A Fool’s Fourth Installment About Fate

On the way from Tucson to the border, Oscar overhears a conversation in a diner between a young man and a Professor Kessler, obviously some sort of expert in criminology. Excerpts from Professor Kessler’s mini-lecture delivered to the young man:

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through a fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course most of the serial killer were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through a filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. [Emphasis mine.]

Professor Kessler, after widening his contemplations to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries as well, then explains that in order for a murder to cause a sensation, it had to be a murder committed by people with victims who were both a part of society. Nobody cared if 20% of the “merchandise” in the holds of the slave ships died before delivery.

The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.

And then Professor Kessler’s opinions:

“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”

After this, Fate reads that passage from The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas that is a perfect demonstration of filtering the death in the holds of those slave ships through a fabric of words. That book has been discussed earlier.

I am wondering if, when Bolaño wrote this, he was considering how words might be used in the service of revelation rather than avoidance in connection with the women’s deaths in Santa Teresa, clearly people outside society as Professor Kessler explains it.

Or alternatively, if he wrote this after having written The Part About the Crimes–which I do not believe he did–perhaps he was explaining that he had tried to use words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance when he wrote that part.

It seems obvious to me that one endeavor in this novel is an attempt to make those murders “legible” in a way that they could not be made legible in news reports and the like, and in the process make death itself more “legible.”

At the same time, I am in no way suggesting that Bolaño was any sort of social crusader. I am not saying that he was not either. Whether he was or was not does not make any difference to me.

But that is only one of the endeavors. When I am foolish enough mention 2666 in conversation, for example when I am asked what I am reading lately, often the person will say something like, “Oh, yeah. That is the novel about the murders in Juarez, isn’t it?”

For the sake of keeping the conversation light and moving, I always lie and say, “Yes. That’s what it’s about.”

A Fool’s Third Installmant About Fate: Meaning

Yesterday I wrote a reply to a note by Maria at wwww.bolanobolano.com, a brilliant person whom I have known for years. The gist of it was that middle class people derive meaning in life from the things they buy. When they purchase a copy of 2666, there is much gnashing of teeth when they do not find meaning in it. I mashed the “Post” button.

Within minutes I realized that was not close to the idea that I wished to propose nor was it at all in the spirit with which I wished to propose it. For one thing, I am aware that the phrase “middle class” is never uttered without a sneer by some. I was not sneering. After all, I are one. I was too lazy to come up with a phrase less freighted with that baggage. But what would that have been? “Bourgeois people?”

Then the problem was that I could not figure out how to take down that reply. I considered for time posting a reply to my own reply, a reply that screamed, “This man is a cretin!” Then I said to myself, “What the hell? It is not as if I accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.” I went about my business. Now I feel pretty much as if I had accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.

I gnash my teeth more than most as is demonstrated over and over here. It is in the nature of the beast.

All I wished to suggest was that in former centuries people derived meaning from faith. Before that was magic. With the erosion of faith, people began to derive meaning from the things that money can buy. Now materialism is proving catastrophically unsatisfactory globally and spiritually.

Maybe one of the questions being illustrated by 2666 is, “What next are we going to try in our attempt to find meaning in an existence the meaning of which is obscure at best?” Again, maybe the book as a whole, through the response of mystification that it elicits in us, illustrates that question as opposed to posing the question more directly, or even indirectly, in a particular piece of text within it.

Assuming we get by Amalfitano’s philosophers’ question of whether we actually exist at all, that is, whether our hand is really a hand.

If Bolaño has big questions in mind, he never asks them. He illustrates them. The problem is that the illustrations are Rorschach tests.

Maria had proposed a meaning, extrapolated from a section of the novel, that somebody needs to do something about these murders of women in the hundreds. Maria is brilliant, as I have said, and I look forward to where she goes as she pursues that in the context of this novel. I say that with not a hint of sarcasm.

The kind of thing I said in that reply spilled from my partially fossilized left brain. Meanwhile, my right brain bubbled with delight when Oscar Fate later actually does do something—not much in the big picture of hundreds of murders, but something. Óscar Amalfitano, relying on calm just as the voice had admonished him, later does do something, too—again, not much, but something.

In the end, however, we are right back at the issue that Maria was pondering.

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

For example, . . .

I cannot help but gnash my teeth regarding the meaning of the maquiladores churning out consumer goods, the stacks of garbage generated by the city, the parking lots carved into the sides of mountains, the stink of the place and such. Maybe these are nothing more than manifestations of the wonderful economic growth of the city as extolled by a couple of the less appealing characters, but the novel certainly has an apocalyptic feel about it.

