Here is what I mean when I say that there is really no macro approach to this part. It is all in the detail, detail that can affect us as readers if we are vulnerable. Our reactions are subjective, of course, but can be idiosyncratic in fact. That is the reason that it is difficult to make sweeping statements about The Part About Amalfitano. This also, by the way, makes it difficult to discuss.
Robert Bolaño can get into your head if you do not keep an eye on him. He fires off shotgun loads of rich images with the hope that a few hit you in the head. I have started to think that it would be a good idea not to get hit.
Admittedly, this is all about me. I am The Solipsist after all, and I spend a lot of time gazing at my own navel. But I write this as a public service. I write this as an object lesson. I have alluded to parts of this elsewhere, but here is the whole story.
I started this book while house-sitting for an acquaintance who was off in Mexico City on business. I was alone there for several days with an old dog. I read the book in long sittings in the sun in an interior courtyard bordered on two sides by a high wall with glass shards embedded along the top. This is a very common home security device here if you cannot afford an alarm system and bodyguards. A wall with glass shards on the top and a dog–preferably two dogs. I took in this book in big gulps, which was my first mistake.
In The Part About Amalfitano there was this:
He walked to the back of the yard, where his wooden fence met the cement wall surrounding the house behind his. He had never really looked at it. Glass shards, he thought, the owner’s fear of unwanted guests. The edges of the shards were reflecting the afternoon sun when Amalfitano resumed his walk around the desolate yard. The wall of the house next door was also bristling with glass, here mostly green and brown glass from beer and liquor bottles.
Nicely done, I thought. Shortly thereafter there was this regarding the book on the clothesline:
Well, pretend it’s mine and take it down, said Rosa, the neighbors are going to think you’re crazy. The neighbors who top their walls with broken glass? They don’t even know we exist, said Amalfitano, and they’re a thousand times crazier than me. No, not them, said Rosa, the other ones, the ones who can see exactly what’s going on in our yard.
That is when it first sunk in that Amalfitano’s yard was open to the outside. He does not live in a classic Mexican house closed in with high cement or brick walls with an interior courtyard. Like the one I was in.
Then this after the voice begs him not to consider the voice a violation of his freedom:
Of my freedom? thought Amalfitano, surprised, as he sprang to the window and opened it and looked out at the side yard and the wall of the house next door, spiky with glass, and the reflection of the streetlights in the shards of broken bottles, very faint green and brown and orange gleams, as if at this time of night the wall stopped being a barricade and became or played at becoming ornamental, a tiny element in a choreography the basic features of which even the ostensible choreographer, the feudal lord next door, couldn’t have identified, features that affected the stability, color, and offensive or defensive nature of his fortification. Or as if there was a vine growing on the wall, Amalfitano thought before he closed the window.
Feudal lord? The offensive or defensive nature of his fortification? How the hell can it be offensive? Okay. Anyway, it had become an ornament at night rather than a barricade. Fine. But I was taking breaks now and staring at the glass shards above me on the top of my wall, which does have vines growing on it. Instead of my navel for a little change of pace.
Now who knows what this all means. Amalfitano was spooked by that voice that was so real. Perhaps at this point the poor guy was thinking that if he had cement walls around his yard with glass shards along the top like any sensible Mexican’s house does, that damned voice would not have gotten into his.
As for me, it was always in my mind that Rosa lived there, too. That was when I was still house sitting alone, and it could get a bit spooky at night. I was not sure that old dog–Zumm is his name–would be worth anything in a crunch. It was silly. But I’ll tell you, I have been through about 37 theories concerning Bolaño’s glass shards since, usually while staring up at them here.
Then came this:
Young Guerra’s voice, breaking into flat, harmless shards, issued from a climbing vine, and he said, Georg Trakl is one of my favorites.
I bumped into shards again in The Part About Fate.
They can indeed be pretty at night. Just last evening I saw colored shadows on the wall of a room, shadows of the glass shards on an exterior wall outside, backlit by a streetlight. Guess what I thought about. To tell you the truth, I would rather not think about it anymore.
All I am saying is, be careful out there in Bolaño land, young people.
This is a neat set of observations, and I can see how reading under the circumstances in which you’ve read the book would have been downright chilling.