2666: Part 2 – The Part about Amalfitano

“… 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.

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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:

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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.

Works Cited

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.

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Gran Calavera Eléctrica by José Guadalupe Posada

 

2666: Part 1 – The Part about the Critics

The very first sentence, first paragraph, first few pages, establishes a clear milieu of European erudition.  Roberto Bolaño starts 2666 with an appeal to the guardians of the Western canon.  These critics, the critics that jet around the globe hopping from one guest lecture or academic seminar to another, the professors of World Literature that reside in ivory towers, these authors and devoted readers must be won over ultimately.

German, French, English, Belgian, Polish, Prussian, Italian, Latin, Christian, all are assembled and addressed like a hearty salad full of raw fruits and vegetables.  Bolaño projects himself as the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, a man of the 20th century methodically securing his position in the canon and surrealistically similar to the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

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The critics appreciate the mystery of this author, his allure stretches back to antiquity; but, one cannot fully grasp the true intention of this artist.  The form is apparent.  Still, there exists a “biographical lacuna” that lurks like a black hole deep in outer space.  Readers are forewarned about the incompleteness of the story, indeed the missing content, the deeper meaning evades those that look closely.

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An apt analogy can be seen in The Enigma of Amigara Fault.  Voyeurs are infatuated by the holes that seemingly resemble a perfect fit for themselves, almost as if looking into a mirror.  Moreover, the view from the other side is frightening, particularly the longer we leer into the void.

Is this just a joke on still life paintings?  Or is this part about the critics an elaborate political cartoon, satirizing the global politics of the 1900s?  Either way, Bolaño leaves room for the freelance hacks and bloggers to chop it up and blend the metaphorical cornucopia of produce into a pulpy juice.

“… the glory he coveted was that of the writer, not the translator.”  (Page 6)

Multilingual translations add a layer of ambiguity to World Literature and are required of an author’s work to find a place in our contemporary canon.  Commercial and critical success compound when applied to multiple markets.  Who else but these overly-educated critics can even begin to translate the works of such reclusive authors?

Although 2666 stands as a date in the future, it fails to capture the technology of the future.  The same technology that enables amateur author’s to translate and publish in unprecedented ways, fails to affect the narrative in any noticeable way.  Would an Archimboldi of the 21st century really require an esoteric fan club of dedicated critics?

Roberto Bolaño takes the path commonly attributed to many Modernist authors.  He travels abroad, witnessing major political strife, dabbling in the third world, all to nestle into a death bed cocoon.  The resulting posthumous publication metamorphose the man into an ephemeral legend or myth.  Readers may glimpse a bit of compulsion.

“The word solution was said twelve times.  The word solipsism seven times.  The word euphemism ten times.”  (Page 41)

The theme of the misunderstood artist that enjoys the process way more than the results surfaces through the subplot of Edwin Johns.  Bolaño adds more layers of obfuscation by critiquing the critics.  He dares to bite the hand that feeds him.  Marcel Duchamp serves as the Dadaist poster boy for this paradoxical point.

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Stacey D’Erasmo deftly summarizes the Bolaño-Duchamp connection in a New York Times review:

“Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings. Is it courageous to read Plato during a military coup or is it something else?”

Morini, Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton would probably say “yes” to the above question.  Even though, the high priests of critical literature are late to the party, to cut off their nose to spite their face.   Bolaño writes for himself foremost; the publications are for his posterity, an investment and an inheritance for his estate.

“Because he believed in investments, the flow of capital, one has to play the game to win, that kind of thing.”  (Page 97)

Back on the streets, outside the bedrooms of the bourgeoisie, paces and pulses the next generation of young readers and writers.  Spitting truth nonchalantly, they see a story for what it is.  The author is omnipresent; he exists as an idea seized in the minds and hearts of his followers wherever they may be.

“The Internet bookstores worked.  Culture, despite the disappearances and guilt, was still alive, in a permanent state of transformation…”  (Page 136)

Animated Hive

Japanese animation warped your novice sense of imagination.  Fist of the North Star exploded with ultra-violence; Akira accelerated the transitions.  Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ninja Scroll colored the canvas.  You crafted a notebook in which you tried to capture epic stories of sacred patriarchy and mythical assassins.  The seraphim’s wing spanned from the divine to grotesque reincarnations of fear.  Swarms of innumerable characters fought for your attention.