The biocatastrophe people foresee a multifaceted worldwide apocalypse resulting from the infestation of the earth with human beings. That biocatastrophe, according them, will feature profound climate change, increasingly scant water, peak oil, diversified and intensifying waves of “ecotoxins” and “ecocontaminants,” antibiotic-resistant plagues, total collapse of ecosystems, and last but not least, the implosion of the monetary system—all occurring concurrently.

In other words war, famine, pestilence, and death with no rationale and no meaning from our perspective in the middle of it. No king’s writ is going to hold the center together. They blame this all on the consumer economy in the broad sense of the phrase, including the consumer economy of weapons. They foresee us all ultimately being on The Road with Cormac McCarthy, another acclaimed novel in which folks strain to find meaning.

There are those that take the position that we are past the tipping point already. The biocatastrophe is already inevitable. There are those that insist that if we do something now, the biocatastrophe might be avoided.

One might argue that Roberto Bolaño is in part offering us a vision of the front edge of this biocatastrophe, that with his recurrent rat imagery, he is suggesting that there are too many rats in the cage. It might be said that his vision of the biocatastrophe places an emphasis on the dimension of lawlessness.

I discarded that possible reading of the Rorschach test. I do not buy any of that biocatastrophe stuff. The very word implies a value judgment. Oscar Fate contemplated the dinosaurs in Temple A. Hoffman Memorial Playground, which, had they had the gift of self-awareness, would certainly have regarded their own extinction as a biocatastrophe.

It would only be a massive catastrophe from the human point of view. From the planet’s point of view, the Earth would simply be cleansing itself of us in preparation for righting itself over geologic time. In which case the more women murdered in Santa Teresa the better. The planet is not as fragile as folks imagine. Bolaño may just as well be telling us to relax. Everything is going to be fine.

My current working theory is that the author has cleverly chosen to speak his meaning to us through the ditzy philosopher, Rosa Méndez:   Have fun. Life is short.

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

Notwithstanding all that, I do still believe that it is premature at a point less than halfway through this novel to become frustrated that the relationship between the five parts is not yet clarifying let alone clear, that the overriding theme or theme of the book is or are not apparent, or that the large meaning of it all is not emerging from the mist. That might be legitimate cause for dissatisfaction when nearing the halfway point of a conventional novel. It might. But this is not one of those.

Perhaps the best thing to do at this point is to pretend that it has no meaning, and rather, focus on trying to understand the characters to the extent we can, making sure we know what happens to the characters, comparing impressions of the imagery, trading notes on the other authors to whom this author alludes, and the like. There will be whatever lifetime is left to each of us after finishing the novel to ponder the big questions.

This is only a suggestion.

Also, I believe that I need to give considerably more thought to my replies over in http://www.bolanobolano.com before mashing the “Post” button.

A Fool’s Second Installment on Fate

The helluva ride we are about to take in The Part About Fate is into the netherworld of Santa Teresa. We are going to leave poolside where Pelletier tried to noodle out what was happening there by studying the newspaper with his Spanish dictionary at his side. We are leaving Amalfitano, who only senses the miasmal atmosphere of the place and experiences premonitions and then attends cocktail parties with academics.

But first we encounter this series of episodes in Fate’s work life after his mothers death and before Mexico even enters his mind. What to make of these vignettes that have been discussed so perceptively elsewhere here?

These vignettes appear to me to be within the long tradition of absurdist literature. If one is more frustrated, perhaps even angry, than entertained by The American Dream by Edward Albee or Waiting for Godot, then certainly one is going to derive no entertainment from these introductory vignettes. We are in the world of Camus’ The Stranger and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or The Trial. I am not the first to have mentioned The Stranger hereabouts, but I cannot find that earlier reference in order to give credit. If one does not enjoy these things, if one is more frustrated than entertained, that does not necessarily make one less sophisticated or artsy than the next person.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, nothing makes sense here. Nothing.

Certainly, Fate himself is not making sense of much. I was struck by two things. First, is his imperfect perception of things. After his mother’s funeral:

At the end, two of them came up to him and spoke words he didn’t understand, words of consolation or rebuke.

Second is his fragmentary perception of things, particularly these television programs and movies and cartoons. He perceives only fragmentary and fleeting images in these things. I believe this to be important because the centerpiece of The Part About Fate is a fragment of a film, a snuff film, and we as readers must infer the nature of the thing from an imperfectly perceived fragment.

Are not imperfect perceptions and fragmentary images part of the very nature of our own human existence? We seldom hear people perfectly and understand. We do not have a narrator in our heads on a day to day basis explaining things to us and then wrapping everything up in a ribbon with a neat, logical conclusion.

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

Of course, I must say something about Barry Seaman. I myself am not sure that we should make too much of the Bobby Seale connection. One who does that embarks on a fruitless attempt to make sense of something that is not intended to make sense.

