In a word, and bluntly: as they walked around Sankt Pauli, it came to Pelletier and Espinoza that the search for Archimboldi could never fill their lives. They could read him, they could study him, they could pick him apart, but they couldn’t laugh or be sad with him, partly because Archimboldi was always far away, partly because the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.

I The Part About the Critics

Well, here we are! The real beginning of the first Mookse and Gripes read-along! I hope some of you will join in as we’d love to know how you experienced the first part of 2666, The Part about the Critics. As this is the first post like this we’ve ever done, please let us know how we can improve the experience. This time, rather than write all of our thoughts in the body post, we’re just writing some of our initial thoughts. At the end, there are a series of questions we hope to address somewhat in the comments below, where we hope to really dig deeply!

Remember, we post on “Part 2: The Part about Amalfitano” on October 3 — it’s short section!

Lee:

The Part about the Critics comprises a deceptively funny, often caperish prelude that slowly unravels and sets the scene for the horrors that will fully emerge and dominate 2666. Part 1’s 159 pages are underpinned by a not immediately apparent but growing and terrible sense of foreboding that will eventually erode all else.

It’s, let’s make it clear, a petty, pompous, squabbling, spasmodic, venal world right from the off. We have four main characters who will form a brief and fiercely loyal hub of literary partisanship whose union slowly cracks, and into the fissures floods the misery and darkness that will herald the eventual carnage that the rest of the book orbits and is slowly pulled towards.

That sounds terribly straightforward: as brief introduction it will hopefully offer a useful means of placing this part in overall context. It’s only during this re-read that I got the sense that Bolaño was, as I saw it, accepting his own doom as slowly manifesting itself in a text that swiftly plummets into the void. We cannot take the book, or Part 1, out of biographical context, as Bolaño’s condition and ultimate inevitable fate hanging over the text infects it, pervades it with the terrible sadness that death is ultimately imposes. But more than that: he universalizes his own fate and laments a world he is deeply ambivalent about, at best. He confronts annihilation as a fictional subject. The results were unlikely to be comforting.

But: the magnificence of it, and 2666, is how Bolaño uses such a setup and such a building corrosion of his world to imbue everything that’s worth saving with the kind of effulgence that can only be fathomed out of the lowest despondency. It’s an act of literary magic and supreme generosity: he trawls the depths of the world and salvages enough to leave something luminous behind.

We know from other Bolaño works that certain situations and characters have a habit of reappearing or become reworked, reemphasized. His oeuvre is filled with writers, normally poets, doomed, despairing but defiant, maverick bibliophiles, those using books as a prism through which they not only experience and understand but tolerate the world or hide from it, cushion its blow with quotations, borrow thoughts and eloquence from the pages of the books of the authors they lionize. In Part 1 we have four geographically disparate academics who have all found their way to an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, and in turn found meaning and each other. For whatever complex reasons, he speaks to them. Their accord gives Bolaño plenty of opportunity to mock precious, cultish author acolytes, but it’s self-mockery: that’s who Bolaño was. That’s who we are, as readers. The biggest joke of all is that we feel that way about Bolaño, and he knows it. But he’s not just laughing at us: it’s mirth filled with a crushing sadness and it’s an admission of the hope that always runs to hopelessness.

Part 1 incrementally establishes its designs: there are, within a few pages, marginal but strategically deployed hints at the book’s ultimate subject matter, no less than death and all its accomplices. There are occasional mentions of Nazi-related matters: analogies, anecdotally delivered, often without the slightest emphasis and on occasion mid-sentence, as though a spreading sickness is beginning to take hold, a gentle oppression that incrementally suffocates the further through the book we travel. We will discover bizarrely disturbing nightmares and ominous abstractions (a dread-heavy statue slowly emerging from trembling water in the distance, for example) and eruptions of violence and mendacity that are mere indications of worse to come. An encroaching cloud which incrementally darkens before we move onto Part 2. Perhaps this read-along will partly help to uncover or speculate upon just how such overwhelming disquiet is constructed.

Trevor:

If I stand back and look at the general narrative of The Part about the Critics, I am baffled at why it is so compelling (and, while I know not everyone finds it so, I also know I’m not alone). Four literary critics wander around the world, presenting papers on their favorite author, the elusive German author with an Italian name, Benno von Archimboldi, and in their quest to find him actually find . . . what?

And if, like me, you’d heard plenty about the horrors depicted in this book, you might be shaking your head, wondering what on earth these four literary critics have to do with any of that. Sure, they get to Santa Teresa, but . . . what?

We first meet the four critics — the French Jean-Claude Pelletier, the Italian Piero Morini, the Spanish Manuel Espinoza, and the British Liz Norton — as they discover their literary passion. Interestingly, when we read Norton’s encounter, Bolaño notes that “[h]er discovery of Archimboldi was the least traumatic of all, and the least poetic,” suggesting that the other three had traumatic encounters. And yet, when he goes into a bit of detail, it’s Norton’s that feels very traumatic and poetic:

It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up the by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.

These four individuals become authorities, reading Archimboldi incessantly, forming a clique against rival critics.

But let’s move under the surface of the narrative. All along, we feel some kind of descent. If this narrative seems rather boring and clean, we still somehow feel intimations of violence, a “lurking threat,” like that of Norton’s ex-husband.

We feel this even before suggested violence becomes a reality on the page (though just in the mind of the character) in the middle of a long, single sentence that begins at the top of page 18 and doesn’t end until page 22. I’ve read some critics suggest this is Bolaño simply flexing his muscles, but — though I certainly wouldn’t put that past Bolaño — I don’t feel that is the case. This is a central sentence, told to us by a seemingly tangential character, the Swabian. After the Swabian has told his story of an encounter with Archimboldi, Norton again goes around listlessly, feeling as though there’s a riddle and that she cannot grasp the answer.

I suspect that one of the things that pulls me in is this sense of a riddle throughout Part 1. Bolaño frequently has the characters whisper to each other, but he doesn’t tell us what they say. He’ll tell us what two characters are thinking but then tell us it’s best if we don’t know what the third is thinking. We meet characters who become quite important but who then leave as suddenly — like Mrs. Bubis, the owner of Archimboldi’s German publishing house (but she’ll be coming back, folks). Bolaño throws the word “fate” around so often that we know it must be important, but what is his definition of the word?

For some, the lack of immediate answers is frustrating, but, like these characters — as Lee mentioned above — I am in the cult of an author, only in my case it’s Bolaño, not Archimboldi (but, oh, how I’d love to read those Archimboldi books Bolaño describes!). The terrifying thing is that these critics are not the kind of people I want to emulate. They live under a delusion:

but as the angel who had fortified their friendship, forcibly shown them what they’d known all along, what they’d assumed all along, which was that they were civilized beings, beings capable of noble sentiments, not two dumb beasts debased by routine and regular sedentary work, no, that night Pelletier and Espinoza discovered that they were generous.

