Something about the fifth and final section of 2666 reminded me of a Virginia Woolf novel – especially the beginning, with its description of the childhood of Hans Reiter. This ‘strand of seaweed‘ would someday become Benno von Archimboldi, the famously reclusive author, but for awhile he’s just a boy who would rather drown than come up for air, who goes for walks to the Village of Chattering Girls, whose speech is ‘confoundedly garbled‘, who draws pictures of his little sister as a mermaid.
As he gets older and grows taller (‘ “And who is that?” asked the former pilot. “My son,” said the the one-legged man. “He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed.’ p. 652) Hans has trouble in school and can’t hold down a job. He goes to Berlin and gets a taste of the arts through his friendship with a Baron’s nephew, but before long he is drafted into the Wehrmacht. He spends his bit of WWII on the very edges of the action, and while holed up in a ruined town he discovers the journal of a Jewish man who was a Soviet soldier and something of a revolutionary. These writings effect him profoundly. After a stint as a POW in an American camp, Hans goes to Cologne where he rediscovers a girl he met during the war. He and Ingeborg begin a life together and he writes his first book. Archimboldi is the name he takes as his own when this book is published.
There is more time and more adventures crammed into The Part About Archimboldi than any other section of the book, and in some ways it answers many of your questions. Threads from The Part About the Critics are picked up again, you re-encounter certain characters, even find out how Klaus Haas – the possible serial-killer locked up in a Santa Teresa prison – is connected. I found it to be a very satisfying reading experience, and conclusion to 2666 as a whole – just as much for the little puzzles that it solved as for the new questions it raised.
One thing that struck me was the reoccurring blind women. Hans’/Archimboldi’s mother is blind in one eye (p.637). Our Lady of Guadalupe has one eye scratched out in a mural that Fate sees (I lost the page number for this reference…?) This link is particularly striking. Then there’s the poor blind woman from the Balzac quote (p. 843) and the book that Archimboldi writes ‘about a blind woman who didn’t know she was blind‘ (p. 847). Considering the rampant violence against women detailed in The Part About the Crimes, this blindness of women is odd but interesting – blindness as a theme in the book overall makes sense.
Then what is this about semblance? Back in The Part About Fate, the fellow Seaman said ‘ “Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” ‘ p. 254
While living in Ansky’s (the Jewish Soviet soldier’s) farmhouse, Hans/Archimboldi begins to think about semblance. He feels bizarrely free and strong, despite the hardships of his current life, but what if it is nothing but semblance? ‘Semblance was an occupying force of reality, he said to himself, even the most extreme, borderline reality. It lived in people’s souls and their actions, in willpower and in pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered.‘ p. 741
Love is semblance, although not his love for his little sister. ‘Youth is the semblance of strength, love is the semblance of peace.‘ The wanderings of the writer Ansky aren’t semblance.
What does semblance have to do with Santa Teresa? Probably everything.
Finally, The Part About Archimbaldi has a great deal to do with writing and the development of a specific writer, which ties into the greater discussion about literature that peppers a lot of Bolaño’s work. The old man who loans Archimboldi a typewriter talks about writing at length, and I particularly noted this bit:
‘You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work.‘ p. 786
Ha! Reading further on, where frankly the old man rather confuses me, with his ramblings about the secret authors who write minor works but are not minor authors, and accept only ‘the dictates of a masterpiece‘…writers who are empty inside, who write like someone taking dictation – writers whose wives see them writing, but – ‘what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance.‘ There it is again…!
‘ “His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter! – Excuse the metaphors.” ‘ p. 786 (Metaphors helping us to lose ourselves in semblances?)
There is a connection between the concealment of masterpieces and the blind women and Santa Teresa… Bah. This whole passage begs to be read again and studied at length – as does the whole book really – but that’s a task for another night.
For the moment, I’ll end this haphazard episode in my 2666 adventures with another delightful note on reading – something that Bolaño writes about over and over again with much more clarity than he ever does about the task of writing…although it is plucked from the middle of that old man’s crazy speech:
‘ “Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions.” ‘ p. 786
That’s what you can expect to get from reading Bolaño, whether you believe his books to be masterpieces or minor works – pleasure and happiness and sadness and knowledge and questions and the reminder that you’re alive…and none of those things are semblances!
Read as part of Richard’s 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong