Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
First off, we want to thank everyone who is participating. Your comments for Part 1 were exceptionally helpful and heartening. How are you doing? Did Part 2 throw any of you out of the game? Did it bring any of you further in? We’re excited to hear how it’s going and to dig into what’s going on as this books gets more and more strange.
The day-long, low-level action beneath the surface intensifies, like bad wood warping under veneer: the garden is stolen by foxes rooting in turned dustbins, emptiness takes form and approaches from the centre of the lawn, a white devil, smiling out of the dark, and the realisation dawns that I live in an invented place whose only purpose is avoidance, and what I would avoid, I carry with me, always.
~John Burnside, “Suburbs”
Forgive my opening this brief introduction to Part 2 with a fragment of a John Burnside poem. 2666‘s second section always reminds me of it . . .
We first met Amalfitano in Part 1 of course. I always think of him as leading the critics across the River Styx, so to speak, for their dalliance with the deathly. He is the necessary link between the first two parts: a moribund academic, a bleak and cautionary (to those three travelling critics) representation of the life of the mind in such a place, plagued by demons, some formed out of others, a multiplication of self-immolations.
He’s neurotic about what he’s doing in Santa Teresa in the first place, and we never satisfactorily understand why; he questions himself as to whether or not he has a death wish; he fears for his daughter, who, latterly, is always out late in an environment we know is fraught with murderous danger (and we will see a fair bit more of a deeply imperiled Rosa in Part 3). His sanity, clearly, is beginning to slip. We twice hear the line: “Madness is contagious.” Part 2 having been foreshadowed by the desertion of Amalfitano and a young Rosa by Lola, Amalfitano’s wife, who vanishes in pursuit of a poet with her friend Imma. The poet resides at a mental asylum in Mondragon she hangs around. Lola, we (or I certainly) feel, is way beyond troubled and romantic and susceptible to wanderlust: she’s lost and, as we read, via her letters to Amalfitano, about her hitch-hiking, liaison with Larrazabal and subsequent cemetery-frequenting, hellishly-unmoored exploits, we await the worst. (After a long hiatus in her correspondence she sends a letter from Paris which leads to Amalfitano’s gloriously melancholy vision of Lola which is clairvoyant and strangely harrowing.)
Lola returns, unexpectedly and briefly. When she leaves once again, after relating news of what she suggests is her imminent death, Amalfitano checks the radio in the early hours, fully expecting to hear of another murder: a hitch-hiker in the middle of the night, to add to the tally. But there is no such news, and Amalfitano turns his attention to a book on geometry, as his paranoia, about Rosa’s vulnerability in the main, deepens. The book is Rafael Dieste’s Testamento Geometrico, published, it seems, limitedly and with the help of friends all immortalized on page 4. He finds this strange book in one of the many boxes shipped from Barcelona. He has no recollection of the book, and can’t figure out how he came to possess it, nor imagine why he would ever want such a book. Is there a lacuna in his memory or is he losing his mind? Intriguingly, the book is three books, “each independent, but functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole.”
We also, then, wonder about Amalfitano’s decision to make a particular use of Dieste’s book as a Duchampian “readymade.” He hangs the book on an improvised washing line and subjects it to the elements which will “choose their own pages.” As he sits in his garden, the pages of the book fluttering in dusty winds, he decides he’s going to plant some flowers and a tree, but quickly rubbishes such an idea. He does not want to put roots down in such a place: he is rootless now, having travelled extensively and often, in terminal exile from Chile and clearly unable to rest or reside anywhere for long, and doesn’t expect to be in Santa Teresa for too much longer either. The houses either side of his are “empty and dark” and yet he feels at one point “as if he’s being spied on”: the menace that naturally seeps into emptiness once again. The voices that have begun to assail him are not urging him to do anything about his plight: they are manifestations of a deathly infection, a soothing inertia looking to encourage his self-abnegation. The voice of Santa Teresa, of a place become sentient and maleficent?
(The voice, purporting to be his father, mocks Amalfitano.
And you’ve also thought about your daughter. And about the murders committed daily in this city . . . But you haven’t thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand.
Amalfitano denies this. But the voice continues: “If you had thought about it you’d be dancing to the tune of a different piper.”)
Or, of course, he may be responsible for Lola’s madness, a madness, as has been suggested, that’s contagious, but the source spreading the contagion remaining unclear. It’s the kind of absence that makes 2666 so interesting. It’s a book full of gaps and blind-spots we can’t comprehend or apprehend, just out of reach, the dread of not-knowing that’s worse than any terrible certainty and which has claimed, in its way, another victim in Amalfitano. There’s only so much he can control or conceive: all the philosophers and great minds assembled on his six drawings and listed columns don’t have the answers: his incipient-insanity marshaling of them in strange agglomerations is the desperation of philosophical dead-ends when it comes to this terrible, blighted species. He can’t evade a “pain which will finally triumph.” All he has left is fear and abstraction and vividly horrifying imaginings, with “purple skies the color of an Indian woman beaten to death,” unspeakable nightmares that set out pathways leading back to his immediate, daily terror.