It’s fascinating to watch the descent into madness as these critics tighten their circle around the real Archimboldi. Madness is already a part of their world — there’s the artist Edwin Jones, for instance, who now lives somewhere with “an unobjectionable name behind which lay concealed a civilized and discreet lunatic asylum,” and there’s Amalfitano, whom we’ll spend a lot more time with in Part 2 — and they think they’re above it, able to examine it without being tainted

Yet, for me, the sudden act of violence performed by Pelletier and Espinoza is a terrifying prelude to the violence that will splatter across all of Part 4. Here’s how these civilized men feel after it’s over: “When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the ménage à trois they’d so often dreamed of.” Bolaño notes that they felt “[a] combination of sleepiness and sexual desire,” and this doesn’t go away for a long time. “What were they looking for? They didn’t know. Nor, at this stage, did they care.”

Note the passage when Norton is on her balcony: “she opened her eyes and looked down, into the abyss, and saw [Pelletier and Espinoza].” These two never become the monsters they could — at least, not that we see — but the terrifying thing is the potential. The four critics all feel the potential for chaos, with Norton and Morini sensing how terrifying it was to even sense this.

The book continues to suffocate. Three of the critics get to Santa Teresa: “the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape.”

The often terrible richness of the human landscape: Bolaño has shown just this, in Part 1.


Here are some questions we’ve put together as potential sparks for discussion, but feel free to talk about whatever you’d like in the comments below:

  • First, what are your general thoughts on Part 1?
  • I took Part 1 as a farce descending into chaos, a quick glimpse into the void by characters ill-equipped to deal with what they see. Why begin the book in this way?
  • How does Bolaños build such febrile menace?
  • What purpose do the anecdotal digressions serve? The young jockey, the homeless man in Hyde Park, Amalfitano’s monologue about Mexican critics, the conjecture about Japanese horror films?
  • Does Benno von Archimboldi make an appearance?
  • Who is the Swabian, and why does his narrative get the distinction of being one giant sentence?
  • Do you believe Edwin Johns made his art for money?
  • Why doesn’t Morini travel?
  • “Coincidence isn’t a luxury, it’s the flip side of fate, and something else besides.” Just what is Bolaño’s definition of fate?
  • What is it about Santa Teresa, with its “carnivorous sunsets” and volitionally-skewed unheimlich tourists that’s so unsettling?
  • Does Liz Norton leave first because she’s the more suggestible of the critics, and the quickest to recognize what Santa Teresa is?
  • Is Amalfitano a direct warning of the fate awaiting Pelletier and Espinoza should they remain?
  • This was Bolaño’s last book, and he knew it. How does his impending demise find its way into the narrative? How does it work into the other themes?
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By |2014-09-18T23:54:59+00:00September 19th, 2014|Categories: Roberto Bolaño|Tags: , |45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. Lee Monks September 19, 2014 at 8:05 am

    There’s so much going on in those few pages that I’d forgotten a little about Edwin Johns, and there’s another potential theme: mutilation as expression (of madness?)…

  2. Trevor Berrett September 19, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Speaking of Edwin Johns, I found the transformation of the neighborhood fascinating. He initially goes there for the cheaper rent and there were “no young people or children. Women were notably absent: they had either died or spent all day inside.” He falls in love with the town:

    The pain, or the memory of pain, that was here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness. The knowledge that the same equation applied to everything, more or less.

    Johns and “neighborhood had achieved total symbiosis. And I think this is one of the ties to madness: the painter paints the neighborhood and the neighborhood paints the painter “in savage, gloomy strokes.”

    Of course, when he becomes famous for his mutilation painting, the neighborhood attracts other artists and becomes, in an entirely different way, soulless. And this brand of soullessness also does its work on the inhabitants. Seeing the void is terrifying; having the right questions, to say nothing of the answers, is horrific — and yet the opposite is also horrific.

  3. Scott W. September 19, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I recently visited a Modernist art exhibit and had one of those “Ah-ha!” moments when I found myself standing in front of an assemblage by Jasper (not Edward) Johns, a painting onto which he had suspended three severed hands (not real ones, but still). Bolaño’s range of references in this book never cease to astound.

  4. leroyhunter September 19, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Fascinating thoughts, thank you both. I am still on my way through 2666 for the first time, so some of the linkages / foreshadowing are naturally not evident to me yet. But I agree that the tone and atmosphere move from neutrality into a much more ominous place.

    I like your point Trevor about the author-cult surrounding Archimboldi. I’ve forgotten what stage Bolano’s career was at when this was published – was the full-blown cult in place yet? It’s funny to think of Bolano actively incorporating and critiquing that in this book.

    My general thoughts: it’s a strange opening gambit, not really what I had expected. I was defeated by The Savage Detectives, and part of me thought: are we back in that same milieu? But it’s quickly evident that’s not the case. I enjoyed the (surely barbed) descriptions of the academic / conference life, with its junkets and cliques and couplings. Even that though turns into something different, warped, bad. Why does he open this way? – is he easing us into the book? Are the 4 acolytes stand-ins for us as readers, arrogant in our appropriation and interpretation of the book, yet equally blind (certainly at this point) to the true shape and message of things?

    I’m wondering about the relationship between Pelletier and Espinoza. It seems the most important of the various axes in the episode, but is it just that it’s the most obvious? Does Bolano intend us to think that Norton catalyses something in them / between them? I found it hard to get a handle on Norton herself. I assume that the mysterious ex-husband has a further role to play (that could be wrong).

    Morini – why doesn’t he travel? Well, you’ve got me there. Things come to him, I suppose. He seems to be some kind of centrifuge for the others. Fabulous scene with Norton in his home when the lightning flashes. Why does she eventually run to him? What’s his secret? Sorry, more questions.

    I’m interested in the Swabian and his virtuoso sentence-tale. He’s a very striking figure, a pseudo-Archimboldi in my mind. He’s like something out of a fairy tale, hooded, beetling brows, comes – from where? goes – where? yet he has what is suggested to us is superior, almost occult knowledge.

    I’m midway through Fate now, and am trying to put *those* pieces together, and relate them to *these* pieces as well. Hooked.

  5. Trevor Berrett September 19, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Definitely the Bolaño cult wasn’t as big as it is now, and it hadn’t materialized in English yet since By Night in Chile was the first of his books to come and it came just before his death in 2003. I do think he was getting there, though.

    I’m thrilled you’ve set down to read this for the first time, leroyhunter, and that we get the benefit of your thoughts along the way! I’m unable to comment further right now, but I will be back on soon with some more thoughts and hopefully some tentative responses to your comment!

