Winding Down

I am off the road for a bit. I mentioned some time ago that I thought the opening of The Part About Fate was clearly a nod to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. At page 554 via more of those voices, this time in Lalo Cura’s head, we hear of his family history.

Lalo’s known family history, according to the voice, goes back to 1865 when a nameless orphan is raped by a Belgian soldier and then gives birth to María Expósito. There follows rape after rape through generation after generation until at one time there are five generations of María Expósitos living in an ever expanding house outside Villaviciosa. One of these María Expósitos has the powers of a witch. In the center of this saga about all these generations is planted the story of a brother’s revenge.

This section is short, roughly four and a half pages. It reminded me so much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was the repetition of names through the generations. Some dramatic and passionate blood letting. There was magic.

I am sure that elsewhere in this novel there are other instances where Bolaño mimics other authors, or pays tribute to them if you will, and I did not recognize that for what it was. (Come to think of it, there was a tip of the hat to Borges in there somewhere, but I cannot remember now where it was.) These two examples came through very clearly for me though.

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

As we finish up The Part About the Crimes, it seems to me that we have been presented with a pretty vivid picture of the fecklessness of everyone. And I do mean everyone. Not just the cops.

The three medical examiners, whom I myself labeled The Three Wise Men, have breakfast regularly together, do not talk, and then slink away like vultures. Page 549.

The press is paid off for discretion in what they write according to Haas’s lawyer. While our main representative of the press, Sergio González, is apparently not being paid off, there is no reason to pay him off. He cannot write anything at all about the crimes. Page 564.

Yolanda Palacio, the head of Santa Teresa’s Department of Sex Crimes wherein she is the only employee, holds forth on how Santa Teresa is not all that bad for women given the employment opportunities there. Page 568.

In the end the only information that Florita can offer us is that the killers have big faces, swollen faces and that their joys and sorrows are huge. What the hell is that all about? Page 571.

The former police chief of Mexico City opines that the snuff film industry in Santa Teresa does not exist. Page 536. Immediately thereafter we follow an Argentine reporter as he goes to watch one.

And when all is said and done, is not Professor Kessler as impotent as all the rest, almost comically so? Daryl below makes reference to the pomp of his visit, and that is about all there is. He makes visits to crime scenes or other settings related to the crimes ostentatiously taking notes. He sneaks off at times taking elaborate precautions to avoid being tailed, but he is tailed by the police anyway. He seems best at giving lectures to full halls at the University and regaling people at cocktail parties about the movies for which he has consulted. He is a zero in this place because of his outsider status, again as Daryl points out.

Let us not forget to mention Professor Silverio García Correa, the Mexican criminologist, another study in uselessness. Page 578.

This brings me to the charismatic congresswoman, Azucena Esquivel Plata, about whom Daryl has also written below. It is difficult to come to grips with her. Nonetheless, for all her intensity, passion, and determination, the best she can do in the end is demand that Sergio write about the crimes–the reporter who cannot report. As much I like her, I think we must anticipate that her efforts will be to absolutely no effect, as have been the “efforts” of everybody else in this place.

Cynicism rules. My original draft of this entry was far too long because I had collected quotes wherein various characters offer their own particular brands of cynicism. I will settle for only one, which really captures the overall mood. In contrast to the former Mexico City chief of police’s little homily about fighting the good fight at page 537, we find this from Sergio:

But what are good times? Sergio González asked himself. Maybe they’re what separate certain people from the rest of us, who live in a state of perpetual sadness. The will to live, the will to fight, as his father used to say, but fight what? The inevitable? Fight who? And what for? More time, certain knowledge, the glimpse of something essential? As if there were anything essential in this shitty country, he thought, anything essential on this whole self-sucking motherfucker of a planet.

Now that is cynicism. But what more can you expect from people who regularly go to El Rey del Taco for beers and Tex-Mex?

When all is said and done my overall impression is that Haas’s lawyer is correct. Anybody who seriously wished to investigate these crimes ought to follow the money. That is precisely what nobody is able or willing to do.