We are about to go on a trip in this part, as I mentioned at the beginning. Seaman’s “lectures” remind me very much of Father Mapple’s sermon at the beginning of Moby Dick before the voyage is undertaken there. However, there is no getting around the fact that Seaman’s lectures are absurd. My picture of him much more resembles George Foreman with his motivational lectures and his George Forman Grill than Bobby Seale. They are masterfully done in the sense that at times he starts to make sense. It is not gibberish. But just when he starts to make sense, he veers off into some bizarre digression. And I do mean bizarre.

There is humor here, too. Upon the instant of their first meeting:

“I need to use the bathroom,” said Fate.
“Jesus,” said Seman.

The lectures are amusing for me to say the least. Seaman’s favorite book is not simply A Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire. It is An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire. Perhaps he should have opted for the full digest.

Seaman’s lectures are an absurdist exhortation before we sail off into the world of the streets and clubs of Santa Teresa, a world that does not make sense. And who are we going with? A black man with issues who cannot speak Spanish.

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

Speaking of humor:

In not very good English the girl answered that she liked to have fun. Life is short, she said, and then she was quiet, looking back and forth between Fate and Chucho Flores, as if reflecting on what she’d said.
“Rosita is a little bit of a philosopher, too,” said Charly Cruz.

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

All criticism is ultimately a nightmare, he thought as he washed his face in the apartment where his mother’s body no longer was.

Perhaps, but we need to try anyway.

A Fool’s First Installment on Fate

Surely, everyone has discerned by now that I am a fool for this novel.

I admit that as much as I admired the first two parts, I was a little lonely for some plot. I know. I know. That is like looking at a Willem de Kooning and asking, “But can he draw?” So you are going to have to take my word on this. I am a very sophisticated, artsy kind of guy. But even I was hungry for a more traditional story after the first two parts. Roberto Bolaño must have heard my mutterings ten years before I muttered them. This sort of thing can happen in his world, you know. I am sure that he said something like this:

Plot? You mean like opening, development, anti-climax, climax, and conclusion? You mean like story line? (He spat the words “story line.”) Yeah, I can give you that, Steve. I have settled enough scores with those other writers I detest–for the time being anyway. But I am going to give it to you on my own terms. This kind of thing bores me. I am going to have to amuse myself while I do this.

I love film noir. I am going to start with a voice-over speaking in retrospect as we pan in on a journalist at his desk in New York. But I need to add a degree of difficulty to something that I could otherwise do in my sleep. I need a challenge. I am going to make this journalist African-American. Let’s see if I can do black characters from the United States of America. I honestly don’t know myself whether I can.

I am going to give my main character a cheaply evocative name like John Shaft. He is not going to be a John Shaft though. Isaac Hayes is not going to be singing in the background. He is just going to be a black guy with a bad stomach.

Just for fun, I am going to adopt a totally different style of writing. I am going to channel Don Ernesto, giving you for the most part only the facts of what happens. I am not going to give you hints as to how you ought to feel. Let’s see if by doing that and only that, I can create some suspense. Maybe I can get some real emotion out of you as you read this. This is going to be poetry of an entirely different kind.

I have always admired Camus’ The Stranger. That opening with Mersault amid the aftermath of his mother’s death is good stuff. Mersault’s response to his own mother’s death is so flat. I am going to open this novel with my main character in the aftermath of his own neglected mother’s death. I think I can do it better than Camus did. . . .

And on he blathered. And I found it to be one helluva ride.

Bernardo O’Higgins

Before we leave The Part About Amalfitano, we ought at least to mention that fascinating book O’Higgins is Araucanian by Lonko Kilapán. Why I have taken this upon myself is as much a mystery to me as Amalfitano’s ruminations on the book are.

After the last appearance of the voice that we read of, Amalfitano begins to think about telepathy. That leads his thoughts to the Mapuches or Araucanians, the indigenous people whom the Spanish could never whip. For the 300 years before Chilean independence, the Mapuche lived in their own autonomous region abutting that portion controlled by Spain. His train of thought leads him to reexamine this book, which had been given to him at some time previously as a joke.

Amalfitano’s ruminations on the book are framed by and interrupted twice by descriptions of episodes involving Marco Antonio Guerra.

Somehow, Amalfitano concludes that Lonko Kilapán is half Indian. Perhaps there is something in that name that gives this away. This is a “vanity book,” the publication of which was financed by its author. Apparently, Amalfitano knows this because of his familiarity with the nature of the particular publisher’s business in Santiago.