  6. Paul September 19, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Great thoughts from everyone so far! This is my second time through but I’m afraid I still may be contributing more questions and vague assertions than useful contributions.

    What do you make of the fact that each of the critics comes from a major European country and former colonial empire and yet are all drawn to a city in the New World by a German author (yet another former European powerhouse) who, as Trevor mentioned, has an Italian name? Is there anything to all of this or is it just Bolano being playful and twisty?

    As far as the sinister nature of Santa Teresa, the section with the damaged hotel toilet “as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet” along with Norton’s encounters/dreams with the strange mirrors in her hotel room were definitely some the most overt signs of the nightmarish aspects coming to the surface. This percolating squeamishness, along with the underground violence between the taxi drivers and hotel doormen that eventually seems to transfer over to Pelletier and Espinoza, is where I really felt the tone shift toward the darkness to come. Although unsettling sections like the one Trevor mentioned above with the quadrangle are sprinkled throughout the first section, I think Bolano gives a few big pushes toward the end of the section that begin to create a sense of momentum and
    inevitability.

  7. Scott W. September 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Regarding Paul’s comment about the damaged hotel toilet, there are a number of curious and disturbing images of bathrooms and toilets strewn across this novel.

  8. Lee Monks September 19, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Great thoughts everyone. Really inspiring enthusiasm for the book and willingness to contribute.

    Scott W: indeed, the references are boggling, but even so you never feel that they’re anything other than crucial components somehow. I think it’s just a fully-fledged mastery of tone and composition. The greats can do it: put in what seems to be a tangent and what do you know: it’s the exact right ingredient. Or: you’re wrong-footed but never in a manner that jolts the juggernaut off track.

    I know very little about Jasper Johns: glad you’re in the know! I jotted numerous references down during this reread and looked at in isolation it’s baffling. But of course, the effect in 2666 is that of furnishing a recognisably stocked world of a certain slant. The pepperings of Nazi motifs is somewhat less mysterious but unconscious enough that the little corollary-detonations quietly go off in the mind as you form a cohesive overview.

    leroy: what was it, to digress marginally, about Detectives that didn’t work that does here? Interested to know.

    Let me get back to you on the Swabian if I may. Or maybe Trevor wants to come in on that? If not I will ponder…

    Norton: I think there’s an element of rescue there from Bolano. Pelletier and Espinoza are juvenile about her and imagine her as ‘the perfect woman’ very quickly when what they’ve really fallen for is her love, and theirs, of Archimboldi and that mutual hermetic delusion. I wondered at one point about the four of them as a nuclear family with Norton as the mother and Morini as the marginalised and ultimately absent father. I think, possibly, Bolano pulls Norton out of Santa Teresa. How many novels are there out there involving Western woman falling foul of a primitive or alien environment, getting out of her depth etc? Pelletier and Espinoza, then, would be her abandoned children left to fend for themselves in the real world, where the news of hundreds of dead women can’t be subjectively argued away or reconfigured. It’s inarguable and horrific: their lives are built upon an opportunity to talk their way out of illusory battles. I’m wandering here…but then another idea has Morini as Bolano. I’ll leave this thread here for now I think…

    Norton reminds me of a Muriel Spark heroine. There’s something deathly about her. She’s so suggestible: perhaps she reads Santa Teresa quickest due to her having a wider openness and blank equanimity. The place begins to write itself on her: that queasy scene with the mirrors is enough of a portent for her and she understands what the place is about.

    I think that we open up like that in order that Bolano can slowly oppress. It’s a very pithy comedy at times early on: you have to assume there’s an element of polarity employed, from farce to nightmare. The world they exist in is a preposterous delusion to a large extent…

    …which leads on to Paul: I think that he has chosen the layered-with-hermetic-illusion capitals of Western Europe. The places where there are more literati, more indulgent opportunities to dream about art than anywhere else. And then drops them into a place with no layers. Hell, in fact. Where death is the artist.

    Oh and Scott: that reminds me of that carefully chosen ‘brick wafers’ comment Bolano makes about the toilet. Bizarrely effective: typical. (And there’s then a suggestion at repulsion over there being shit, not blood, all over the smashed porcelain. A withering comment on our fussy critics, that…)

  9. Paul September 19, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Very interesting thoughts on the geography.

    I was thinking more about the digressions and seeming narrative dead ends. I’ve found that these often leave me feeling disoriented and uneasy, or “wrong-footed” as Lee said, as they’re so different from what one often usually across in literature. They also cause me to read more closely and wonder about every tiny little detail because at any given moment, the reader has no idea if one of these stories or images will turn into a major theme or clue or if it will just dwindle into nothing again. As Lee said, in the hands of a lesser writer, this wouldn’t work but here, it somehow adds to the immersive qualities that are so hard to explain to someone who hasn’t read the book.

  10. Scott W. September 20, 2014 at 12:06 am

    Lee – By all means, keep wandering. Your comment is so rich I don’t know where to start in, but your first couple of lines ought to be included in whatever casebook might ever emerge about 2666 and its bevy of references. “Slowly oppress” I like a lot. Talk about a turn of the screw! I’m also intrigued by your focus on Liz Norton. I’ll need to focus on her a lot more on the next re-read.

    Paul – feeling “disoriented and uneasy” seems to me about the best one can hope for in reading 2666. I know of almost nothing like it, that tension RB creates between wanting to run down the tiny little details and wanting to pull back to try to find the bigger picture. He simply will not let the reader rest.

  11. Trevor Berrett September 20, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Yes, I’m a fan of what Lee calls wandering — it’s particularly suited to this world! Along those lines — and feeling disoriented and the like — a few weeks ago I was listening to Michael Silverblatt talk about Ulysses on Bookworm. He said something that made me think of 2666: You’re not meant to understand it; you’re meant to experience it.

    I’d like to hear more thoughts on the Swabian, on his tale, and on his relationship to Archimboldi (and why such a relationship would even matter). Morini considers the Swabian to be some kind of negative image of Archimboldi. Because of the way Bolaño has used “negative image” in the past, he means a lot more here. He once said that he likes his stories to create the negative image of an epiphany, which I take to mean some kind realization of “not knowing,” but with the confused, warped, even twisted and horrific perspective on the world depicted on a negative. Both the Swabian and Archimboldi share aspects of a horrific past, so what does Morini’s insight mean? I don’t think we have the answers (or the realization we won’t have answers) quite yet, but these thoughts, I think, are good to have as we progress through the book and eventually get to Part 5.

    Thanks everyone for your comments! I’m beyond thrilled we’re all here talking about 2666, and I am right now feeling a bit disoriented about which thread to dive into, there are so many great lines of questioning brought up above!

