“… there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard et Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” (Page 227)
This is the rationale for tackling 2666: literature’s toughest works seem boundless and paradoxically all-consuming. Part 2 of this mega-novel stars a philosophy professor named Amalfitano that retreats into a performance art/thought experiment when confronted with the disintegration of his family. As his loved ones fall like rose petals from a decaying plant, Amalfitano concerns himself with a Geometry textbook by Rafael Dieste, a rare and mysterious book that he suspends on a clothesline in his back yard. The book is utterly cryptic while also touting clear mathematical truths, and it delights Amalfitano to no end that it is vulnerable to the elements and time, that even the purest truths will wither into dust, adding to the desert sands.
Bolaño’s misanthropic, apocalyptic view pays homage to his roots, his academic roots, his time spent in Mexico, his roots as a father and family man caring and worrying about his child, his roots as an underground or underrated author. Moreover, he shows readers that there are stories we will never hear, and there are authors of greatness hidden behind time and language. All this occurs while nonchalantly parodying a Shakespearean plot. Amalfitano plays the role of Hamlet.
Roberto Bolaño baits critics in Part 1 and deconstructs criticism, and if that’s not enough he proceeds to challenge critics in Part 2 with profound philosophical problems. He calls to order tales from the Araucanian or Mapuches, indigenous tribes of South America that melt history and language. Even Rafael Dieste is hard to comprehend, forcing the thorough critic to translate texts and commit to deeper immersion. The Galician poet, Dieste is comparable to M.C. Escher, yet less translated. Never-mind Amalfitano, all this goes down smoothly with a heavy glass of mezcal, watching the Sun set.
“Just pretend the book doesn’t exist.” (Page 191)
In true Bolaño fashion, consider another underdog Hispanic author: Virgil Suarez. I was fortunate enough to be a student in a few of his classes on fiction technique. Speaking of which, the following are some excerpts from a research paper dated April 7, 2004:
Irrigation, Irritation: We’ll All Be Dammed!
Fittingly named, Crescencio serves as the striking crescendo in Sheila Ortiz-Taylor’s Coachella. … I could not help but wonder if there was a real Old Guerrero. … Could a town be flooded and people be forced to evacuate?
Upon beginning my research, I remembered news stories about a massive dam in China, the world’s “largest dam construction project” to be precise. “Numerous Chinese towns and farms have been reportedly flooded for this project (Cheng).” The Three Gorges Dam is just one insight into this phenomenon of damming.
The BBC did a special report on dams that touched on among other things the history and global entirety of damming (Sutherland). Something like close to all the rivers in the world are nearly dammed. … As for Crescencio, the water crisis in the southwest U.S. and talk of the Colorado River was not that unfamiliar.
Apparently in treaties made between Mexico and the U.S., water issues were an explicit factor. U.S. officials say that under a 1944 treaty, Mexico owes Texas farmers 1.5 million acre/feet of water. Each acre/foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons (1.24 million liters). The treaty gives Mexico a larger quantity of water — but via the Colorado River far to the west (Watson).
Mexico is now struggling to uphold their side of the treaty due to irrigation problems. Mexican farmers cannot afford the intricate sprinkler systems that efficiently use water, forcing them to usually flood fields and in many eyes waste water (Watson). … What good is land if it is barren and dry?
… Guerrero Viejo by Elena Poniatowska, wrote a book specifically about this town. It was a real town and still exists. … Old Guerrero is still alive! Not only had this town existed, but the greatest news of all was that this town partly survived the flooding and recently reemerged; it now serves as a tourist attraction.
Flooded in 1953 under a government program, Guerrero Viejo was completely drowned and its residents forced to flee to New Guerrero. Located in northern Mexico, “Guerrero was founded in 1750 in the frontier state of Tamaulipas (Poniatowska).” It was known for being a congenial, colonial town, but unfortunately met its demise—or at least for Crescencio, and many others who did not return. It wasn’t long before the flooded area dried-up due to water consumption and the incredible thirst of the arid climate it resides in.
Now people travel to Guerrero Viejo to witness the miracle that is this baptized mirage. The pictures in Poniatowska’s text, eloquently captured by Richard Payne, reveal a crumbled ghost town stained by receding watermarks. All that stands of substance are some old walls and the spectacular church, Our Lady of Refuge.
… Farmers here say they are hurting too. The area’s reservoirs are at less than 25 percent capacity. “The water levels have dropped so low that cars and bodies started appearing,” agricultural engineer Humberto Estrada said. “They found the body of a mayor who was missing. All kinds of things at the bottom of the dam have started appearing over the past few years (Watson).” … Ultimately, the story of these people will surface along with the many other drowned ghost-town stories thought to be forgotten but later recalled by greed and thirst.
Cheng, Tony. “China’s Ghost Town Vanishes.” The BBC’s East Asia Today. 5 Sept. 2003.
Poniatowska, Elena. Guerrero Viejo. The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Sutherland, Ben. “Dams Stir Water Arguments.” BBC News Online. 17 Mar. 2003.
Watson, Julie. “U.S. and Mexico in standoff over water.” Associated Press. 3 May 2002.