Pages 404-465: El Chile

I post these comments at the risk of appearing as if I am attempting to dominate the conversation. It is just that I am heading into Mexico City early in the morning, and I never know whether I am going to get back out of there. I am optimistic, however. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go. By the time I get back, y’all will be off on your discussion of the next section, and I did so want to write something concerning the dumps.

The subject at hand is garbage. It is a subject on which Bolaño is rather relentless. There is reason for that. Back at page 305 Oscar Fate was contemplating what he thought were beautiful hills in the distance over a cold beer from the patio of a restaurant in the eastern part of the city. A man disabuses him of this notion, explaining with very little English that those hills were really huge piles of garbage.

I have tied to avoid writing any sort of travelogue. A comment is in order here, however. So far up north through expenditures of enormous amounts of money and other resources, garbage has been kept out of sight and out of mind for most of us not employed in the garbage collection industry. That is a little more problematic here.

In a country strapped for infrastructure and money, government funded garbage collection in urban areas can be fitful. In many smaller towns and villages and in rural areas, there is often no organized garbage collection effort. Poverty plays an additional role, too. If one’s choice is paying for food or paying for legitimate garbage disposal, one will pay for food. The only bright side to all of this is that poor people participate a bit less in the world consumer economy. Thus, they generate a bit less garbage per capita. But there are a helluva lot of them.

It should not be surprising then that the illegal dump is one of the less picturesque features of the country. The Mexican people are not particularly slovenly. Quite the contrary actually. It is simply that the circumstances that I have described bear down upon them.

Santa Teresa’s new legal city dump is active. It is “. . . a festering heap a mile and a half long and half a mile wide. . . ,” visited by more than 100 trucks per day. Page 423. It is noted there that illegal dumps proliferate. That brings us to the illegal dump slyly named El Chile by our author. It is in one of the passages about El Chile that we find what is for me one of the more haunting passages in the book. Even though I try to avoid setting out long passages in these outbreaks of mine, I am going to transcribe this one here because I don’t trust you to go to the cited page and reread it.

At night those who had nothing or less than nothing ventured out. In Mexico City they call them teporochos, but a teporocho is a survivor, a cynic and a humorist, compared to the human beings who swarmed alone or in pairs around El Chile. There weren’t many of them. They spoke a slang that was hard to understand. The police conducted a roundup the night after the body of Emilia Mena Mena was found and all they brought in was three children hunting for cardboard in the trash. The night residents of El Chile were few. Their life expectancy was short. They died after seven months, at most, of picking their way through the dump. Their feeding habits and their sex lives were a mystery. It was likely they had forgotten how to eat or fuck. Or that food and sex were beyond their reach by then, unattainable, indescribable, beyond action and expression. All, without exception, were sick. To strip the clothes from a body in El Chile was to skin it. The population was stable: never fewer than three, never more than twenty.

Page 372.

That is an image worthy of Cormac McCarthy, although I am starting to think that I ought to be measuring Cormac McCarthy again Roberto Bolaño instead of the other way around. The end of the line of the species homo sapiens graphically portrayed.

El Chile is mentioned again in passing at page 404 and perhaps in another couple of instances. Then after another body is found in the vicinity, we come to this great passage that could be right out of Catch 22:

The mayor of Santa Teresa ordered that the dump be closed, although he later changed the order (informed by his secretary of the legal impossibility of closing something that, for all intents and purposes, had never been open) to decree the dismantling, removal, and destruction of that pestilential no-man’s-land. For a week a police guard was posted on the edge of El Chile and for three days a few garbage trucks, aided by the two city dump trucks, ferried trash to the dump in Colonia Kino, but faced with the magnitude of the job and their own lack of manpower, they soon gave up.

Page 464.

A fair number of the bodies of murdered young women turn up in El Chile or the vicinity. It is hard to conceive of a better illustration of young Marco Antonio Guerra’s words, “[l]ife is worthless.” Page 220. So it is in the face of this sort of thing that we look for some hope in characters like Florita or in a different way, Lalo Cura, and that appears to be a grasping at straws.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For those familiar with my fixation on glass shards embedded in the tops of walls, I neglected to mention that this is what Lalo Cura saw on his first trip into Santa Teresa as a child:

The lights of the highway ramps and then a neighborhood of dark streets and then a neighborhood of big houses behind high walls bristling with glass.

Page 388.

I am starting to conclude that with his repeated use of this image, Bolaño is implicitly posing the question of how much longer those walls with glass shards on the top will effectively keep the chaos and the anarchy on the outside from gaining entry to the lives of the wealthy behind those walls. Fences between poor countries and rich countries come into question, too, again by implication.

–Steve Brassawe

3 thoughts on “Pages 404-465: El Chile

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston March 18, 2010 / 10:34 pm

    Re your last bit, enclosure is featured prominently in next week’s section, I noticed. I thought of you and your glass-topped walls as I read.

  2. Steve March 25, 2010 / 1:42 pm

    In October no dead women turned up in Santa Teresa, in the city or the desert, and work to get rid of the illegal dump El Chile was permanently halted. A reporter for La Tribuna de Santa Teresa who was covering the relocation or demolition of the dump said he’d never seen so much chaos in his life. Asked whether the chaos was caused by the city workers involved in the futile effort, he answered that it wasn’t, it came from the inertia of the festering place itself.

    Page 473.

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