Up through last week, I turned each page of this book with dread, knowing that every one I left to the left was one fewer between me and the Part About the Crimes. As that wall of pages visibly thinned, I tried to steel myself against the ghastly proceedings to come. Traces of the feminicidios wisp through the first third of the book like fish in a mirror, coalescing around Oscar Fate and rerouting his part of the book. That we will encounter the deaths is obvious; that they will make for distressing reading is suggested by (among other things) the flat brutality of Pelletier and Espinoza’s battery of the cabbie, and by the garish sordidness of Charly Cruz’s den.
I mentioned last week the aggressive shock that the Part About the Crimes begins with—blammo! Here’s a dead body—but after the initial jolt, it’s not as crudely executed as that. I want to highlight Paul’s and Maria’s takes on the start of this part, because my own reaction shares in both. Maria captures the defensive inattention that I find myself wrestling, and Paul is surprised like I am at the strictly comparative ease of reading in this section.
But more surprising than that, for me, is the story of the Demon Penitent. It was only when the “church desecrator” appeared that I finally understood the awkwardness of the title of the Part About the Crimes. Why not “The Part About the Murders”? I had been unwittingly wondering. The answer: Because they’re not the only crimes under discussion. And so far I very much like that the Demon Penitent is included. I find him (his plot thread, etc.) interesting, but I also think he’s very useful to the book.
Dan makes the argument that it is preposterous and ghoulish to aestheticize the situation in Santa Teresa (particularly because of its factual basis), and to a certain extent I see his point. We probably all agree that it would be disgusting to turn the actual violent deaths of the actual women and girls of Ciudad Juárez into a symbol or object to serve some literary purpose. Nobody gets to claim those deaths for personal use. At the same time, the importance and, yes, utility of shining a light on them seems obvious; to draw attention is (hopefully) to inspire or force action. So in making the valid choice to write about those deaths, Bolaño has put himself in a bit of a bind with respect to what he can actually do.
That’s where the Demon Penitent enters the picture. He most blatantly provides authorial cover for Santa Teresa to not care about its women, but that’s pretty gracelessly done. Yes, I get it, the people of Santa Teresa are more concerned with offenses against an incorporeal god than with the murder of those they walk among. The addition of a clumsy countersubject does not improve my outlook on the matter nor increase the artistry with which the point is made.
The best possibility the Demon Penitent opens up is the symbolic, and that’s where he really adds to the section. In the first place, the story of a man who relentlessly imposes his bodily functions on spiritual places is inherently a symbol of the tension between the physical and the supernatural. His focus on serial desecration through excretion, as well as the sheer volume of his bladder, is so outlandish and unusual that it acquires a kind of literary charge; it must mean something, because it’s just too peculiar to be mere plot. With regard to Christianity (the religion I’m most familiar with), there’s a lot we could say about the church(es) in terms of continual appeals to the supernatural as an authority over the physical—look at sacerdotal and conventual celibacy, for one very conspicuous example—and the Demon Penitent draws all this into play. Additionally, he at least activates associations with the religious function of conceptualizing and managing the afterlife; one of the things religion has always been concerned with is the transition from physical to no-longer-physical existence, which is a transition that’s been happening an awful lot in Santa Teresa lately.
In an interesting way, though, the Demon Penitent is also an attack on the symbolic. His intent, remember, is to leave his waste all over the church and behead or destroy statues; the killings are essentially incidental. His goal is to deface the symbols of his faith, and he in fact adapts his methods in order to minimize the chances of feeling forced to harm anyone. I may be pressing the point a little too hard (or the next 250 pages may befool me), but I see his profanations as an assault on the value of any kind of symbolism, at least in the context of Santa Teresa. Facts in that city must be addressed, and to withdraw to a second-order experience of them, to see them as anything other than stark reality, is to refuse to confront them. Symbolism is cold comfort when it substitutes for action or tries to organize a set of events that are so immediate and horrible. In this sense, the Demon Penitent makes the same argument that the Part About the Critics does regarding criticism: The enormity of the events in Santa Teresa requires engagement. There is no neutrality or aloofness in the matter, because more will die without wide-scale intervention.
* I know that should be “sacrilege” in the title, but think of the sonority!
Gorgeously written post. I agree (and as the arbiter of exactly nothing and with no authority whatsoever) do hereby forgive you ‘blasphemy’ over ‘sacrilege’ for the alliteration.
On your assertion that “it must mean something, because it’s just too peculiar to be mere plot”, I am torn in finding meaning. Yes, sure, raising the specter of corporeality versus spirituality makes sense as we see body after body in the garbage dumps, for there is no talk amongst the faithful of these women in the afterlife, especially of the rituals and superstitions that would allow them access to their culture’s capital-H heaven. So the bladder-emptying is pissing all over the priorities of the culture but also calling attention to bodies in general.
Maybe the Penitent, too, offers a healthy dose of “if the Word is made Flesh, why don’t we ever talk about the reality of flesh” along the idea of the sexless and bodiless priests and headless statues. Page upon page of “Jesus had a penis, too.”?
But, and I hate to argue that the author is just heavy handed in his point about priorities, but all I really get from the intrusion of the Penitent into the daily lives of those ignoring the reality of their own daily lives is a media-darling to counterbalance to the nameless, faceless, ignored murders. The volume of space spent on his crimes and his voluminous bladders seems a rather straightforward critique of what we see and choose to focus on despite the realities of the cesspool of inhumanity in which we’re living. Massive attention—media, police, and textual—paid to a few gallons of urine rather than thousands of murders. That, and an excuse to introduce the novel’s first competent (for my money) character in Elvira Campos. “There are odder things than sacraphobia…especially if you consider we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem” (381). There are odder things, there are more important things, there are more real things. As you summarized—pretty gracelessly done. But thanks to the Penitent for Ms. Campos, because I was troubled by (and eye-rollingly bored with the predictability of the madonna/whore categorization of women in Santa Teresa before we met Elvira.
Great post. I really like your idea of the Demon Penitent as an attack upon the very idea of the symbolic. It certainly helps explain Bolano’s decision to relate the crimes themselves in a kind of just-the-facts-mam manner. To make THEM stand in for something larger, or more self-consciously literary, would be a kind of desecration. On the other hand it does seem like there’s a kind of metaphysical aspect to the novel–like part of what he’s trying to represent is some kind of trans-historical impulse toward chaos, violence and destruction (EEEEvil perhaps?) that pops up all over the place and that presumably will somehow link Archimboldi’s experience in World War II to the femicides in Santa Teresa. So while he does seem to be trying to brush away all the distractions so that one can see the murders for what they are, I’m guessing that in the end they also stand in for something more primal and ineradicable.