    By the way, if there are any lurkers who are not commenting a) because you don’t feel you have anything to say or b) because you hated/abandoned Part 1, please comment. Let us know even your most general thoughts, and no one here is going to think the lesser of someone who isn’t enjoying the book or who thinks it’s just a bunch of hogwash. In fact, one of the intriguing things with a book like this (or Ulysses) that isn’t based on plot or even fully on character but rather on the tonal registers that scale up and down as elements are put together, is that one can always wonder if it is hogwash, just stuff thrown out there. But I’m with Lee who said that the greats can do even that and succeed and making us experience something profound.

  12. Ana Catarina Palma Neves September 20, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Since you encouraged people who feel had nothing to say to speak up I leave a comment about it. But first, I’d like to congratulate you on this initiative: I found it very very interesting. I Hope there will be more of it.
    Well, I read the book about two years ago so I don’t remember the details, only the general idea I got from it. Part 1 seemed very confusing and weird (what-this-have-to-do-with-anything kind of weird). I think it was as someone was looking at the lives of these critics and was showing them as they were instead of how they thought they were. They saw themselves as great intellectuals, the only ones who truly understood the Archimboldi work. Turned out that they didn’t know a thing about the man and in the end it got quite clear that they actually knew nothing and that everything they believed was worthless. Does it make any sense?

  13. Trevor Berrett September 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Great sense, Ana!

    As for there being more read-alongs — certainly!

  14. Lee Monks September 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    “Turned out that they didn’t know a thing about the man and in the end it got quite clear that they actually knew nothing and that everything they believed was worthless.”

    Pretty persuasive, Ana!

  15. jereco1962 September 20, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks, Lee, for alerting me to this thread.

    It has been a bit since I read 2666 (coincidentally, I am finishing up The Savage Detectives right now – contrarian that I am: reading his works out of order). I remember getting strong sense of reading a Heinrich Böll novel when I read The Part About the Critics. One of Böll’s hallmarks (especially in works such as The Clown and Group Portrait With Lady) was his ability to give the omniscient narrator a personality that seems to be amused by the characters/events he is describing. Böll wrote dramatic works, but he often used wit to give a light (occasionally absurd) feel to them – as if to distract from the severity of the story he had to tell. And so, too, Bolaño.

    Bolaño’s narrator – unlike the detached voice that so many use – seems to have knowledge he isn’t sharing, which added suspense for me – as well as making me feel that the answers were forthcoming (since this narrator obviously seemed to know the answers already and was simply withholding). Later, as the book progressed, I began to get the feel that this narrator was much more coy than I had originally imagined. He seemed to be saying “the answers are there in front of you. Can’t you see them?”

    Which brings me back to those critics. On the one hand, all these people are intelligent. They are multi-lingual, they are all professors / writers / translators, they are all experts on the reclusive author Archimboldi, they are staples at conferences…and yet their escapades read like a farce. There is bed-hopping and wild-goose-chasing and a generally light touch to it all.

    And yet… They are each from a different country. I think that is significant. They are all fascinated with a German writer who had lived through World War II. That, too, is significant. Can one truly separate Archimboldi from his home country and its recent history? (Echoes of Böll again: WWII and its various repercussions were part and parcel of everything he wrote – he could not write anything that did not connect back to that time.) Yet they seem to separate him entirely. If they think of his works in a socio-political context, it is simply as fodder for a research paper, they don’t realize that the man must be haunted by that time, and that any clues to his past/identity/location, etc., would require a deep analysis of recent German history.

    This same tunnel-vision (focusing on the the novels without considering the world around them) infects their trip to Santa Teresa. Here Bolaño gives us a hint when he provides brief snippets about the disappearances while the academics prepare to head for Mexico to track down the reclusive author. They have each read and/or heard something about the disappearances, but each has given the situation no further thought.

    -People from various countries.
    -A certain sub-set of people being killed in another country.
    -A tacit assumption that “it doesn’t affect me” / “it’s not my problem.”

    Sound familiar?

    Despite the light tone, I began to get goosebumps. Especially as the realization sunk in that I, myself, had heard about these disappearances across the border in Mexico. I even thought “how awful.” But what did I do? What have I done?

    As of this date, I’ve read 2666 and written some blog posts.

    When his fictional world turned out to be a microcosm of our own, the tone of the book completely changed for me. A sense of dread set in, and the stage was set for the remainder of the story – one in which the answers are never stated, but seem to shimmer before us – an open secret that simply needs to be spoken aloud to become known.

  16. Lee Monks September 20, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Glad you came in with some excellent thoughts, jereco1962.

    Yes, Bolano’s narrative tone has always fascinated me, that peculiar combination of playfulness and conviviality with a sense of occlusion, a feeling that we’re being toyed with, teased, given glimpses, dangled on a string. That’s intriguing what you say about the level of candidness being dialled down towards the end, a contemptuous “I’ve given you all the clues you could hope for, now listen” in part five. I quite agree on reflection. But just as we can’t remove Boll or Archimboldi (and what is Bolano saying about Germany here?) from their contexts, we can no sooner do that regarding the near-death Bolano. Is the Ourobourotic shape of 2666 the ultimate horror? None of this is avoidable, and it will be repeated?

    And yes, fine turn of phrase when you use the word ‘shimmer’. They do: you feel the pervasion of the answers, probably much truer for being elusive and undefinable.

    Of course, Bolano puts us right into the story as culpable. We are all ultimately responsible. Perhaps the true terror is the subsequent knowledge that we can do nothing and will do nothing.

  17. katieesq September 20, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Gentlemen,

    Glad to be a part of the Bolaño read-along, though it looks like your comments section suffers from a dearth of laydeez. I hope my thoughts balance that out a bit. I come to 2666 with absolutely zero prior knowledge: I know nothing about the author save what’s written in the book jacket, and the impending violence of the rest of the novel is something I know solely from your comments. Hell, I only recently started reading this blog after it came up on my Zite (an intelligent RSS feed reader that I’m obsessed with and highly recommend [mostly because it’s a brilliant little algorithm – just yesterday it suggested a 13-year-old book review for one of my favorite novels – HOW DID IT KNOW, GUYS?]).

    Overall, I was struck by the – what’s the word for it? – I guess, mannerly nature of the prose. At first, I thought it may just have been a stiff translation, but the writing is so consistently prim that I assume it must be in the text at its core. The decorum seems even more purposeful in the novel’s moments of sex and violence. Observe (quote truncated, because obviously):

    …but it was worth it because then Norton invited him home, officially to discuss Archimboldi and the few things that Mrs. Bubis had revealed, including, of course, the critic Schleiermacher’s contemptuous appraisal of Archimboldi’s first book, and then both of them started to laugh and Pelletier kissed Norton on the lips, with great tact, and she kissed him back much more ardently, thanks possibly to the dinner and the vodka and the Bordeaux, but Pelletier thought it showed promise, and then they went to bed and screwed for an hour until Norton fell asleep. (30)

     There’s a lot more exhausting detail in that sentence, including some unappetizing descriptions of Russian cuisine, which all reads like a 19th century society diary, even when it catalogs their screwings. Interestingly, this particular scene is followed by Pelletier’s recollection of watching Ringu with Espinoza, whose most foul retort – “shut up, you cunt, what’s so funny?” – unsettles the narrative’s propriety. 

    I’m surprised more of you don’t take umbrage with the romantic plot device driving Part One of  the novel. Even if it is a smug meta-critique of the folks who take pleasure in reading novels such as this one, I still ultimately find the whole affair (affairs?) obnoxious. Forgive the pedestrian reading (what else can you do with such a pedestrian device?), but it’s exhausting to read yet another novel where a woman is solely defined by the intimate relations she has with the (many) men around her. The otherwise sympathetic Moroni unfortunately describes her as my woman with “nerval melancholy, which left Norton liable to embark on an intimate relationship with anyone who came along.” When she goes to see the Edwin Johns retrospective, one of the few moments when she acts of her own interest or by herself, she’s imagined as someone who “might be an ex-lover or a living painting.” Which is all to say nothing of Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s brutal chivalric beating of the Pakistani cabbie (which of course gets everyone all hot and bothered). It’s hard to respect a novel that indulges in such characterization. 

    These contemporary epics strike me as the equivalent of running a marathon for 30-something bookish types: something that grants a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and superiority in the face of the abyss. I wonder if Bolaño sensed this. Did he know we read him because we’re all missing our fucking shadows? Are we really all just talking nonsense? 

    Looking forward to Part Two, and of course, I welcome your thoughts and comments. 

  18. Lee Monks September 20, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for joining the conversation katieesq. There IS a dearth of laydeez – I hope that changes.

    And it does bother me, the way the other critics are with Liz Norton. My take on that is: Bolano’s dealing with a gender imbalance all the way through the novel. I can’t, as a man, look at those issues the same way as you can (obviously: or maybe ‘feel about’ is better) but it’s not lost on me. I guess I’m giving Bolano the benefit of the doubt and hoping that he’s savaging male behaviour. I think so. I may well be wrong. It may just be the case that he’s duped all us male readers. If so, that just makes the whole thing more intriguing, if a whole lot more depressing.

  19. Trevor September 20, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Yes, I agree that their relationship with Norton is deliberately problematic. I didn’t outrightly say it, I see, but I had their treatment of Norton, and their desires, in mind when I wrote this: “Yet, for me, the sudden act of violence performed by Pelletier and Espinoza is a terrifying prelude to the violence that will splatter across all of Part 4.” The extreme violence of Part 4 is all against women, and if you think that Part 1 has a strange, clinical tone, just wait!

  20. jereco1962 September 20, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    So perhaps the treatment of Norton is fully intentional. A watered down version of what is to come later, when women are seen as completely disposable. Making the male academics effete variations of the perpetrators in Sonora.

  21. Trevor September 20, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    I think it’s intentional, yes, and I think it’s meant to show that those terrors in Santa Teresa are not quite so far removed as we might think.

    If that’s the case, I don’t mean to say that the men are a breath away from being the murderers, but that the impulses are real and alive in them, as is the potential for real violence.

  22. Michael September 20, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    I’m qualifying all of these remarks with the caveat that this is my first Bolano novel, and I’m happy to have this motivation to finally take this imposing behemoth off the shelf several years later. But I’m also aware that this is a novel that can’t be truly understood until experienced in full, so I have every expectation I’ll find what I write here charmingly naive a few weeks from now. On I go:

    2666 is a novel that comes freighted with the baggage of its significance, which it wears unabashedly on its sleeve: there is never a moment reading it when you are not aware that this is intended to be the author’s magnum opus. If the breathless blurbs on the jacket didn’t tip you off, the sheer bulk of the book (I have the full hardcover edition) and the editor’s note preceding the text both signify that this is a Major Statement by an author who knew he was dying. All of this is communicated before the novel even begins, which served as a major hindrance as I read, put off by its self-conscious preening.

    I am not saying The Part About the Critics isn’t compelling or well-written, but Bolano does require a leap of faith that you will stay with him as he spins this dryly funny, metafictional, and seemingly irrelevant story concerning the insular world of book critics in prose that is often so flat it must be intentional.

    Trevor mentioned above that some people criticized Bolano for “flexing his muscles” with some of his prose techniques, and I admit candidly that this is how I read most of this section (the 4-page sentence in particular, which might actually be a technical marvel if it didn’t feel so self-consciously important).

    And yet.

    There is something to this story, something to the deadened narration, something to these four navel-gazing people, and something to the foreboding mystery that kept me reading that by the end of it I was actually for the first time fully invested, at which point he suddenly ends it — as if he has been in control this whole time. Imagine that!

    Bring on Part 2!

  23. Lee Monks September 21, 2014 at 4:54 am

    The book, and thinking about it, always make me think two things in particular for some reason.

    One is the Derrida quote from when he was asked by an interviewer: “Isn’t the whole point to want to change the world?”

    Derrida’s response: “From what, to what?”

    I loved that when I read it years ago, and it works regarding 2666. Nobody knows what the world is, and it’s possibly not even meant to yield to interpretation. “The world is what it is.” – Naipaul. But is the acceptance of that, and the subsequent ‘boredom’ that Bolano seems so preoccupied by, what evil finds so easy to write itself upon?

    The second thing is that it’s readable as a hopeful work. We are all capable of this and susceptible to it and that’s terrifying. But the majority of us don’t submit. Maybe in the year 2666 the legacy of these crimes – when the books are long forgotten – will look like a cautionary aberration. I suppose we can only hope…

  24. Peter Pellenaars (@petepel) September 21, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Not wanting to be a lurker, but overwhelmed by all the knowledge here exposed by both the reviewers and readers, I’m very hesitant to join the discussion. Partly because I’m reading the novel in dutch and partly because my english vocabulary is very limited which will make it maybe hard for me to explain my thoughts.

    For now I want to share with everybody that I really want to contribute and have finished reading The part of the critics this weekend. I’m now busy collecting my notes I’ve made and reading this blogposts and all the comments.

    As a first general feedback after reading this first part (which is my first encounter with any work by Roberto Bolaño) I can state that I enjoyed reading it. It had a kind of meta-layer in it, meaning that it felt for me as if Bolaño drafted his characters as not only individual people but also as some generic representatives for different attitudes or cultural behavior. See for instance the passage where Norton compares Pelletier and Spinoza as lovers, and where Bolaño takes this to a higher level by introducing Marquis the Sade and uses this for a small exposé on the difference between French and Spanish eroticism. (This reference to the Sade doesn’t feel good, reading all your hints to the outbursts of violence coming in the next chapters…)

    I also sensed a lot of humour and playfullnes in this chapter (between the lines), as if Bolaño enjoyed it to expose a lot of the weaknesses, arrogance, pedantry, etc in these four characters. Some kind of vile revenge. I’m not sure. It was just a feeling.