Amalfitano has passed up another kind of male existence: one in which he talks to his father about boxing, one his daughter will gravitate towards in Part 3, circling ever closer to a sense of lawlessness and murderousness, the cusp of an underworld in which those responsible for the Santa Teresa murders frequent, along with another man who is cut out for such a world, who has had to evolve as such, for complex reasons. Amalfitano is merely left with questions: Bolaño, through him, asks bleaker and bleaker ones. No answers are forthcoming, but a coalescent cohesion is forming, eloquent but mystifying.
Nearly six years after first reading 2666, Part 2 is the part I remember best. It was my favorite the first time through, though perhaps it was also the most frustrating. It haunted me (affecting pretty much everything else I’ve ever read by Bolaño), and left me no assurances I’d ever understand why. I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s here that Bolaño approaches what he’s trying to say most closely and overtly. Yet I also think it’s one of the trickiest parts, and I am positive I’m not even scratching the surface of understanding it.
It begins with uncertainty, and then a doubt about that very uncertainty:
I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.
Yes, there’s the question: what am I doing here; I don’t know. Then the uncertainty is subverted: “Don’t you? Don’t you really?” I believe Amalfitano when he tells himself that he really doesn’t. I also believe the voice is right to question that. After all, Amalfitano stays in one of the worst possible places in the world with a wandering seventeen-year-old daughter, Rosa.
Interestingly, almost the first half of this relatively short part is not about Amalfitano or Rosa but is about the woman who abandoned them years before: Lola. And though we met Amalfitano in Part 1, for me the more substantive links to Part 1 are between Lola and the critics. Lola’s quest for the poet — her own literary obsession — brings to mind the critics’ search for Archimboldi; the poet residing in an insane asylum brings to mind the painter who cut off his hand. Lola writes letters to those she abandoned, like Liz Norton. Yet the story here goes in a different direction: Lola is mentally unstable from the get-go (probably more insane than the poet she visits), and she ends up wandering around in cemeteries.
When the books shifts to Amalfitano, whom we’ve seen a few times reflecting on the letters he’s gotten years before from his long-gone wife, he notes that madness is contagious. Whether he means he’s gotten it from his wife (probable) or from the constant dread he experiences while simultaneously being absolutely bored as his daughter is at constant risk in Santa Teresa (also probable) isn’t what’s important. The thing that’s sure is that Amalfitano is going mad.
From the conventional perspective, yes. And yet there’s the idea that Amalfitano (like some of the philosophers he brings up in his strange, incoherent diagrams) isn’t so much going mad as becoming free. His fear is driving him mad, and yet his fear is completely rational. His desire to explore the ontological lead him to discard much of what typical human beings do, because he sees such pursuits are quite removed from the deeper question: why am I here in Santa Teresa? When he thinks it would be great if his daughter could go to Spain and start again, he asks, “To start what?” He’s going mad. He doesn’t see the point. Or, rather, he’s seeing beyond the point.
There’s a point to organizing life in a way that allows for security and happiness and order, yes:
Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their own satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.
But this is exactly what Bolaño is not doing in 2666. He’s doing this paragraph in reverse. Like Amalfitano, he’s looking beyond order and asking why? What good is turning chaos into order if it is just an illusion, one with a human life-span (a bit less, in some cases)? And is that a suggestion at the end that doing so, that finding some organizing principle, is insane? Whether you agree with his sentiments or not, I feel you have to respect that he’s grappling with some deep issues here, whether the fear of emptiness we find in “The Whiteness of the Whale” from Moby-Dick (which I talk about here) or the eternal pain and deep evil out there. Melville’s Ishmael says, “. . . pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper . . .”
Well, one thing’s for sure, for Amalfitano that famous void is approaching fast. He can either look into it (he’s peering at the edges throughout this whole part) or he can “wake.”
Here are some questions we’ve put together as potential sparks for discussion (or to help us understand things better), but feel free to talk about whatever you’d like in the comments below:
- Part 2 mentions telepathy at least three times, and other forms of coded communication often, including Araucanians’ “secret” triangle of writing (which links to Dieste’s book) and Adkintuwe. What is the significance of such matters in 2666? Is there a coded message in the mass murder? Does Amalfitano’s vivid image of Lola working as a cleaner in Paris suggest telepathy? And what of Amalfitano’s strange and yet interesting theory of jet lag, that phenomenon of turning “the pain of others into memories of one’s own”?
- What do we make of Marco Antonio Guerra?
- Why does Bolaño end with a dream about Boris Yeltsin, which provides Amalfitano with a conversation about “the third leg of the human table” and an equation: “supply + demand + magic”?
- Who or what do the voices in Amalfitano’s head represent?
- If “madness is contagious,” what is the source of the contagion in 2666?
- What doe we make of the connections to ancient Greece, both in Lola’s visions of herself and in the alleged connection between Greece and Chile?