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

Do any of our main characters ever mourn these young dead women? Or even give them a serious second thought. Azucena Esquivel Plata does of course in an enraged sort of way. Oddly enough, Juan de Dios Martínez does, too.

. . . and then Juan de Dios Martínez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep. . . .

Page 534.

Juan de Dios rested his head on the steering wheel and tried to cry but couldn’t.

Page 600.

–Steve Brassawe

Pages 466-513: Just For Fun

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?

Page 511.

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.

Page 440.

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.

–Steve Brassawe

Page 466-513: Karl Haas

In considering Karl Haas, we do well to revisit Guadalupe Roncal’s description of him for the benefit of Oscar Fate in the last part. Karl has eyes so blue that he looks blind.

He has the face of a dreamer, but of a dreamer who’s dreaming at great speed. A dreamer whose dreams are far out ahead of our dreams. And that scares me. Do you understand?

Page 300.

Oscar did not understand, nor could I at that point. In this section at page 488, however, I got a peek at one of Karl’s dreams, the most bizarre dream of the countless dreams recounted for us in this novel. In addition to the graphic content of the dream, Karl also features the prison to be a castle on the edge of a bottomless abyss. At the conclusion of his dream he curls up on the edge of the abyss and falls asleep to dream some more.

It is difficult to come to grips with the meaning of his ruminations that immediately follow to the effect that “[r]aping women and then killing them seemed more attractive to him, more sexy” than Farfán and Gómez’s sexual activities. Are we to take this idea to be a self-incriminating one? I do not think so. It can just as easily be taken as a way of expressing his deep revulsion when considering Farfán and Gómez. In any event this leads him to his fantasy about murdering those two men and throwing their bodies in the abyss. “. . .that will be the last of them.”

Whatever the case, Karl Haas is a disturbing man. His dreams have violence and sex all blended together in a truly macabre way. This is displayed in his conduct, also, as we witnessed in the gruesome scene when El Anillo attempted to rape Karl in the prison shower wherein the author finally comes through with the prison rape with blades to which Jeff refers below. Page 484.

Karl illustrates something nicely. Without a confession–and Karl is expert at avoiding that pitfall–the police are essentially powerless to investigate and solve a case.

It is Epifanio who has the lead in the investigation of Karl Haas. On the surface it appears that Epifanio actually does some decent police work for a change. However, I have no faith in the purity of Epifanio’s motives at all. The mere fact that Epifanio is the moving force behind Karl Haas’s incarceration is that which most persuades me that Karl did not commit any of these murders. Karl is a handy scapegoat for the police, and a scapegoat may be just thing that Epifanio is seeking. Obviously, that is saying a much different thing than that Karl is an innocent man, however. There are very few if any innocent men in this book.

Which all brings me back to the observation that I made somewhere else. The issue of who is actually torturing and killing these young working women has become strangely beside the point.

Lastly, there is this intriguing monologue from Karl at page 506 to which Daryl refers below in his discussion of the claustrophobic aspects of this section:

Haas said: the killer is on the outside and I’m on the inside. But someone worse than me and worse than the killer is coming to this motherfucking city. Do you hear his footsteps getting closer? Do you hear them?

So Karl Haas is not Nietsche’s Superman after all. Nietsche’s Superman is apparently yet to come. . .at least that is the way that Karl sees it.

–Steve Brassawe

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

Pages 404-465: The Police

When I tell you of my own reaction to characters, in this case some members of the police force, I am actually expressing my curiosity as to whether others reacted to them differently. I am not proposing that my reading of them is the reading of them, God knows.

Yet, how can we not be favorably disposed toward Olegario Cura Expósito, a sixteen-year-old kid raised in poverty in Villaviciosa who displays integrity and no small amount of courage? And how does he make it out of poverty? Through his skill and courage amid violence. La locura. Lunacy.

Through him we are introduced to the two scumbags who are also bodyguards for Pedro Rengifo’s wife, one from the state of Jalisco and the other from Chihuahua—Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, to be exact. I do not recall any other mention of Ciudad Juárez to this point in the book. Santa Teresa is in the state of Sonora. (By the way, we are finally told explicitly that Pedro Rengifo is a narcotraficante at page 463.)

