Roberto Bolaño, 2666 Part 1, Guest Post by Paul Kincaid

November 26th, 2012 § 0 comments

The Part About the Critics

 

According to his heirs, Roberto Bolaño left instructions that his final work, 2666, should be published as five separate novels, each corresponding to one of the sections of the book as it appears today. If that was genuinely his intention, he certainly did not give the five sections titles that might stand as the titles of novels.

Sceptical as I might be about this plan, it nevertheless seems reasonable to read this massive work in easy stages. I intend, therefore, to read each part of the book as though it stood upon its own, and to write about it as I do so. Furthermore, I will not start reading part two until I have finished writing about part one.

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And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600.

The Savage Detectives

The novel tells of a group of young people drawn together by a shared interest in literature, though a literature slightly at odds with the cultural norm. Their friendships are intense. Sexual relationships start up and fail, occasionally violence flares. Then the core group set out for the town of Santa Teresa in the Sonora desert close to the US border, on a quest to find a mysterious writer from an older generation who has come to occupy a touchstone role in their own self images.

It is curious that a writer so digressive as Bolaño, a writer who makes free with so many other stories from so many other sources (The Savage Detectives recounts, in detail and over several pages, a short story by Theodore Sturgeon), should adhere so closely to the same structure in his two most substantial works. Clearly the emptiness of Sonora, the desert where everything is open and minimal, has some symbolic significance for Bolaño. Where everything else is devoid of detail, it is here that the details of the story can come clear.

More than that, however, it feels as though The Savage Detectives and 2666 are not just variations on a theme, they are the same theme, they are the same novel. As if Bolaño believed the solution to something both literary and spiritual lay in Santa Teresa, and the two novels were both attempts to find out what it might be. I thought he had found it at the end of The Savage Detectives; whether Bolaño thought he had found it by the end of 2666 I have, of course, yet to discover.

I am not suggesting that 2666 is a rewrite of The Savage Detectives, but it occupies the same territory, and that this most fecund of writers seemed to find himself forced to return to the same narrow barrenness is far from being the least interesting thing about this pair of novels.

In many ways the two books are polar opposites, perhaps too artfully different for this to be entirely coincidental. Lima and Belano, the two ‘visceral realist’ poets at the heart of The Savage Detectives, are Latin American (one Mexican, one Chilean), bohemian in manner, iconoclastic in their response to Latin American literature yet still uncomfortably aware that they are situated at something of a tangent to world literature. They are, in a sense, outsiders, outlaw poets, living hand-to-mouth yet ready to sacrifice most things to the service of their art. On the other hand, Jean-Claude Pelletier is French, Manuel Espinoza is Spanish, Piero Morini is Italian, and Liz Norton is English, and their chosen focus, Benno von Archimboldi, is a German novelist; they are thus intimately involved in the cross-currents of European culture. They are all establishment figures, all are academics with growing reputations and good careers whose lives are financially comfortable and who seem to spend the majority of their time attending academic conferences in expensive hotels in most of the major cities of Europe. There is nothing outsider about these four. And while Lima and Belano are on a quest to discover an all-but-forgotten member of the previous generation of visceral realist poets; Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini and Norton have, through their work, turned the little-known and reclusive novelist Archimboldi into a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize.

And yet they occupy the same ecological niche. They are young, very widely read, passionate about literature, argumentative, and indulge themselves incontinently in both sex and drink. There is one scene in which Pelletier and Espinoza beat up a taxi driver in London, an outburst of unreasoning violence that doesn’t quite fit with how we have come to see the pair up to this point, though it does seem to fit with the semi-underworld environs of Mexico City through which Lima and Belano move. Yet there is always this sense of danger hovering around Bolaño; one of the peripheral figures in ‘The Part About the Critics’ is a painter who cuts off his hand and uses the severed hand as the centrepiece of his masterpiece. Violence accompanies art, madness and commitment are the same thing. A view of things that puts Lima and Belano closer to the truth, as Bolaño might see it, than the easy, slightly effete lifestyle of Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini and Norton. Which is, perhaps, why Pelletier, Espinoza and Norton have to be wrenched out of their comfort zone and sent into the Mexican desert, following up a reported sighting of the invisible Archimboldi; because the desert strips away civilisation, and exposes the rawness underneath. (Morini, who is confined to a wheelchair, takes no part in this expedition; but then, he has always been slightly detached from the other three, a knowing, slightly cynical chorus.)

As we start the novel, these four are attractive characters. How could they not be? We are introduced to them through their individual discoveries of the work of Archimboldi, their determination to make his novels better known, more critically accepted; they are bookish people in love with books, just as we readers are likely to see ourselves. But gradually they begin to lose our sympathy, we see them doing down academic rivals, leading factions at conferences. Pelletier and Espinoza both enter into a sexual relationship with Norton. There are petty jealousies and rivalries, friendships are forgotten and then awkwardly re-established. They are far from being antiheroes, but them they are far from being heroic either. Then comes the attack upon the taxi driver, which shocks them because of the rawness of the emotion it reveals.

But when three of them decide, on an impulse they but dimly understand, to go to Mexico, the veneer of civilisation is still in place. At first in Mexico City, then, later, in Santa Teresa, they find that veneer being insistently peeled back. They are first bored then mystified by Mexico, and when they reach the desert they are rendered almost autistic. They are slightly contemptuous of the local academic, Amalfitano, who serves as their guide in Santa Teresa. They see him (he sees himself) as inferior to a European academic, washed up into a backwater. He is almost laughable (he keeps a book pegged out on a washing line), yet there is a sadness and a mystery to the man that the Europeans cannot penetrate. (I have a feeling that Amalfitano might fit into a similar niche to Amadeo Salvatierra in The Savage Detectives, the mescal-addicted former poet who first puts our heroes on the trail of Cesárea Tinajero; though I am unlikely to be able to confirm that sense until I get to the second part of the novel, ‘The Part About Amalfitano’.) It is the failure to penetrate Amalfitano, the failure even to recognise that there might be something to penetrate, that is the key to the failure of the Europeans. With Archimbaldi remaining resolutely out of reach, they find themselves lost under the pitiless glare of the desert; what served to hold them together, to give them meaning and purpose in Europe, no longer pertains. Before long, Norton has left them, going back to Morini. Espinoza finds himself mooning after a girl who sells rugs in the market; while Pelletier, who opens the novel discovering Archimboldi, closes this part sitting in a hotel endlessly, emptily reading and re-reading the same three Archimboldi novels.

Nothing has happened, and everything has happened. We hear rumours that women in Santa Teresa are being killed, but we see none of this. It is a hint of the wildness of the place, but at this stage it might as well be in the imagination of the European visitors, the shock of coming to this savage place from Europe. Yet, though they are so clearly unsuited to the desert, neither Pelletier nor Espinoza are able to leave, they make plans but do not put them into practice. This part of the novel ends in inertia.

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