    All in all I loved reading this chapter. It was never boring and it was a ‘fast read’ (which means I need to re-read it now to get all my thought together and answer your questions).

    Again, I don’t want to be a lurker but need some time to digest what I have read before I can give some value-added feedback. And don’t hesitate to correct my spelling and/or grammar.

  25. Tredynas Days September 21, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Also want to avoid lurking, but can’t say too much yet: I first read the novel some years ago when it first came out, having found ‘Savage Detectives’ a mix of intriguing and annoying, and I recall feeling much the same about ‘2666’ when I first read it. Had decorators in the house for weeks and all my books were stashed in the garage in boxes, so it took me until yesterday to find my copy, and I’ve only re-read the first few pages. I hope to comment later, but for now thought this article in 3:AM pertinent, especially as ‘2666’ has been compared several times above to ‘Ulysses’; in the article Aashish Kaul refers to a book by Joseph Frank on ‘spatial’ as opposed to conventional ‘chronological’ narrative techniques. He refers in particular to the modernist penchant for fragmented, temporally fractured narrative, and examines not just Joyce but Nerval and Proust in this context. Bolaño, it seems to me, is doing something similar to but different from Joyce, but there I think I’ll stop for the moment till I’ve read further in the novel. Here’s the Kaul link: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/mapping-space-in-fiction-joseph-frank-and-the-idea-of-spatial-form/

  26. Lee Monks September 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Peter: your English is pretty exemplary, I wouldn’t worry about it! It’s better than the English of about 60% of my home town, anyway. And my Dutch is non-existent, even despite Van Gaal’s arrival down the road. Your lingual dexterity puts me at least to shame…

    de Sade is definitely a foreshadowing of sorts, like so many of the references deployed. There’s plenty of de Sadeish stuff up ahead, Peter…

    I think that Bolano views the critics as infantilised by academia and bibliophilia to a degree and it’s the polarity between them and Santa Teresa, and their vulnerability to its alien corrosions that forms the segue from our world, a world of cosseted media fabrication and babyish clamouring consumerism, and a world not only unadorned and unfettered but the very worst of it. They’re children in the sense that they never have to experience a certain kind of existence and have glorified their anodyne lives of the parochial mind. So I’m sure he is poking fun.

    Tredynas: that’s interesting, people tend to love or hate this as far as I can tell. I look forward to your thoughts and would love to know what didn’t work for you (if your reread prompts the same response). I’ll definitely check out the article, thanks.

  27. leroyhunter September 22, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Fabulous thread, thank you to all for the contributions and challenges.

    Lee, re Savage Detectives, I didn’t have any particular problem with it – I just found (about halfway through) that I’d run out of interest in finding out what happened. It just seemed interminable, and curiously static.

    This is quite different – I am fully engaged, even when I find myself in the middle of a some of the Bolanoesque episodes that are least to my liking (thinking mainly about accounts of dreams here).

    I’m interested that you’ve twice mentioned Nazi motifs or themes: where do you see them in this part?

    Trevor, I feel like going back and re-reading the Swabian episode. You’re digging at something here without wanting to give too much away, I sense. I like the “negative image” concept. My first guess was that the Swabian was in fact Archimboldi himself, and that the manner his tale is told is intended to signify this. But that seems a little trite and tricksy (and probably too simple) to be the case. I suspect as with so much I am coming across that there are clues and possibilities, rather than definitive answers.

    Katieesq, I like your idea of the 30-something literary marathon. Yes, maybe there’s an element of that. I have to give Bolano credit though for offering the challenge in the first place, and putting so much substance in front of the reader. I hope that my own motives for reading this don’t include vanity.

  28. Lee Monks September 22, 2014 at 10:31 am

    leroy: there are many (allow me to have a look later and pinpoint, I don’t have a copy to hand) in there, some admittedly very subtle. (Unless, of course, the tone is so portentous and bleak that I’ve imagined them – I hope not!…) There are, I know (I highlighted them) flat-out references to Nazis, but there’s, off the top of my head, the mention of Archimboldi’s jacket I remember in particular, and the details are lingered over; it’s black leather and somewhat resembles the attire donned by a certain collective…

    On reflection, Part One could easily be coined: The Part About the Tourists. They’re not only ‘tourists’ of other humans they can’t reach, not even their closest allies, or their self-appointed world of literary hierarchy, which doesn’t exist but which they designate as real, but their gravitation towards somewhere ‘authentic’, which is an authenticity based on the fact that murders are committed there. Is death more authentic than life? Are they nearing such actuality in order to reinforce their illusions or even their need for illusions? All literary history will be as forgotten as the dead women, so what does ‘legacy’ or ‘immortality’ mean?

  29. Isabella September 24, 2014 at 12:06 am

    I read 2666 about 5 years, and I feel it’s a little too soon for a reread for me. But I’ll follow along with interest and revisit some of my old blog notes to refresh my memory. For now I’ll just mention a reference that clicked for me last winter:

    Among the books Archimboldi has authored is “Mitzi’s Treasure, the book that Pelletier had found in an old Munich bookstore, and that told the story of the life of Albert Bitzius, pastor of Lützelflüh, in the canton of Bern, an author of sermons as well as a writer under the pseudonym Jeremiah Gotthelf.” The Black Spider, anyone? (I know you’ve reviewed it here.) Which was set in Swabia. And also was full of evil.

    Also, in my notes I’d written that art is an act of self-negation (or maybe I quoted that from the book?), in the context of Edwin Johns, who’d negated his painting hand. And it seemed to me that Archimboldi had negated himself to the point of possibly not existing at all. I do think Bolano’s saying something about the nature of art here, and how it becomes mythic, how the artist is subsumed by the art.

  30. Lee Monks September 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Ah yes, Isabella, a great spot. And yet another reference to add to the enormous list!

    On your second point, absolutely. And the autobiographical element plays into that: he was being subsumed, you might say, as he wrote it, and its end was his.

