I can eke out for poor Morini. Guess he deserved the girl after all, however poor a prize she may be.

  3. stevebrassawe February 18, 2010 / 3:28 pm

    Magnificent post. Amalfitano’s issues as described here, particularly the father/daughter thing, are brilliant setups for The Part About Fate about which I will say nothing more at this point.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston February 18, 2010 / 8:00 pm

      Hmm, this merits further contemplation on my part. I’m most of the way through Fate and hadn’t noticed anything for which I figured the Amalfitano section was a particularly good setup. As I go back over my notes once I get to the end of it, I’ll certainly give your comment further thought (and hope you’ll elaborate next week).

  4. naptimewriting February 22, 2010 / 4:57 pm

    I honestly hadn’t even contemplated the repetition of Amalfitano’s impotence with Lola in his relationship with Rosa. I was so carried away by the professor’s labyrinthine mental machinations, by his being weathered by life as his book is weathered outside, that I leaned toward a reading of worldly (Rosa) versus otherworldly (Amalfitano and the voice), of real (pain, murder, Rosa) and shadow world (the car outside, the book on the line, Amalfitano’s memories and dreams). gonna have to go rethink the cuckolding angle. Thanks, Daryl.

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