The Part About Amalfitano

March 26th, 2013 § 0 comments

I have been putting off writing this for one very simple reason: I haven’t the faintest idea what to say about it. Or rather, I have lots of vaguely inchoate ideas, but no sense of whether they might be made to cohere, or whether they in any way touch upon the mystery that is this part of the novel.

Was Bolaño serious in thinking that the various parts of 2666 might stand alone as novels? Could we imagine ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ being read without any reference to what has gone before, what might come later? This is, by some way, the shortest of the five sections that make up 2666, and it reads like an afterthought to the first part, ‘The Part About the Critics’. There are no beginnings in this section, and no endings, it is all middle; we don’t know how we got here, and nothing is resolved. Real life is like that, but fiction isn’t. One of the points of fiction is that it provides a sense, an illusion, of shape to something that we know to be shapeless. So when we encounter a fiction that offers no such shape, we are left floundering.

It is easy to read ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ as a pendant to the first section, but on its own it never gets going, never concludes.

So let’s begin by looking at how it echoes the first part. The most obvious way is that the section recounts a movement from the sophistication of Europe to the barrenness of the Sonoran desert. As the part opens, Amalfitano has been in Santa Teresa for just one week, but almost immediately we flash back to Barcelona where Amalfitano teaches at the university. His wife leaves him, we follow her for a while, then she dies, and the next thing we know Amalfitano and his daughter Rose have moved to Santa Teresa. We don’t really know why he has chosen to move to Santa Teresa; we may presume it is something to do with the loss of his wife, but we don’t know. Certainly he seems to be no higher up the academic pecking order, and has come down several notches in terms of the ranking of the university where he now teaches. We can only conclude that, like so many of Bolaño’s characters, he is seeking the emptiness of the desert.

But this primary movement from Europe to Mexico is not quite so simple as it is in the first part. There a trio of Europeans was drawn to Mexico, but Amalfitano is not European, he is Chilean (like Bolaño). Are we then meant to see him as some sort of avatar for the author? Somehow, I doubt it; but I think we are meant to see that whatever impulse draws Amalfitano to Sonora is not the same as the impulse that has drawn the three critics there. Though what that impulse might be remains mysterious. This section of the novel opens:

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be. (163)

And that is as eloquent as he remains. We never do find out what he is doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano never finds out. What seems to be set up as the intellectual and emotional propulsion for this section fizzles out. By the end, the question hasn’t been answered it is just no longer being asked. And that is pretty much true of everything else we encounter in this section. I said, of the first part, that it was ‘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’. But I think one of the things this section shows us is that there is nothing to penetrate. Amalfitano is revealed to be a hollow man, lost in his own life. The point is that there is no reason why he is in Santa Teresa.

When his wife leaves him, it is not because of any failing on either part. It is because there is no reason for her to stay, his hollowness provides nothing for her to latch on to. When she leaves, our viewpoint follows her; it is as though, despite the fact that this section is supposedly about him, there is nothing in him even for our attention to latch on to.

Her odyssey contains another echo of the first part when she travels to see a poet in an insane asylum, which replicates the visit by the critics to see the painter who cut off his own hand. In both cases, the visit is fruitless, the artist is so far detached from societal norms that they have no sensible message to give. What we are meant to gather from this repeated motif is not clear. True art is madness? Hardly, given how many artists crowd the pages of Bolaño’s fictions. Perhaps we are meant to notice the failure of communication, a psychological reflection of the failure to communicate with the ever-absent Archimboldi? All we can really say is that the critics, the wife, make a pilgrimage to see someone who has been locked away, and then retreat in confusion having learned nothing. Maybe there is nothing to learn.

Amalfitano’s wife travels restlessly, as Bolaño’s characters are wont to do, does some charitable work, eventually revisits her husband and daughter, but still there is no substance, no gravity, to draw her back into his orbit, and she dies away from the family home. Only then, with the liveliest and most interesting character in this section of the novel dead, can the focus of the story return to Amalfitano.

And we switch instantly to Santa Teresa, where we encounter a third link to the opening section. In that part there was a surreal moment when the three critics found a book pegged out on Amalfitano’s washing line. Here we find out a little more. Unpacking his books from Europe Amalfitano comes across a geometry text that neither he nor Rose can remember ever having seen before. He attempts to read the book, but gets nothing from it. He has no idea why it should have been among his books, or how it got packed and sent on to him. So he pegs it out on the line, where it remains for the rest of the section. In other words, we find out how that book got to be pegged out on the line, but we don’t find out why. Which is, I feel, typical of this whole section. Why did Amalfitano come to Santa Teresa? Why is the book pegged on the line? Why did Bolaño write this section? But this is not a text that answers questions, because an answer would be a resolution, and this is not a text that attains, or even aspires to resolution.

If we find echoes, fading resonances from the first part, they are precise or developed. In the end, the intersections with part one feel more accidental than developmental. The two main features of part one, the elusive Archimboldi and the company of critics, do not appear, their shadow does not even touch these pages. Instead we see that Amalfitano does not even notice that a female colleague is interested in him, we see that Amalfitano does not really understand why he feels discomfited by the (presumably homoerotic) interest of the son of another colleague. But these putative relationships seem to be always there in the background before we even meet his colleagues, and we do not know if or how they might develop because the section ends before either have a chance to take shape. No beginnings, no resolutions, only middles. And Amalfitano is the hollow man who seems unaware that he is the centre of his own world, or even to have any awareness that there is a world around him. We want to learn what is going on, but we do not learn.

And in the background, the whispers of dead girls that we barely heard in the first section becomes a little more insistent, a little more noticeable. Yet it still doesn’t impinge; Amalfitano seems unconcerned for the safety of his own daughter. ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ is an entr’acte, but coming between what and what? And what echoes from this part will sound in the next section?

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