Every life, Epifanio said that night to Lalo Cura, no matter how happy it is, ends in pain and suffering. That depends, said Lalo Cura. Depends on what, champ? On lots of things, said Lalo Cura. Say you’re shot in the back of the head, for example, and you don’t hear the motherfucker come up behind you, then you’re off to the next world, no pain, no suffering. Goddamn kid, said Epifanio. Have you ever been shot in the back of the head?
With Part 4, we dive head first into the darkness Bolaño has been circumnavigating for the first three parts. We’ve heard about, maybe even feared, the mass murders of young women in Santa Teresa, but here they come front and center. So front and center, in fact, that little else penetrates this part. Bolaño rushes the line of numbing us to these terrors, goes over it, and then continually shocks us back to sensitivity. How, then, is it such a masterpiece of writing?
As I’ve admitted already, when I first read 2666 I was unsatisfied, and I thought that was the book’s fault. Part 4 had a lot (not all) to do with that. Here we get one death after another. Some are certainly unrelated to any of the other murders. But other suggest — and only suggest — some connection, some pattern, which in turn suggests a solution. But there is no solution. As in life, we get pieces that possibly, maybe even probably, will never add up to anything. Some things cannot be solved because they are not composed of pieces. They cannot be contained.
In five pages we read about six murders. We read about the church desecrator. We read about Klaus Haas, Epifanio, a television psychic named Florita Almada, Juan de Dios Martínez, and a fellow named Lalo Cura, which put together differently is “la locura,” or “the madness.” None of these characters truly knows what is going on, though all — just like us — are trying to understand them, to shape them.
I admit that I cannot shape this part. It’s a horror I do not comprehend. I’m excited to read how others are doing and how you’re shaping this section, because . . . where is this laughter coming from?
Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of the streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.
You will come anyway – so why not now?
I wait for you; things have become too hard.
I have turned out the lights and opened the door
For you, so simple and so wonderful.
Assume whatever shape you wish. Burst in
Like a shell of noxious gas. Creep up on me
Like a practised bandit with a heavy weapon.
Poison me, if you want, with a typhoid exhalation,
Or, with a simple tale prepared by you
(And known by all to the point of nausea), take me
Before the commander of the blue caps and let me
The house administrator’s terrified white face.
I don’t care anymore. The river Yenisey
Swirls on. The Pole star blazes.
The blue sparks of those much-loved eyes
Close over and cover the final horror.
Why open with that Anna Akhmatova poem? Partly because it seems absolutely apt for what unfolds, and I think both Akhmatova and Bolaño are attempting to wrest a kind of terrible, desperate, solemnly deferential and disbelieving grandeur out of unspeakable murderous mayhem but also: its subject is Stalin’s terror and purges. In 2666, there are no such nefarious ideologies run amok. Something has run amok — but what, exactly? We can’t pinpoint a straw man here to hang our despair on. (I believe that all such men, Hitler, Stalin et al, are propulsive singular manifestations of something in our nature that is self-annihilating — I think Bolaño felt the same way.) There is no focus for us in Part 4 of 2666 as a propagator of evil: the killer or killers rampage unseen. We can’t fathom a justification for anything that happens, and we suspect there isn’t one. But is there a reason for the accumulation of mutilated corpses? And should we want to know it? What do the murders tell us, about us or anything? 2666, Part 4, brings up those old unanswerable questions over and over again, relentlessly, imploringly, confrontationally. What does mass murder mean? Even whilst wide-eyed, as I picked the book up again midway through Part 4, with a “once more into the breach” foreboding, I could see that there was nothing exploitative, nothing sensationalist, nothing underhand going on. I had been inducted into the requisite mindset, and was eager to know exactly what end Bolaño had in mind with this catalog of horror. And for me, this is what I found.
I think Part 4 is a kind of art piece, on the one hand. He’s trying to move us beyond ideas of grief and horror: he’s smelting the constituent elements of unspeakable nightmare and presenting them as a kind of mystical, eloquent whole. (Is it the strange statue emerging from trembling waters in part one?) What does a pile of bones mean? What does suffering actually mean, once it has passed? Has it passed, ever, or does it transmutate into its environment? Is it that environment and those inhabitants speaking to the world, or the universe? Why do we feel pain reading a fictional account of gang-rape and murder, and is there something we can do with that restoratively, in terms of our evolution? What can such empathy achieve, if anything?
Unchecked chaos: is it the inability of man to prevent this descent or is it man’s ultimate nature as self-annihilating? Is Part 4 a microcosm of our ultimate fate, that final testament to our species the mass grave Bolaño references?
The gradual feeling I had as Bolaño generated this numb concatenation of grueling horror was one of respect. I rejected the cheapness, the despicable ordinariness of shabby murderous violence. I felt angry: that this was happening, that it does happen, and we bury it, day-to-day, supposedly to protect ourselves from its corrosive soul-wrecking poison. We build layers around this truth, this, for some, unremarkable fact, and in doing that we bury self-indicting secrets. Bolaño drags them out into the open and it feels necessary. It’s not just cautionary: it’s a mirror. Let’s look at ourselves, what we are capable of, all of us, Bolaño asks.
Overshadowed by such horror, can we live better, more honestly? How many people never read a newspaper, or filter out the bleak stuff and swim in safe waters, all to perpetuate a comforting falsehood? Should we bear witness to these acts, wherever they occur? If not, why?
The repetitive viciousness of the clinical reports of murder and mutilation become a kind of white noise: Bolaño is working to occupy a keening pitch that circumvents disgust and becomes pure message, a stress signal redeploying all the forgotten dead as a kind of flat, ineffable music that can’t be repelled. And this particular piece says: human beings are in their final throes, at the end, with nowhere left to go, Godless, annihilating themselves. It’s a fight beyond everyone as it’s by everyone. The bystanders and witnesses, though, should not look away.
I don’t say I agree with Bolaño necessarily, but I do think that Part 4 is a compelling case for our species as a kind of viral strain being worked off the face of the earth by itself, cognizant of the end of its own arc and enacting self destruction. I can’t get away from that reading: I’d love to hear compelling counter arguments. I think it’s an interesting idea and this kind of mantra of extremely upsetting detail sounds almost like some end days otherworldly audit, disbelief switched with curious equanimity. These things can’t happen, but are.
Have we ever had a period of history when such things are not always occurring somewhere? Why? How can life be so cheap? Because it’s neither cheap nor expensive, it’s merely subject to our vacillating, geographically varying valuations, and in order to endure we feel we must look away from those befalling a fate much worse than our own. Bolaño demands to know what we feel gives us that right. Are these women just unlucky? Who is rolling the dice?
What is the message Santa Teresa writes that we are supposed to interpret? I’m not sure. But best to keep to Lalo Cura’s mindset — whom we see last in this penultimate part looking for clues at a murder scene long after everyone else, almost everyone else, has moved on — and keep looking, keep thinking. A solution seems unlikely, but at the very least, if you head into the spider cave, once out the other side the stars seem brighter.