Bolano’s 2666, plus a comment from Ozick

24 09 2010

Innocent women are being murdered.  Many of the murders are gruesome, including horrible mutilations.  Although this has been going on for years, the police seem unable to track down the perpetrators.  The victim’s names (when they are known) are published in the press, and from time to time, a prominent personality or concerned social action group will bring up the subject and berate the authorities for not putting an end to it.  But still the killing goes on.  Since 1993, there have been over 1000 unsolved murders. 

The above paragraph is not the plot of a crime novel.  It is real*, and it is happening in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city of 1,500 000 that lies on the border with Texas.  What are you, as a reader of these lines, to do with this?  Well, probably nothing.  After all, chances are that you’re pretty far away from Ciudad Juarez.  Even if you live close by, say in Texas, this is obviously something for the Mexicans to deal with.  And even if you live in Mexico, you’re not about to take on the famous narcotics cartels who are suspected of having a hand in this.  And even if you yourself happen to go to Juarez, as a tourist for example, the last thing you would want to do is get involved.  After all, it’s hardly relevant to you or to your life.

This is the issue that Roberto Bolano sets up in his novel 2666.  It is, on the face of it, a confusing book; it presents us with numerous unrelated lives and stories, and then fails to provide the satisfying closure of a conventional novel.  Though mere fiction, it has the enigmatic, open-ended feel of lived life.  All that’s left for a reader to do is ponder the elements Bolano has glued together and wonder what he was thinking.

On the face of it, like parts of a toy that won’t fit together, the book’s five sections don’t seem to make anything.  In the first section, we get a long, chatty description of four European literary critics − their academic careers, their entanglements with one another, and their search for an elusive German writer, which takes them to the fictional city of Santa Teresa (an obvious stand-in for Juarez).  The second section is about a Mexican academic living in Santa Teresa and his daughter.  The third tells of an African-American journalist who goes to Santa Teresa to write about a boxing match.  The fourth gives a long (300 pgs), detailed description of the murdered women’s corpses as they’re discovered, and the circumstances surrounding their discovery.  And the fifth, suddenly, as if from another world, offers the biography of Hans Reiter, a German writer born in 1920, who lives all of his life in Europe.  This is a skeleton summary; the book has almost 900 pages filled with often superfluous detail that doesn’t seem to further what could be considered a plot.

So, what was Bolano thinking?   In my opinion, the key here is in the structure.  As a writer, I’m a big believer in juxtaposition.  Writers don’t randomly put unrelated things together in the same work.  Really they don’t.  Even if they say it’s random, it isn’t.   It’s no coincidence that Bolano, a Spanish language writer of Chilean decent, chose the works of a German born in 1920 as his four critics’ elusive literary idol.   He wanted a writer who was born just in time to experience the sweep of fascist ecstasy and live with its consequences.  He wanted that writer to struggle under the weight of his country’s crimes, to always be chasing after a bearable mode of existence.  And he wanted that writer to have to deal head on with the Holocaust.  Unlike many other fiction writers who write about Europe in the 20th century, Bolano devotes some thought to the Holocaust, or more specifically, to the notion that European Jews were targeted and killed by otherwise ordinary Europeans.  He wants his writer to have to deal with the problem of evil, not as an abstract question, but as something that jumps into in your face and demands your attention.

As a Chilean who lived through the Pinochet regime, Bolano was deeply troubled by the corruption and violence of South American society in general, and by the ongoing murders in Mexico in particular.  They fed into his more universal concern about what it means to create and enjoy art in the presence and aftermath of atrocity.  I think that in 2666, as in his other works, Bolano was thinking about evil and art and how the two can easily thrive right beside each other.

Bear with me.  I’m going to make a little jump.  In 1979 Cynthia Ozick published an essay entitled Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom, which appears in her collection, Art and Ardor.   The piece is mostly about the work of the critic Harold Bloom as read from the perspective of Jewish theology, but ultimately, it is a sober, dark, reckoning on the nature of artistic creation.   The essay is complex and fascinating; to summarize it would take another essay.   So I’m going to refer to a part of her argument which is relevant for the issues Bolano is dealing with in 2666.   

She writes:  Literature, one should have the courage to reflect, is an idol.  (You may agree or disagree, but to better understand Ozick’s argument, you need to read the whole essay).  In Ozick’s terms, this is not a trivial accusation.  She characterizes idols with these traits:

  • An idol is a system sufficient in itself.  It is indifferent to the world and to humanity…dead matter rules the quick.
  • Every idol is by nature an ideal.
  • Idols are inert; they cannot imagine, create or alter history.
  • The power of the idol, or rather, the powerful imaginations of its devotees, can root out human pity…every idol suppresses human pity.  The deeper the devotion to the idol, the more pitiless in tossing it its meal will be the devotee.

Often enough, Ozick writes, the answer an idol gives is a workable answer…but they are exceptionally poor at urging the moral life, because to understand the moral life, one must know how to pay attention to, and judge history- and at this idols are no good at all.

Which brings me to Bolano’s critics.   They seem like nice people.  There’s the Frenchman, Jean-Claude Pelletier.  There’s the Spaniard, Manuel Espinoza.  And an Italian, Piero Morini.  And the Englishwoman, Liz Norton.  They meet at a literary convention in Amsterdam, and discover that they all share a love for the work of the elusive German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, and have devoted their professional lives to researching his works.  Being serious people, three of them are willing to go all the way to Santa Teresa to track him down.   (Morini, the Italian, would join them but cannot because he is confined to a wheel chair).   Yes.  The same Santa Teresa where the women are being murdered.  But they aren’t too troubled by that.  For one thing, the murders have become so commonplace that it takes a while for them to even learn about them.  And for another, they are outsiders, each pursuing what catches his/her fancy.  What catches Espinosa’s fancy is a local girl who sells hand-made rugs in the market.  Pelletier spends his days by the hotel pool re-reading his Archimboldi books.  Norton soon leaves Mexico in a sort of disgust. 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Hans Reiter is Benno von Archimbaldi.   The same boy who grew up to become a German soldier is the writer whose work the four critics, well, idolize.   They are willing to travel across the world to find him− Because he’s dying, the critics explain when asked why they are searching for a writer who wants to remain unidentified, and it isn’t right that the greatest German writer of the twentieth century should die without being offered the chance to speak to the readers who know his novels best.   Though they are self professed humanitarians, they remain unmoved and unaffected by the fact that something horrendous is happening in that very place, (though the reader has to read on for several hundred pages to know just how horrendous).

The fact is, Bolano seems to be saying, is that we, all of us, are able to live very well alongside atrocity.  And art, the great dream of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Romantics and the Modernists, is a mask and an indulgence, as cold and pitiless as an idol; it may feed our aesthetic needs, but usually fails to evoke real outrage and meaningful action.  This, apparently, is Bolano’s vision of the human condition.   

It’s a dark vision, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as unreasonably pessimistic.   You could probably find a more balanced view of human nature.   You could, for example, turn to one of the great works of humanist literature.   Or you could call up the ghosts of the murdered women of Ciudad Juarez and ask their opinion.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_homicides_in_Ciudad_Ju%C3%A1rez

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