The book has typographical errors. In one case Amalfitano infers a typographical error by assuming that an event described by the author actually occurred in 1974 rather than 1947 as written. (1974 happens to be the year that Augusto Pinochet became President of Chile.) The footnotes are strange, in one case simply repeating information that is given in the text itself and in another case asserting that Prometheus stole the gift of writing from the gods.

The author purports to establish through 17 “proofs” that the mother of Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the founding fathers of the nation of Chile, was an Araucanian. It is historically accepted that O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’Higgins, a Viceroy of Peru, which included the region of Chile, and María Isabel Riquelme, a criolla woman of Basque descent. Marriages between peninsulars, as Ambrosio was considered to be, and criollos, people born in the new world, were prohibited without permission from the Spanish crown. For reasons unknown Ambrosio never sought that permission and never married Isabel. (I have tried to save you some time nosing around in the encyclopedia.)

The Prologue noticeably refers to the famously illegitimate O’Higgins as “legitimate” for the reason that the text itself suggests that his father actually married the Araucanian mother in a traditional Araucanian ceremony that included an “abduction ceremony” causing Amalfitano to infer abuse and rape by old Ambrosio. Page 217.

At the heart of Amalfitano’s ruminations on this book, there occurs a weird but interesting passage at pages 224 to 225. This by the way is where Cortázar’s “active reader” is mentioned. It is here that Amalfitano thinks that the active reader could entertain the strange proposition that Kilapán was simply a nom de plume for one of any number of Chilean politicians of all political persuasions, not just neo-fascists,

which wouldn’t be so strange either, this being Chile, in fact the reverse would be stranger, in Chile military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone, behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men. . . .

I have taken to regarding all this as I do Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, freely conceding that it is witty to those who find it witty without my being able to appreciate the wit because I am not familiar enough with the personalities who are being mocked. It is clear to me, though, that Bolaño is unloading some bile here regarding the Chilean literary establishment and, when one reads on, Chilean society generally.

But back to the Araucanian mother of O’Higgins. The text leads inexorably to the conclusion that not only was Bernardo O’Higgins a telepath because his real mother was Araucanian, but also Lonko Kilapán is a telepath, all of this because Araucanians were telepaths who kept the Spanish at bay through the use of this power to gather intelligence and communicated via telepathy with other Araucanians in other parts of the world. Whew!

It seemed clear to me that when all was said and done, Amalfitano had concluded that he himself was probably a telepath. Page 225. Why does that seem clear to me? I have not the faintest idea. He was startled and his hair stood on end for five seconds after he considered the similarity between his own mother’s name and the name of the historically accepted mother of Bernardo O’Higgins–nothing at all to do with the alleged Araucanian mother.

I am not contending that this is the key to The Part About Amalfitano by any means. I am not sure there is any such key. But if I am wrong and if Amalfitano’s hair stood on end for some other reason, what was it?

And do these passages not remind you Borges people of Borges? Does anyone else smell a sly mockery of Borges here?

It’s All in the Details

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.

Page 187.

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.

Page 197.

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.

Page 202.

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.

Page 226.

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.

Amalfitano’s Fate

Daryl in focusing on what I call Amalfitano’s impotence comes as close as one can to an overview of the man at this point in his life. There is really no macro approach to this part. I believe that it will take more form in our minds as we read further into this novel and look back on it.

I have been exchanging thoughts with others about Marco Antonio Guerra and the voice over in the forums at Las obras de Roberto Bolaño . In that context I hope to discuss Lola’s telepathy, Amalfitano’s bizarre epiphany that he himself is probably telepathic because of the similarity between his mother’s name and the name of Bernardo O’Higgin’s telepathic mother, and all that weirdness. I will not take that up here.

In anticipation of leaving The Part About Amalfitano, I return repeatedly to this reverie:

He imagined himself locked up in an asylum in Santa Teresa or Hermosilla with Professor Pérez as his only occasional visitor, and every so often receiving letters from Rosa in Barcelona, where she would be working or finishing her studies, and where she would meet a Catalan boy, responsible and affectionate, who could fall in love with her and respect her and take care of her and be nice to her and with whom Rosa would end up living and going to the movies at night and traveling to Italy or Greece in July or August, and the scenario didn’t seem so bad. [Emphasis mine.]

p. 212.

Now does this not echo Lola and her poet in that other asylum nicely? Perhaps Amalfitano can learn to blow smoke rings during his commitment, which was the poet’s primary pastime.

I like the man so much that I would prefer that he not get into that Las Suicidas mezcal too seriously. When I consider all the alternatives, it appears to me that his impotence will prevent him from ever leaving Mexico himself. He simply cannot bring himself to take any action now on any front. Of those alternatives I have concluded that the asylum scenario does not seem so bad to me either. . .as long as Rosa does get out of Santa Teresa and back to Barcelona.