Then Lalo is a cop at the age of 17. Did you notice that he underwent any extensive training at some police academy? I did not. Nonetheless, he starts taking home and studying texts on law enforcement, texts in which obviously nobody else at the precinct has ever had any interest. He maintains his distance from drinking with the other cops or partaking in the gang rape of arrested whores in the jail. Page 401. The kid is going to be a good cop if he survives.

That in itself does not give us any hope that he will accomplish anything. This is the lesson that we take from Harry Magaña, I think. Harry is a tough, relentless, smart crime investigator. This place simply swallows him up and kills him.

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

Juan de Dios Martínez is a good cop, too, but as a veteran he appears to me to be only going through the motions of being a good cop. He seems to accept the incompetence around him as a limit on what he can accomplish with nary a protest. There is a fatalism about him.

Apropos of I don’t know what, consider this passage regarding one of his trysts with Elvira Campos:

Darling, Juan de Dios Martínez would say to her sometimes, sweetheart, love, and in the darkness she would tell him to be quiet and then suck every last drop from him—of semen? of his soul? of the little life he felt, at the time, remained to him?

Page 424.

. . . of the little life he felt, at the time, remained to him? What is that all about? Perhaps it is post-coital depression, something I have only read about. Anyway, I do not know exactly, but this cannot bode well for his state of mind. Beyond that, it is remarkable how little we know of him given the amount of text devoted to him.

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

Epifanio is a comic incompetent. Someone elsewhere wrote of the incident when he retrieved Isabel Urrea’s address book, obviously a very valuable piece of evidence that everyone else ignored. As was pointed out, he himself did nothing with it either. But he goes further than admitting that he did nothing with it. He congratulates himself on the fact that he did not telephone some of the prominent people whose names appeared there and blackmail them. Page 463.

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

I was struck by a story told about Inspector Ángel Fernández at page 460. In spite of the fact that the medical examiner’s report stated that Emilia Escalante Sanjuán died of strangulation, in his report Fernández listed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning. Obviously, this was a way to close the file because Emilia was only a whore–practically a whore anyway. Page 460.

There follows immediately some of the most harrowing reading in this section of the book in the form of the cops’ discussion of “three-way” rapes, a full rape of all five orifices, etc. I think that all of us are willing to accept the proposition that policemen become hardened in their profession. They become hardened as a kind of psychological self-defense mechanism. However, coupled with the rape of the whores in the jail, I could not accept this in that light.

The good cops are the exception here, and they are impotent. The bad cops are the rule, and they are nasty bad.

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

In the same sense that I earlier proposed that this is not a “crusader novel,” nor is it a “who-dunnit” novel. Has anyone else noticed that as we read on in this novel, the issue of who is killing the young women becomes strangely beside the point in a very real way?

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

I still have written nothing concerning the illegal dump known as El Chile as I said I would last week. I will sometime.

–Steve Brassawe

Pages 404-465: Florita

At the half-way point I want to indulge briefly in a generalization about this novel, something that I have tried to refrain from doing. To this point I personally have not encountered one shred of text that leads me in any way to the thought that this is some sort of crusading novel, that it is sending out some clarion call for action along the lines of, “something must be done about these murders” or “something must be done about the working conditions on the Mexican side of the border.” Nor do I detect any sort of message like that from the tone of the novel.

When I speak of a “crusading novel,” I am thinking of something like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It is hard to miss the message in that novel that “something must be done about the corruption and working conditions in the meat industry.” Again, I can detect nothing like that in this novel. Of course, as sensitive human beings I think that we all want very much to see such a message. I simply submit that it is not there.

It appears to me that we are being presented with a particular vision of the nature of human existence by a man who takes pride in portraying the most troubling aspects of that existence with nary a flinch. That’s all. There is not a lick of redemption here nor is there held out the hope of any because that is the way he sees the truth of the matter.

