Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reading 2666 by Robert Bolaño – Week 4

For this coming week we were to read all of Part 2 – The Part About Amalfitano. And at last I felt that I understood this novel. At least, I think I understand this novel. I hope I understand this novel.

About 20 pages into the reading, for the first time the fact that Robert Bolaño was born in Chile and spent a great part of his life in Spain became important to me. It wasn’t that I had forgotten that, but it hadn’t seemed important to me before. I think the inter-European aspect of the novel (four main characters from four parts of Europe) blurred that fact for me and I think the fact that the main character that was Spanish wasn’t a character I found that interesting also blurred that fact.

When I began this novel, The Part About the Critics, I found myself immersed in a novel that seemed to be centered around chronology. We learned the entire timeline (with dates) of every conference every academic critic attended over a very long period. I think that was why I was so focused on Bolaño’s “and then … and then …. and then …” style. Other people reading this novel wrote about his florid language and the dreams he wrote about and the long stories that certain peripheral characters would tell that seemed more like fables than real stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t notice all of that but none of it sunk in. I kept looking for “the point” of the novel. Then I thought, well … maybe there isn’t an obvious point.

“The Part About Amalfitano” was different for me. Perhaps it was because I already liked Amalfitano, who we met in the Part About the Critics. I was predisposed to be interested in his story. I was predisposed, since I liked the way he discussed the “real” world and thought he seemed more in touch with reality than the academic critics, to think that what happened to him would be important.

What I discovered was that the very real Amalfitano, who does think very real thoughts, has found himself living in a harsh, hot, cruel world in which strange unexplainable things are happening to him. Perhaps he is insane. Or perhaps there is more to this world than we think.

While reading this section I was suddenly reminded of other novels I have read by central/south American writers, Spanish writers and even southwestern American writers. Admittedly I don’t read a lot of translated literature, including literature translated from Spanish. I don’t even read a lot of southwestern American or Texan writers. So I’m no authority. But the one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of this writing is that reality is not the point. There is a certain mystical aspect to the stories, and things happen that aren’t explainable but must simply be accepted. Is it magic? Are they miracles? And often these tales are set in a world that is hard for its characters. The magic /miracles help them deal with the not-so-good lives they are living.

A couple of years ago I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (which I loved) which was set during the Spanish Civil War but contained a story about a magical Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I loved Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which contained a character caught in a real life bad situation who remedied it through magical cooking. Isabel Allende combines magic with realistic settings. I have no idea what background John Nichols comes from but his The Milagro Beanfield War set in New Mexico also has magic. Even Barbara Kingsolver, who is from Kentucky, included a certain mystical element in her novel The Bean Trees (which I read last year) that took place in Southern Arizona.


In the last couple of pages of The Part About Amalfitano, Amalfitano has a dream in which he meets the last Communist philosopher of the 20th century. Then he suddenly realizes it is Boris Yeltsin (and Amalfitano, even in his dream, thinks he must be crazy). Yeltsin says to him:

listen carefully to what I have to say, comrade. I’m going to explain what the third leg of the human table is. I’m going to tell you. And then leave me alone. Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, that’s what it all boils down to, but that’s no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it’s also sex and Dionysian mists and play.

And this, perhaps, explains what has been happening to Amalfitano. Ever since he arrived in Mexico, strange things have been happening to him. He even begins to have a voice that talks to him – the voice of his dead grandfather? the voice of his dead father? the voice of a dead ancestor? But the voice does exist in the here and now and comment upon it.

It is almost as if the end of the Part About the Critics was meant to prepare us for that. These supposedly hyper-rational academics spend a number of weeks in the north of Mexico in a world that is foreign to them, where it is warmer and sunnier and the world moves more slowly. It is a place where horrible murders might happen but where magic might also happen (I think about the young girl at the market that Espinoza was fascinated about – she sold carpets and I think of magic carpets). Magic of course isn’t always a good thing.

Then Bolaño moves into The Part About Amalfitano. We learn Amalfitano has a daughter named Rosa (she is now apparently a teenager?). We go back in time to Spain to meet Rosa’s mother who is, what you might say, “off” and who stalks a poet who lives in an insane asylum. I thought, aha - first we have a painter in an insane asylum and then we have a poet in an insane asylum. The painter ends up bringing Norton and Morini together. The poet divides Amalfitano and his wife. Those in insane asylums are living in worlds that are not real. Worlds caught between the reality we all see and some other world that only they see.

Amalfitano, however, seems grounded in our reality. Then he moves to Mexico to teach at the University (at the invitation of a woman faculty member who seems to be attracted to him but whom he does not seem to notice much) where strange things happen to him. He opens a box of books he brought with him to Mexico and finds a geometry book that he cannot remember ever buying. It bothers him. Why is the book in the box? Why can he not remember it?

He becomes a little obsessed with the book. Rosa says it isn’t hers. Finally he remembers a story about Duchamp in which Duchamp gave a young married couple a geometry book for a wedding gift with instructions to hang it outside on strings. The couple went along with it. Duchamp later said he liked the idea of disparaging “the seriousness of a book full of principles”.

So Amalfitano hangs the book out on the clothesline to let the wind and the weather work their will on it. In The Part About the Critics, Pelletier and Espinoza visit him and notice the book and can’t figure out why it is there. But it had been hanging there a long time.

Then, there is the voice that talks to Amalfitano. The voice tells Amalfitano that “everything lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the voice, but cheer up, its fun in the end.” The voice also told him he’d have to be careful because “things here seem to be coming to a head.”

Amalfitano is worried about the murders (he really doesn’t like Santa Teresa much) and worried about his daughter. But nothing happens to her in this part. He becomes acquaintances with the son of the Dean of the University, who is an odd character. He and Rosa take a day trip with Professor Perez (who seems attracted to him) and her son. It is nice. But nothing comes of it. There is a deep sense of waiting in this part.

This part ends before the three academic critics meet Amalfitano and there is not, that I can recall, any mention of Archimboldi. Back in the Part About the Critics the academics do not, if I recall, know he has a daughter. She is nowhere to be seen. They see Amalfitano with the Dean’s son and assume he is gay (he’s not). But as I said before, the academic critics always seemed to be wrong about everything. In that part Amalfitano seemed very sad. In this part he just seems concerned.

I liked Amalfitano. He’s too good for Santa Teresa.

Towards the end of this part, Amalfitano recalls a discussion he had back in Spain with a young man about books he enjoyed.

He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Boulevard and Pecuchet, 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.

I like the character of Amalfitano because although is afraid of things he should be afraid of, he is not afraid of thinking about big things. Unlike the great academic critics in the first section who thought only about themselves.