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.
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!
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.
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?