    And we haven’t really even talked about sex = death yet…

  31. Tredynas Days September 25, 2014 at 6:20 am

    I’ve now finished rereading Pt 1 and am unlikely to carry on, I’m afraid. I’ll try to explain why.
    I have nothing against playful, avant-garde, po-mo metafiction; some of the first posts on my blog were in praise of Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy – less tricksy than 2666, but similar in general terms: themes of writing/interpreting, puzzles and mysteries, long, looping sentences, etc. But I think Marías is a far better writer.
    Bolaño weaves stories within stories like Auster, labyrinths like Borges, bizarrely doomed quests like Beckett, creates a gallery of characters like Dickens, drops threads abruptly like Sterne, teases like Cervantes, cleverly extends sentences like Krasznahorkai (and now Mathias Enard’s one-sentence novel ‘Zone’) …but in the end I find his unreliable narrator’s teasing ends up annoying me.
    I agree with many of the comments made so far: it’s to do with creativity, identity and artistry, the writer effaces himself, etc.
    I know subsequent Parts of the novel, though disparate, have interconnections (here he resembles the fragmented, dispersed realism of Sebald in ‘Vertigo’ – again I find Sebald a more rewarding read) – but I can’t help feeling that Bolaño’s clever trickery is smoke and mirrors. There’s a visceral realism skilfully wrought, the technical virtuosity and innovative verve are undeniable, and there are astonishing flights of narrative invention – but I lose patience with the narrative instability and the subversive dead ends and digressions. I enjoyed the novel first time round; maybe I’ve become a less tolerant, more conservative reader? I found much of this defiantly obscure text refreshing and inspiring, but I find the negatives outweigh them. It’s indigestible.
    Espinoza and Pelletier I find puerile and annoying, and I agree with some of katieesq’s comments about the dubious use made of Liz; the obsession with ménages à trois and bed-hopping verges on distasteful and prurient. If B is just having another game with us here I don’t want to join in.
    A quibble about credibility: since when did universities finance international trips for academics to so many conferences where they don’t always read papers? And payroll lengthy jaunts in expensive hotels, doing nothing?
    Sorry, Trevor – you did invite negative comments! I know I risk sounding like the narrow-minded curmudgeon Walter Bridge in Connell’s novel (modern art is ‘junk’, he snorts, and modern writers peddle filth!), and maybe as a reader I’m a savage defective. No, 2666 isn’t ‘hogwash’, then: more a gourmet dog’s dinner, prepared by a masterchef!
    I will give Pt 2 a try, however. Especially as there’s a London-based football team, West Ham, with a player called Amalfitano…

  32. Trevor Berrett September 25, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Great thoughts, Simon! Though I do find more than you, I really can’t dispute you. In fact, as I read your comparison to other authors, I had to agree: Marias is a better writer, and Sebald’s work is more rewarding. Not that that makes me think less of 2666, but I do find its strengths elsewhere.

    I’m interested in others responses because, though I’ve heard many say that it’s all smoke and mirrors, I have never been able to convince anyone that that’s not true. In fact, I tend to agree to a point, and I think that the smoke and mirrors is part of the construct to a greater whole, and a unique, dark perspective on the world.

  33. Lee Monks September 25, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Indeed. Just because I’m more favourably inclined towards a book than someone else is no measure of my inclination to hearing how their opinion diverges from mine. If anything, the naysayers tend to prompt further consideration of one’s own convictions as to a work’s merits, and may even deepen one’s appreciation.

    I read a similar (and indisputable superbly argued) piece in I think the New Republic on 2666. It also uses the term ‘smoke and mirrors’. The thing is, that’s one of the things I like about it. It renders, through certain transparent means, matters that might well be uninteresting, somewhat more intriguing. Artifice is one thing: substance another. And that’s rich terrain for argument as we’re happily discovering. I hope there’s much more of it as we move onto part two next week!

    (PS Simon: please stay onboard as long as you can…)

  34. Tredynas Days September 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks guys for being so forbearing. Sorry about the ‘smoke and mirrors’ cliché – it just slipped out. I do see what you mean about that aspect of the novel being important. Doesn’t fully convince me though. I found my reread of part 1 a bit of a slog. Boring at times, even. But as I said, this may say more about me as a reader…

    Thought you’d pick up on the football (UK style) reference, Lee, given your Duncan Edwards avatar.

  35. Lee Monks September 25, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    I’m so sorry – I forgot to mention that. I certainly did – wasn’t Amalfitano at West Brom last year? Decent player, although I hope he has a bad weekend along with all his teammates…

  36. Tredynas Days September 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    He was indeed on loan at West Brom, and scored, as you no doubt remember, against Man Utd last season. Any resemblance to the Chilean professor is just the kind of thing that would have delighted RB, I’m sure!

  37. Lee Monks September 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    EVERYONE scored against Man Utd last season, Simon, and a shame for Mr Amalfitano that it’s no longer difficult to do so…he, along with people like Tomkins and even Carlton Cole will fancy bagging under the upcoming circumstances…even Adrian could get one. Mr Rojo could do with a bit of smoke and a few mirrors. Etc.

    This whole thing of comparing Bolano to Marias and Sebald: I love all three and all are completely different. I suppose it depends what you want from a writer. I quite like ideas and digressions and uncertainly: I often feel as though Marias annihilates a line of thought by ruthless forensic interrogation: Bolano drifts into a trance-like riff. Sebald seems somewhere in the middle. I’ll take all three.

  38. Betsy Pelz September 28, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks, Trevor and Lee, for inviting us to tag along while you climb Roberto Bolano’s magisterial and mysterious 2066. As for the title, I notice the digits add up to 20 – an age of awakening, the spring of adulthood. I get the sense from “The Part of the Critics” that awakening and realization are processes important to Bolano.

    I enjoyed “The Part About the Critics” very much, partly because of the astute portrayal of human nature, partly for the humor, partly for the seriousness, partly because of the clarity of the prose, and partly because of the various mysteries. I will mention that Bolano’s portrayal of violence does not offend me, as I think it brave not to shrink from what is true. In addition, the violence in this section does not seem used in a gratuitous manner; it seems purposeful to the writer’s task.

    Violence in Bolano’s work, however, is something I would rather consider separately.

    What I want to think about first are the names Bolano has chosen for his elusive writer: Hans Reiter and Benno von Archimboldi. On the surface, the fact that the writer has a pseudonym emphasizes his two identities, one as an artist and one as an ordinary person. Much in this book so far emphasizes multiple realities in ordinary life and the problem we have with perception. I think it’s no accident that early on, Bolano mentions William James in passing, in reference to the topic of volition. It is important to note that James was also interested in “The Perception of Reality”, a chapter in in his book The Principles of Psychology. Omissions, disappearances and information left out figure in “The Part of the Critics”. Bolano never mentions William James’s brother, Henry, the novelist, but I can never think of one without the other, and so I am reminded of Henry’s deep interest in perception and realization.