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

There is not much question but that Florita Almada is the star of the show in this section of the book. Daryl has thoughtfully discussed aspects of her character below. My own reaction to her was much warmer as has my reaction to Barry Seaman become much warmer as I have reread his speeches. I want to focus on a different facet of the poem to which Daryl referred.

As Florita scans the poem on page 432, she comes to a downright apocalyptic passage:

Old, white haired, weak, barefoot, bearing enormous burden, up mountain and down valley, over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken, though wind and storm, when it’s hot and later freezes, running on, running faster, crossing rivers, swamps, falling and rising and hurrying faster, no rest or relief, battered and bloody, at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten.

After considering this, she comes to this conclusion at page 433:

. . . (4) that if it was true that all effort led to a vast abyss, she had two recommendations to begin with, first, not to cheat people, and, second, to treat them properly. Beyond that, there was room for discussion.

Superficially, that is heartwarming of course, the kind of simple, pithy observation that wise old people are capable of. But then consider it further. How, pray tell, did we get from the premise–the abyss–to that conclusion, the recommendation of fair and just treatment of people? It is a leap that made me laugh. She endeared herself to me with it, but it makes no sense.

Of course the better way to look at it is that it is a piece of homespun philosophy being presented to us rather than a piece of logic. The centerpiece of this philosophy is not human kindness in any form but rather fairness and justice. The idea is that even in the face of the ultimate void, we ought still to act with fairness and justice toward others.

Now is there some redemptive message here? Not for me. I cannot escape the conclusion that this being presented to us as a piece of naïveté for our affectionate amusement. I cannot believe that we are expected to take this from Florita seriously.

In other words, it seems clear to me that the author has spoken to us at times through several characters in this novel. However, I do not believe that he speaks to us through Florita.

–Steve Brassawe

Pages 353-404: Mexican Zoetrope

I speculated in the Fourth Installment on Fate entry about the possibility that when Bolaño was writing the passages concerning Professor Kessler and Hugh Thomas’s book, The Slave Trade, he was considering how he might use words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance in writing The Part About the Crimes.

Then Matt in his Tidbits piece got me focused on Professor Plateau and his invention that ultimately lead to the zoetrope.

I have finished my second reading of pages 353 through 404 of The Part About the Crimes. I originally gauged Bolaño’s intentions here to be to bring to each of these murder victims some small identity—to force us to contemplate them each individually for a moment. Words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance. The same sort of purpose the Vietnam Wall is designed to serve for 55,000 dead, in that case with severe space limitations. Some better feel for the magnitude of it all. I still think that.

However, as the crime victims fluttered by me this time, they became as individual images in an animation machine and a kind of persistent perception was implanted in my mind. The victims blended back together again into one image. The body of a girl with long hair, about five feet seven inches tall (tall for a Mexican woman), partially clothed, lying out in some vacant area along with garbage. No animation results, however. As this image slowly develops, it becomes a character in the novel that keeps reappearing. (There is a lot wrong with that whole metaphor, but still, I like it.)

Consider Epifanio’s dream of that female coyote dying by the road. Page 387.

And this was the last death of 1993, which was the year the killings of the women began in the Mexican state of Sonora, under Governor José Andrés Briceño of the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), and Santa Teresa Mayor José Refugio de las Heras of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), decent and upright men who did the right thing, without fear of reprisals, prepared for any unpleasantness.

Pages 393-94.

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

Charly Cruz at page 315:

And there’s no sense of the abyss anymore, there’s no vertigo before the movie begins, no one feels alone inside a multiplex. Then, Fate remembered, he began to talk about the end of the sacred.

See Daryl’s entry below on the sacred.

It is difficult not to think back on Oscar Fate’s ruminations on the sacred when we are confronted with the Penitent. The Penitent is only an inadvertent murderer, whom the interestingly named Juan de Dios Martínez began to like when the Penitent perfected his technique to eliminate the bloodshed. Page 368.

