I have already described two of the ways in which I have found myself responding to the renditions of the murders in Mexican Zoetrope below. First, the relentless descriptions of the state of one after another after another body that is found brings home the magnitude of the whole thing. Second, however, all seem to blend into one image of a single tortured young woman now dead.
There has been a third response to the details, too. Only occasionally do we hear about the events that led to a particular body’s condition. Even in those few cases when a murderer confesses and describes what he did, the events are only sketchily drawn for us. Usually, we are only given a description of the appearance of the body as it was found and facts from the medical examiner’s report. This is a Hitchcock technique in the sense of making what we do not see much more horrific than anything that we might have been shown.
I do not know how one can avoid imagining the infliction of multiple stab wounds, the mutilation of breasts, the strangulation, the torture while reading this section. If one reads it thoughtfully and attentively and imaginatively, the Part About the Crimes has to be one of the more harrowing sections of any novel out there. How does one avoid becoming introspective with untoward results in the face of this onslaught?
Then in the middle of it we encounter this unexpected piece of wisdom from Epifanio, unexpected because it is Epifanio, after all:
Every life, Epifanio said that night to Lalo Cura, no matter how happy it is, ends in pain and suffering. That depends, said Lalo Cura. Depends on what, champ? On a lot of things, said Lalo Cura. Say you’re shot in the back of the head, for example, and you don’t hear the motherfucker come up behind you, then you’re off to the next world, no pain, no suffering. Goddamn kid, said Epifanio. Have you ever been shot in the back of the head?
Earlier in the book we had some very quick allusions to this same subject. At page 298 Guadalupe Roncal had this to say:
On the flight here from Hermosillo I wouldn’t have minded if the plane crashed. At least it’s a quick death, or so they say. [Emphasis mine.]
There is a back-handed reference to this idea in the section concerning Harry Magaña:
Harry said his had died four years ago, a few months after he’d finished the course in Santa Barbara. I’m sorry, said the other man. It’s all right, said Harry Magana, and there was an uncomfortable silence until the cop asked how she had died. Cancer, said Harry, it was quick.
Surely, Harry used the term “quick” in a relative sense there.
It appears to me that through Epifanio, the author from his own personal place of torture is sending a message of truth to his readers who have not yet arrived at their own such personal place. Death with dignity is not possible, as the word “dignity” is so often misused to mean “absence of torture.”
The essence of that message is that everyone will get their turn with more or less torture in the nature of things, even the healthiest among us. I am of course using the word “torture” here in the broad sense. One might be tortured by Mother Nature in the form of a growing cancer, for example. One might be tortured by old age. One might be tortured by three thugs in a small, remote room with a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Moreover, Epifanio suggests that there is no escape in the form of “instantaneous death.” Albert Camus eloquently dispensed with that happy notion in his essay on the death penalty, “Reflections on the Guillotine” in the collection Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays. There is no doubt in my mind at this point that Roberto Bolaño was intimately familiar with Camus if not many others on this same point.
This may be one of those uncomfortable truths about human existence that Bolaño seeks to convey–doubly uncomfortable for those who cling to the illusion that they will be able to purchase “death with dignity” when their own time comes as if it were just another consumer commodity. In other words, the deaths of these young women and the manner of them are in a sense not an aberration but only one part of a larger aspect of human existence.
Although I have repeatedly disclaimed any expertise in matters of Latin American culture, I am convinced at this point, based upon my admittedly limited experience but feverish reading, that a Latin American reader, male or female, would probably be like a fish in the water with this whole concept. The idea of death with dignity would be laughable to the average Latin American reader if the possibility of such were ever presented to him or her. The Latin American reader, I think, would be more apt to aspire to death with courage. For him or her, then, only two questions remain. (1) How long will my own torture last? (2) Will my courage hold out until it is done?
But I could be wrong.