    Bolano’s missing writer’s real name is apparently Hans Reiter. A real Hans (Conrad Julius) Reiter actually existed (1889-1969), and was a physician who “was convicted of war crimes for his medical experiments at the concentration camp at Buchenwald”. (Wikipedia) Another Hans Reiter, born in Austria in 1920, killed in action in 1944, was a German war hero. Bolano has used a name that comprises opposing identities, opposing realities, and opposing death dates. The one is a sadistic brute, the other is known for his bravery. The one lives to be prosecuted, the other disappears into a battlefield death.

    Further complicating Bolano’s choice of the name is the fact that the surname. “Reiter” appears to mean horseback rider. I’m reminded of the shaggy dog story the Swabian tells about the horse-race, in which a man is allowed to win out of gallantry. The Swabian (Swabia being a region of Germany) claims that Archimboldi was there when the woman told the story, and deemed the rancher’s son to be “selfless”. The length of the story, with its many shifts, makes any of it being true most likely implausible, probably fabrication, almost the realm of legend . Thus – Archimboldi is the stuff of legend: someone who is associated with “selflessness”, but someone who would also deprecate the word and call it “extravagance”.

    A further problem with the name Hans Reiter is that Hans is a name derived from a Hebrew name that means “Gracious of God”. Neither of the real Hans Reiters is gracious of god, and we do not know if Bolano’s is either. But religious topics abound – one of Archimboldi’s books is “Saint Thomas”, and another is “The Endless Rose”.

    As for Benno von Archimboldi, Benno is a German name meaning Bear, but it also reminds me of Benjamin. Benjamin, it turns out has two etymological origins – “son of my pain” and “son of the right side”. In addition, Benjamin has two identities – one Jewish and one Muslim, and both call him righteous. Von indicates “of or from”, but it can also indicate nobility, so the meaning of von is also muddied.

    The real Arcimboldo (1526-1593) was an artist who had as his patron the Hapsburg Courts in Vienna and Prague. He was famous for portraits whose surfaces were drawings composed of cleverly placed fruits and vegetables, animals and fish, and, of all things, books. There was a highly entertaining gamesmanship to the portraits, but they were also clever, witty, and perhaps satiric. On the serious side, Arcimboldo appeared to have a scientist’s exactitude in the portrayal of his natural subjects, as well as the humorist’s interest in entertainment. It’s interesting that as an artist, Arcimboldo disappeared, and wasn’t picked up again until Salvador Dali picked him out of art’s trash heap. In the realm of disappearing acts that the novel plays with, this is one more.

    What makes the name Archimboldi work for me is this: the renaissance artist lived and worked and breathed the power of the Court. The position of the artist in relation to the state is a topic for Bolano, given that most artists in Latin America, according to Bolano, work at the mercy of the state. Amalfitano gives a long speech regarding the falsity that such a relationship produces, the inevitably false art that the artists create without even knowing that what they’re doing is false. (pp 120-123). Amalfitano imagines the Latin American artist as standing with their back to a deep cave or mine, with the intent to “translate or reinterpret or recreate” what is coming from the mine or cave. Bolano has Amalfitano remark that “Their work, it goes without saying, is of a very low standard.” (p 122)

    Being in the employ of the state, they have been separated from what is real and most natural, but don’t even know it. They’ve lost their shadow, for all kinds of reasons, and for all kinds of reasons, they forget this most basic fact. Thus, “The roars keep coming from the opening of the mine and the intellectuals keep misinterpreting them.” (p 122)

    The remark that Amalfitano makes about art and artists that interests me most is this:
    “They say cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal.”

    Elsewhere in an interview, Bolano apparently commented that “Twain is day and Melville is night. “(http://biblioklept.org/2011/01/13/twain-is-the-day-melville-the-night-roberto-bolano-on-u-s-writers/) Bolano’s farcical riff on the European critics is Twain; his dark vision of the Latin American artist’s dilemma is Melville.

    What matters about the remark – in reference to the use of Archimboldi as a pseudonym is this: Melville, in Moby Dick, is interested in, among other things, the way power distorts; whether the renaissance artist Arcimboldo’s vision was distorted as a result of being so close to power is up for interpretation; what happens to the Latin American artist in Latin America appears, according to Bolano, to be corruption, and how the European artist stands up to power (such as Nazi power) is a large question in the novel.

    Finally – Archimboldi is the plural of Arc(h)imboldo. The pseudonym suggests multiple realities within one reality. I am reminded of the author’s 17 novels – 17 takes on reality.

    Bolano is a trickster when it comes to names. Bolano’s real concerns emerge from all this sleight of hand, nevertheless: what is right? what is brave; what is natural; what is selfless? And most of all – how do the multiple realities that make up any one event or person or thing coalesce into one larger reality?

    We can see, however, that the two critics, Espinoza and Pelletier, however multiple, are shallow. At the same time, we can see that Amalfitano is “a castaway” and the embodiment of a “deep, boundless sadness”.

    Regardless of all the veils – some things are clear. Acimboldo’s vegetables, if you step back, form a face, Bolano’s multiple stories, if you step back, form a vision.

    (Below are some wonderful sites on the Renaissance artist Arcimboldo.)

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/videos/category/3play_1/arcimboldo-more-than-meets-the-eye/
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/arcimboldos-feast-for-the-eyes-74732989/?page=2
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giuseppe_Arcimboldo_-_The_Four_Seasons_in_one_Head_-_WGA00820.jpg

  39. Betsy Pelz September 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Typo in my first sentence – 2666, not 2066.

  40. Lee Monks September 29, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Fantastic stuff, Betsy.

    The piece you refer to (p120-23), the whole ‘proscenium arch’ speech, is great and funny as well as scathing.

    There’s this idea of Bolano’s about the horror of slow linear time running right through. I mention that as your comment about coalescent truths reminded me. At one point somewhere he talks about things being slowed down or sped up and both options being intolerable and maddening. The truth, perhaps, would reveal itself outside normal linear time – which runs at a pace that protects us but occludes us – seems to be a suggestion he makes periodically. That could be my misread though!

  41. Betsy September 30, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    You comments, Lee, about time, are interesting. If when he began 2666, he knew how sick he was, and time was short. I agree that I feel him thinking about time. For one thing, some of the narration neatly compresses time, and in other places, especially when Amalfitano is dreaming or feeling crazy – time seems to slow down and be packed with experience.

    On the other hand, there is an element of paralysis in Amalfitano that suggests time is dragging.

    By the way – about the name Reiter – my husband mentioned to me that a reiter (ritter) was a knight on horseback. Apparently German knights on horseback fought in a very disciplined manner – teams of two peeling off, etc. Not that that matters, except that the honor associated with being a knight is probably associated with the character – although the honor and bravery for Reiter/Archimboldi seems as if it’s going to be different than for the historic knight.

  42. Lee Monks October 1, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Let’s not forget that Don Quixote was a huge influence on Bolano, with your comments in mind – could well be relevant…

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