Thanks to Elvira Campos, another aspect of Fate’s experience comes back to mind, one that we have not discussed. Fate saw an eerie mural on the side of a building in Detroit. It was an image of a clock. Where each of the twelve numbers would normally have been, there were depictions of people working in the factories of Detroit with a recurring character, a black teenager. The mural looked like the work of a lunatic.

In the middle of the clock, where all the scenes converged, there was a word painted in letters that looked like they were made of gelatin: fear.

Page 241.

Elvira Campos brings these two abstractions, fear and the sacred, together nicely with her theory that the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia:

There are odder things than sacraphobia, said Elvira Campos, especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here. In fact, I’d say all Mexicans are essentially sacraphobes.

Page 381.

Even the Virgin of Guadalupe takes a hit from the Penitent at page 365.

(Will the asylum at which Elvira Campos is director be the one where Amalfitano eventually takes up residence?)

The Penitent is gone as quickly as he appears in the novel. Juan de Dios Martínez and Elvira Campos slowly fade from the picture, too. Sergio González, the arts writer from La Razón, files his story on the Penitent for the Sunday Magazine and promptly forgets about it all. It is as if these characters were invented and introduced solely to provide us with insight, if insight it is, into this confluence of fear and the sacred.

I guess we have to acknowledge, also, that Juan de Dios Martínez and Elvira Campos engaged in some ritualistic sex. She reminds me a bit of Liz Norton. But that all appears to be a throw-in. I liked these two, of course, but I had the odd feeling that the author was keeping me at some distance from them.

There’s for openers. I look forward to reading the thoughts of others. Later in the week something further concerning Olegario Cura Expósito, the illegal dump, El Chile, and some odds and ends.

–Steve Brassawe

A Fool’s Sixth Installment About Fate

Nothing cerebral about this at all, an entirely subjective view of pages 291 through 349, The Part About Fate. . .

Roberto Bolaño had to be a true fan of films. He was clearly inspired in part by film when he undertook this section and appears to have attempted to create in print the atmosphere of film noir. This recreation is complete with a retrospective voice-over at the very beginning of this part as we pan in on a reporter at work at his desk in New York. I know I mentioned this before, but I liked it.

Actually, I think he succeeded in recreating the atmosphere of a descendant of film noir. Fate discussed David Lynch with the desk clerk at page 339. The atmosphere of this part reminded me most of a David Lynch film that they did not mention, Blue Velvet, a film that truly freaked me out when I first saw it lo, these many years ago.

While we are on the subject of that desk clerk, I was struck by something he said:

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

It was as if he were telling us, “This all will be playing at a theater near you soon, folks.”

At any rate we went into Charly Cruz’s house at page 319 with everybody a little popped after the boxing match and a night out in the nether world of Santa Teresa. I experienced suspense. I admit it. I am probably the most cooperative reader around. I willingly suspend my disbelief at the drop of a hat. When Oscar encountered the Virgin of Guadalupe in the garage on the way in, I saw it as a portent. Something was going to happen for a change. It was only later when Oscar saw her again on the way out that I concluded the Virgin of color had blessed the man of color with a wink.

The Virgin of Guadalupe has historically blessed violence in the service of a sacred cause many times. When we saw what I took to be the first reel of a snuff film, another video fragment, and Rosa Amalfitano had disappeared in that house somewhere, I wanted Oscar to do something. I wanted Oscar to be the first major character in 323 pages to do something. If the only thing Oscar held sacred was beauty in the form of a pretty girl with perfect features, that was good enough for me.

I realize now that I was reading these scenes from the point of view of the other Oscar, Óscar Amalfitano. I myself am a father with beautiful daughters who sometimes did not display the sense that God gave an eel when they were younger. I did not want to know everything they did either, as long as they could handle it. But this was a different deal here. Little Rosa Amalfitano had gotten in over her head.

So then, what did my man do? (He suddenly became my man.) He dropped Corona with one punch and picked up his handgun. Count Pickett he may not have been, but my man had some stopping power in that fist. He had strained to let fly at somebody several times earlier in this part. He chose the perfect time and place to land one. In these new circumstances that sick Chucho Flores was immediately cured of his psychotic possessiveness. Good for a quick, bitter laugh for me.

