In the first part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, four academics from different nations follow a rumor concerning the elusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi that leads them to the depressing border city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, epicenter of a series of savage murders of women. Bolaño now leaves behind Archimboldi and his four critics; the narrative becomes more close, confined, threatening, sowing increasingly ominous suggestions about the murders in this abyss of a city, such that even the sound of footsteps seem charged with dread.
Occupying the titular center of this second of five linked parts of 2666 is Oscar Amalfitano, introduced in the novel’s first part as another university professor and Archimboldi expert who has helped the scholars in their unsuccessful quest. The narrative here backs up several paces to the period of Amalfitano’s arrival in Santa Teresa, where, with his 17-year-old daughter Rosa, he inhabits a humble house, its small yard surrounded by concrete topped with jagged glass. His wife Lola, Rosa’s mother, has long ago decamped, pursuing, not unlike the young scholars, an obsession with a writer, a young poet more physically tangible than the mythological Archimboldi: Lola’s obsession is as much sexual as intellectual, to the point that she’s convinced she can cure the poet of his homosexuality.
Amalfitano shares with the critics a quality of internationalism; he’s Chilean and has lived in Argentina, Spain and now Mexico (several of these particulars, among others in this more personal, intimate section of the novel, he also shares with Bolaño himself, including an invested concern with Chile’s literary and cultural state, as emphasized when Amalfitano recalls a work of outrageously nationalistic, mythic fantasy involving Chile’s Araucanian origins). But Amalfitano presents a markedly different portrait of the academic. His interest in Archimboldi is admiring but “nothing like the adoration the critics felt for him.” Unlike the privileged Europeans, Amalfitano lives constrained by necessity, anxiety over his daughter in this city where so many young women have been murdered, and a suspicion that he may be going mad, especially given that he hears voices, or at least a voice, perhaps that of his father or grandfather (motif in 2666: whispers and disembodied voices). He inhabits a gritty reality and a sense of helplessness; among the more memorable sections of the The Part About Amalfitano is a resigned pause in the velocity of the narrative consisting entirely of the word “Help” followed by a period.
When Amalfitano is first introduced in The Part About the Critics, he presents to the Europeans a pathetic, baffling figure. Like thousands of Chileans under the Pinochet dictatorship, Amalfitano chose “the path of exile,” calling it “a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.” The puzzled Pelletier counters that “exile…is full of inconveniences, of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important,” to which Amalfitano, having escaped prison or worse, replies, “That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate.” The critics are equally uncomprehending of a monologue by Amalfitano concerning the place of the writer in Mexico, a fanciful but nonetheless cogent discourse on the writer’s responsibilities with regard to state power and concerning which Norton admits that she hasn’t understood a word, even when the monologue is replete with suggestions of the obliviousness of intellectuals: “The roars keep coming from the opening of the mine and the intellectuals keep misinterpreting them.”
If the grimness and violence of the world seem at a remove to the critics, who have shrugged and blindly gone on about their lives even after participation in a violent act, Amalfitano, here at the end of his tether, nonetheless keeps an eye open. Ostensibly resigned and passive, he nevertheless maintains an awareness and even a kind of resistance, in his near madness spinning “idiosyncratic ideas…Make-believe ideas,” which serve to “turn 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…[the ideas] turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.” Amalfitano makes a gesture, perhaps futile and absurd, but aimed squarely at the world’s incomprehensibility. Inexplicably finding among his books a work of geometry (written by a poet, no less), Amalfitano recreates a conceptual art piece, “Unhappy Readymade,” given by Marcel Duchamp to a couple as a wedding present with instructions to hang the book outside on a clothesline such that the wind can ruffle through its pages “to choose its own problems.” An absurdity, the book nonetheless seems to Amalfitano “clearer, steadier, more reasonable” than anything he’s seen around Santa Teresa, which offers (like much of Bolaño’s text itself, one might argue) only “images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.”
Almost subconsciously, Amalfitano begins to draw geometric figures linking seeming random names of writers and philosophers, as though sown there by the wind, in an order Amalfitano himself cannot grasp. Bolaño has used puzzling graphic figures before – they appear in The Savage Detectives and in Antwerp – and they seem to represent, like the Duchamp’s ready-made, a kind of poetic grasping for comprehension that lies outside of language, or at least beyond one’s ability to articulate meaning, not that this should stop one from trying. One of these figures, with Harold Bloom and Allan Bloom located along a segment connecting an activist dead in Stalin’s camps with a Soviet ideologue “prepared to countenance any atrocity or crime,” leaves Amalfitano curious as to what seems “funny” about it. At once here’s an example of Bolaño’s use of omission, of encouraging readers to fill in the blanks, to involve them actively (it’s telling that Bolaño references Julio Cortazar’s “active reader” in this section) and of Bolano’s challenge to the reader to seek comprehensible patterns in seemingly disparate elements (not that they necessarily exist). The puzzle is tempting, and any number of “solutions” can be suggested. For example, someone might find it telling that Allan Bloom gets put to the right of Harold Bloom on this Likert scale running from resistance to countenance of atrocity, or maybe these two Blooms suggest another, perhaps the “carnivorous flower” of the sky above Santa Teresa, or maybe that of Archimboldi’s The Endless Rose, the book Amalfitano has translated (another motif in 2666: flower/bloom imagery). Maybe it’s that there’s no Bloomsbury, or maybe no Leopold Bloom. One could play like this all day, as there’s no shortage of games and humor in 2666. But as Amalfitano says to his daughter, there are “worse things happening” than a geometry book hanging on a cord. Heck, maybe what makes it “funny” is no Molly Bloom. A missing woman.
For in The Part About Amalfitano, Bolaño has begun, through Amalfitano’s general un-ease as well as his concern for his daughter, to dig down into the horror of missing and murdered women in Santa Teresa. The growing sense of dread is intensely palpable, especially aided by an awkward relationship Amalfitano can hardly evade, that with his Dean’s son, Marco Guerra, who approaches Amalfitano and strikes up a one-way relationship, and whose attitudes betray an unpleasant, even menacing aggression, (Guerra’s attire bears a creepy resemblance to that worn by a man seen with one of the murdered girls before her disappearance, as described in journalist Teresa Rodriguez’s book about the murders, The Daughters of Juarez). And even in Amalfitano’s reading of the batty book about the telepathic Araucanians, which might have been but a thinly veiled, gratuitous diatribe by Bolaño concerning his own country, the relevance to the murders is evident: one element of the work that disturbs Amalfitano is a reference to ritual rape, and another is his conviction that the book could easily have been written by Pinochet himself, given its appeal to a notion of an all encompassing, collusive exertion of state power. As the section ends, Amalfitano’s meditations on the Araucanian book give way to sleep and dreams. He dreams another uneasy and grasping flight of imagination, involving the absurd and even comical, since a vodka-swilling Boris Yeltsin makes an appearance. But the dream culminates with a hellish image: a crater “streaked with red or…a latrine streaked with red,” an abyss (neither the first nor the last gaping void in 2666), into which Amalfitano doesn’t dare to look, but from which, one may imagine, though any explicit suggestion of sound is omitted by Bolaño, that howls and roars are assuredly emerging.
The 2666 group read is sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos.