Richard (host of The 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong, and the group read of Bolaño’s 2666, which has occupied me for the past two months) more-or-less promised me that I would enjoy the fourth section of this book – The Part About the Crimes – at least from a writing perspective, despite my quakings regarding the content. He was right.
In the first three sections Bolaño gradually tightens his narrative focus. The four critics, having arrived in Santa Teresa, Mexico, in obsessive pursuit of the mysterious German author Archimboldi, read about “the murdered women” in the paper over their breakfast orange juice. Amalfitano, the slightly mad philosophy professor, worries that his own daughter will end up as a victim. The reporter, Fate, actually meets a prisoner who is a murder suspect in the case – a giant, a German-born US Citizen, who of course you immediately think might be Archimboldi, or at the very least linked to him.
It’s time to solve the mysteries, after all, surely? Who is killing hundreds of women in Santa Teresa? And what does Archimboldi have to do with it all? Bolaño turns a microscopic gaze on the series of murders which span a decade, coldly laying out the stories on his literary slab – girl after woman after girl, killed by jealous lovers, during drug deals, kidnapped on their way home from work… It’s a brutal chronology, and you quickly figure out that there’s no super-villain to pin it all on, no not even Klaus Haas, the creepy but compelling German giant. As in the real-life scenario of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican-U.S. border city where hundreds of women were killed in the 90s, there are no cut and paste answers.
This part of the book is almost more frustrating than it is disturbing. Both the reader, and the few living characters amid the parade of bodies – some detectives and cops, a few reporters, a seer, the director of an asylum – feel helpless, feel like they’re drowning, or suffocating. Everything is fucked here. In an atmosphere of misogyny, normalized violence, sexism, and an increasing lack of empathy, is anyone surprised that ‘We become blind (or at least partly blind) out of habit…‘?
Richard prompted a very interesting discussion about the real-life Juárez murders with his notes on La dimensión desconocida by Sergio González Rodríguez, a book about the crimes written by a reporter whom Bolaño closely mirrored in his novel. In the comments, Richard pointed out that Bolaño, through a work of fiction, was adding to the testimony regarding the Juárez murders – which have been repeatedly silenced and shelved by authorities. Taken as that, this section of 2666 is pretty incredible, while still being frustrating and horrible.
I keep thinking about a conversation between a Mexican cop and a sheriff from Huntsville, AZ – ‘Things aren’t the way they seem, whispered Ramirez. Do you think things are the way they seem, as simple as that, no complicating factors, no questions asked? No, said Harry Magaña, it’s always important to ask questions. Correct, said the Tijuana cop. It’s always important to ask questions, and it’s important to ask yourself why you ask the questions you ask. And do you know why? Because just one slip and our questions take us places we don’t want to go. Do you see what I’m getting at, Harry? Our questions are, by definition, suspect. But we have to ask them. And that’s the most fucked-up thing of all. That’s life, said Harry Magaña.‘
Asking those questions is kind of the opposite of becoming blind out of habit, but provokingly, that bit about becoming blind was said by the same character just a few lines before…
Even in this serious and heartbreaking section Bolaño has time to mess around, so as Richard predicted, I did enjoy it overall. There’s the Perec-like list of phobias (p.381-382), the continuing mystery of Archimboldi, and bizarre details like the mirrors in the hotel room – as related by ‘the congresswoman': ‘I paced the room. I noticed that there were two mirrors. One at one end and the other by the door, and they didn’t reflect each other. But if you stood in a certain place, you could see one mirror in the other. What you couldn’t see was me. Strange, I said to myself, and for a while, as sleep began to overtake me, I made calculations and experimented with positions. That was where I was when five o’clock struck. The more I studied the mirrors, the more uneasy I felt.‘ (p. 621)
And I loved the little sub-story of Florita Almada, a seer and a woman who could do anything she set her mind to, because after all, ‘When you know something, you know it, and when you don’t, you’d better learn.‘ (p. 429)
The detective Juan de Dios Martinez muses that ‘the world is a strange and fascinating place,‘ and Florita Almada declares ‘Every hundred feet the world changes… The idea that some places are the same as others is a lie. The world is a kind of tremor.‘
The last crime that Bolaño reports happens right before Christmas in 1997, and the investigation is given up after three days. The fourth section ends on a haunting, yet oddly hopeful note:
‘The Christmas holidays in Santa Teresa were celebrated in the usual fashion. There were posadas, piñatas were smashed, tequila and beer were drunk. Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.’ p. 633
I’ll save my thoughts on the fifth and final part for another post. I wrote about parts 1-3 here.