It was a good little piece of violence, cathartic after the suspense. “Cathartic.” A pissant English Department kind of word. Actually, I wanted to smell some cordite in the air. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need. Isaac Hayes was singing the Theme from Shaft in my head. I am a sucker for stuff like this.

I still do not understand, however, why Oscar and Rosa gave that jerk Chucho Flores a ride to the bus stop though.

A satisfying conclusion for me, too.  Óscar Amalfitano finally found the wherewithal to do something. Calm did not let him down. It made no difference whether the guy in front of the house was a cop or a greaser.  Amalfitano did well in diverting his attention after fixing up Rosa with some money and telling them to get out of there. And we were on the way to the border.

”They’re good people, friendly, hospitable. Mexicans are hardworking, they’re hugely curious about everything, they care about people, they’re brave and generous, their sadness isn’t destructive, it’s life giving,” said Rosa Amalfitano as they crossed the border into the United States.
“Will you miss them?” asked Fate.
I’ll miss my father and I’ll miss the people,” said Rosa.

Such a truly cheap trick that by Bolaño. Still, it more than worked for me.

I sat back and relaxed in the sun. Rosa was out of there. Her father will never demand that she return to visit him in that mental lockup in Santa Teresa or Hermosillo. Nor will he forbid it either. But hopefully—a hope not entirely justified by the facts available—I clung to the thought that she will develop good sense, take comfort that Professor Pérez will visit her father regularly, and stay the hell out of there herself. Her father will be entirely satisfied with letters from her as he was with Lola. That scenario is not so bad, as he himself said.

If all this had to be purchased at some amorphous psychic cost to Oscar, that simply made him all the more admirable to me.

As for Rosa Méndez, Schopenhauer’s woman–she likes to have fun; life is short–Rosita is clearly going down. But we cannot save everyone, can we?

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

Interspersed with this is the story of Guadalupe Roncal, yet another reporter pulled out of her normal milieu, the city desk, and transformed into an anonymous crime reporter—after the real crime reporter had been tortured and murdered.

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.

It is through Ms. Roncal that we met Nietzsche’s Superman. If I had to interview Nietzsche’s Superman, I would not know what questions to ask him either. I cannot help but think that we will learn something more about the nature of that party going on back there in the cell block when he first appeared.

A Fool’s Fifth Installment About Fate: Miscellaneous

Everything I write here about 2666 ought to be read with an implicit question mark behind it. I earned my living for years saying things that I was not entirely sure of or that I flatly did not believe to be true. I must have been somewhat convincing because I did earn a living this way. The question marks here are going to be explicit. I am going to mash the question mark key occasionally.

Before we move on from page 290, I wish to mention some miscellaneous things that interested me in the beginning of The Part About Fate in the hope that one or two items may have interested others, too. There may be some repetition here of things discussed elsewhere, forgivable repetition, I hope.

1. It is repeatedly drummed into us that Oscar Fate’s understanding of what goes on around him is imperfect, as I suppose is the case with all of us. Earlier, I mentioned his inability to understand the words of the two women at the funeral, “words of consolation or rebuke.” Page 236.

At last a taxi stopped. When he was about to close the door he heard something like a shot. He asked the taxi driver whether he’d heard it. The taxi driver was Hispanic and spoke very bad English.
“Every day you hear more fantastic things in New York,” the driver said.
“What do you mean, fantastic?” he asked.
“Exactly what I say, fantastic,” said the taxi driver.

Page 239.

So did the Hispanic taxi driver with his bad English intend some word other than “fantastic?” Maybe. In any event, we are soon to go into Mexico with Oscar Fate who cannot speak Spanish, which will only enhance his imperfect understanding of what is going on.

This sort of thing happens again with the chant of the little girls jumping rope in Detroit at Temple A. Hoffman Memorial Playground, “something about a woman whose legs and arms and tongue had been amputated.” Fate is “[c]ompletely disoriented.” Page 245-46.

During the overheard conversation between Kessler and the young man, the young man “. . . said something about inspiration. All Fate heard was: you’ve been an inspiration to us.”

Anyway, you get the idea. This sort of thing occurs repeatedly. The upshot is that our own perceptions as readers are doubly imperfect.

2. Related to item one is the fact that Oscar is being sent on an assignment wherein he is out of his usual element, politics and social issues relating to the black community. (He will not be the last journalist in this predicament that we will encounter.) It is as if the sports editor assumes that any black man ought to know something about boxing. Nobody stereotypes African-Americans like other African-Americans.

3. How can one not wonder what the hell the deal is with Oscar’s stomach? I have studied all the contexts in which he vomits or suffers stomach discomfort, and I find no clue.

4. Antonio Jones’ answer to the question of why he kept doing what he was doing was remarkably simple and remarkably funny:

Because someone has to keep the cell operative.

Page 258.

You dummy, Oscar.

5. Dick Medina’s television news report on the woman from Arizona who had disappeared in Arizona obviously foreshadows. I find it fascinating that Oscar is asleep and dreaming of the last Communist in Brooklyn while it airs. I am not sure why I find it fascinating, but I do. Page 258.

6. Am I weird to be mulling over those identical twins with the Mexican woman in the diner as much I do? Pages 264-65. Maybe it is just that Espinoza, Pelletier, and Norton have me seeing threesomes everywhere. You must admit, though, that identical twins would be a nice touch.

7. Consider this:

She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn’t talk like a New York secretary but like a country person who has just come from the cemetery. This woman had firsthand knowledge of the planet of the dead, thought Fate, and she doesn’t know what she is saying anymore.

Page 273.

Could it be that Lola did not die and is now cleaning office buildings in New York instead of Paris? Or is this Lola’s ghost on the other end of the line?

8. Say what, Omar?

”What are you looking at?” Omar Abdul said to him.
“The landscape,” he said, “it’s one sad landscape.”
Next to him, the fighter scanned the horizon and then he said: “That’s just how it is here. It’s always sad at this time of day. It’s a goddamn landscape for women.”
“It’s getting dark,” said Fate.

Page 275.

Believe it or not, I am not blind to Bolaño’s faults. Quite honestly, I think he overdoes it with the dreams and the mirrors, tropes that are a bit shopworn, don’t you think? His foreshadowing can be a bit ham-handed. And the guy can get downright full of himself at times. I find it thoroughly improbable that Oscar Abdul would say this. As a result, this is too transparent an effort to create an atmosphere of foreboding. Too forced.


“This is a big city, a real city,” said Chucho Flores. “We have everything. Factories, maquiladoras, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico, a cocaine cartel, a constant flow of workers from other cities, Central American immigrants, an urban infrastructure that can’t support the level of demographic growth. We have plenty of money and poverty, we have imagination and bureaucracy, we have violence and desire to work in peace. There’s just one thing we haven’t got,” said Chucho Flores.
Oil, thought Fate, but he didn’t say it.
“What don’t you have?” he asked.
“Time,” said Flores. “We haven’t got any fucking time.”
Time for what? thought Fate. . . .

I love that passage. That passage boils with meaning in my opinion. And Fate’s thought of oil is funny to boot. Still, time for what? I have no idea either.

10. Johnny Swiggerson is a name very much like Dirk Diggler. Page 281.

11. Can we safely assume that Oscar knows how to kiss because he is critical of that dark-haired girls ability? Page 281. It is usually the woman who complains of the man’s ability at this, is it not? This one is not keeping me awake. However, I cannot recall another literary kiss that came about quite so abruptly. It was even more abrupt than, “Suddenly, they were kissing.” We bypassed that. “As he and the dark-haired girl who had come with Rosita Méndez were kissing. . . .”

12. Climacteric? Climacteric? Page 289. Male menopause? I am being stupid here, I know. Somebody please help. I need to look at the original Spanish there.

Enough. Let us read on.

And crawling, on the planet’s face, some insects, called the human race. Lost in time, and lost in space… and meaning.

The Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.