Roberto Bolaño Explores the Intersections of Art, Power and Murder in “2666”

Be warned – Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel “2666” isn’t for the faint of heart. This big, difficult beast of a book weighs in at 900 pages, almost one third of them describing in clinical detail the epidemic of femicides occurring in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where since 1993 hundreds (possibly thousands) of women have been violently raped, killed and mutilated. For those of you who contemplate abandoning the novel during the sickening section, “The Part About The Crimes”, take heart – the emotional and intellectual payoff waiting on the other side is worth the effort.

The story is told in five mysterious parts, many of them featuring love triangles between emotionally stunted characters trying to make sense out of an increasingly threatening world. In “The Part About The Critics,” we meet an international troupe of literary critics – one each from Spain, France, Italy and England – all of them obsessed with a reclusive German author named Benno von Archimboldi. Traveling from one obscure literary symposium to the next, the four form a fast friendship that soon evolves into kind of sad love triangle between the English critic Liz Norton and her sometimes lovers Espinoza and Pelletier, Spanish and French critics more interested in the idea of intimacy than the thing itself. The trio travels to Mexico, hot on the trail of Archimboldi, leaving the crippled Italian critic Morini behind in Europe.

But once in Santa Teresa, Mexico (a fictional border town symbolizing Ciudad Juarez), the critics are overwhelmed by the hostile landscape, where “the sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower” and the children playing soccer resemble “a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death.” We learn of the “murder epidemic”, the femicides, and soon everyone’s dreams are invaded by ghosts, strange and evil portents of things to come. Liz Norton flees the country, returning to Europe, and the elusive author Archimboldi is never found.

In part two, “The Part About Amalfitano”, we meet the Chilean exile Amalfitano, a middling intellectual trying to raise his beautiful daughter in Santa Teresa, the murder capital of the world, where women and girls regularly disappear from dance clubs or short walks to and from work, their bodies found days or weeks later in the desert. After his wife abandons him for a poet (another sad love triangle) then descends into madness and sexual perversion, Amalfitano accepts a teaching position at the University of Santa Teresa, which is like “a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain. It was also like an empty dance club.” In order to cope with his exile and his concern for his daughter Rosa, Amalfitano entertains “make-believe ideas. As if he were looking out the window and forcing himself to see an extraterrestrial landscape.” These fanciful ideas sustain him, forming what might be the core conceit of the novel itself:

“Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their 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.”

Exiled from his country, abandoned by the mother of his child, fearing for his daughter’s safety, Amalfitano succumbs to paranoia. He hears disembodied voices, warning that Rosa is in imminent danger. And in the next section of the story, the pulp-fiction-inspired “The Part About Fate,” we learn that Amalfitano’s worries aren’t without justification. Bolaño introduces us to the black American sports reporter Oscar Fate, visiting Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match for the African-American interest magazine Black Dawn. Fate learns about the murders, and that “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” He requests permission to write about the epidemic. But his editor is only concerned about the boxing match, and Fate’s request is denied. After the match, Fate becomes mixed up in a boozy after party, tagging along as the third party to yet another strange love triangle to save Rosa Amalfitano from what surely would have been a horrible fate.

In part four, “The Part About The Crimes,” Bolaño recounts with forensic detachment the atrocities being committed against women in Mexico. It’s a horrifying read, almost three hundred pages of stomach-churning detail: rape and torture and mutilation and sodomy and stabbing and murder and hopelessness, page after page, one woman or girl after the next, in brutal succession. Several scenes here made me physically ill.

cover art for Roberto Bolano's novel 2666 (literature)

2666 is worth the effort

Bolaño takes us on a kind of ghostly tour of Santa Teresa, the bodies serving to bring the surrounding slums into sharp relief. Santa Teresa seems to exist outside of time, populated by invisible, disposable workers hoping to make a better life for themselves in the maquiladoras, or across the border in the United States. Where the love triangles in the earlier portions of the novel feature emotionally battered people, the three forces at play in “The Part About The Crimes” are sex, power and fear – fear in every conceivable incarnation:

“There are odder things than sacraphobia, said Elvira Campos, especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here. In fact, I’d say all Mexicans are essentially sacraphobes. Or take gephyrophobia, a classic fear. Lots of people suffer from it. What’s gephyrophobia? Asked Juan de Dios Martínez. The fear of crossing bridges. That’s right, I knew someone once, well, it was a boy, really, who was afraid that when he crossed a bridge it would collapse, so he’d run across it, which was much more dangerous. A classic, said Elvira Campos. Another classic: claustrophobia. Fear of confined spaces. And another: agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces. I’ve heard of those, said Juan de Dios Martínez. And one more: necrophobia. Fear of the dead, said Juan de Dios Martínez, I’ve known people like that. It’s a handicap for a policeman. Then there’s hemophobia, fear of blood. That’s right, said Juan de Dios Martínez. And peccataphobia, fear of committing sins. But there are other, rarer, fears. For instance, clinophobia. Do you know what that is? No idea, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Fear of beds. Can anyone really fear beds, or hate them? Actually, yes, there are people who do. But they can deal with the problem by sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom. And then there’s tricophobia, or fear of hair. That’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? Yes, very much so. There are cases of tricophobia that end in suicide. And there’s verbophobia, fear of words. Which must mean it’s best not to speak, said Juan de Dios Martínez. There’s more to it than that, because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence, is it? And then we have vestiphobia, which is fear of clothes. It sounds strange but it’s much more widespread than you’d expect. And this one is relatively common: iatrophobia, or fear of doctors. Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn’t that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don’t know what to say to that, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Then there are two fears that are really very romantic: ombrophobia and thalassophobia, or fear of rain and fear of the sea. And two others with a touch of the romantic: anthophobia, or fear of flowers, and dendrophobia, fear of trees. Some Mexican men may be gynophobes, said Juan de Dios Martínez, but not all of them, it can’t be that bad. What do you think optophobia is? Asked the director. Opto, opto, something to do with the eyes, my God, fear of the eyes? Even worse: fear of opening the eyes. In a figurative sense, that’s an answer to what you just said about gynophobia. In a literal sense, it leads to violent attacks, loss of consciousness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and generally aggressive behavior. I know, though not personally, of course, of two cases in which the patient went so far as to mutilate himself. He put his eyes out? With his fingers, the nails, said the director. Good God, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Then we have pedophobia, of course, which is fear of children, and ballistophobia, fear of bullets. That’s my phobia, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Yes, I suppose it’s only common sense, said the director. And another phobia, this one on the rise: tropophobia, or the fear of making changes or moving. Which can be aggravated if it becomes agyrophobia, fear of streets or crossing the street. Not to forget chromophobia, which is fear of certain colors, or nyctophobia, fear of night, or ergophobia, fear of work. A common complaint is decidophobia, the fear of making decisions. And there’s a fear that’s just beginning to spread, which is anthrophobia, or fear of people. Some Indians suffer from a heightened form of astrophobia, which is fear of meteorological phenomena like thunder and lightning. But the worst phobias, in my opinion, are pantophobia, which is fear of everything, and phobophobia, fear of fear itself. If you had to suffer from one of the two, which would you choose? Phobophobia, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Think carefully, it has its drawbacks, said the director. Between being afraid of everything and being afraid of my own fear, I’d take the latter. Don’t forget I’m a policeman and if I was scared of everything I couldn’t work. But if you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle, said the director.”

The vicious feedback loop of femicides is fueled by money and power, facilitated by a whole host of people: apathetic policemen, sociopathic drug lords, vicious pimps and corrupt politicians. “They’re all mixed up in it,” observes Amalfitano at one point about his neighbors. Bolaño’s own outspoken literary and leftist opinions led to his voluntary exile from Chile, and many of his characters wander, like exiles, from one locale to the next, trying to navigate a world where culture and national identity have been ground down by the massive rumblings of global commerce.

The story of Klaus Haas, a huge blond German with “the footsteps of a giant,” is the thread stringing the final three parts of “2666” together. We are introduced to him in part three, see him captured, accused, and imprisoned in part four, and come to understand his significance in part five, “The Part About Archimboldi”. In lyrical language recalling European mythology we are introduced to the young German Hans Reiter, a gentle giant of a boy who is raised with his sister Lotte by a one-eyed mother and a one-legged father. Reiter is conscripted into the German military and ends up fighting for Hitler’s forces in World War II, where his dazed approach to combat is mistaken for German bravery. Introduced to literature by a well-educated friend, Reiter escapes an American P.O.W. camp after the war, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi, and starts to write.

For those who manage to survive “The Part About The Crimes,” this final, beautiful section of the novel is like stumbling on an oasis in the desert. Archimboldi is mixed up in yet another love triangle, alternating between his two loves: the emotionally unstable Ingeborg and a former baroness he first glimpses as a child, then encounters again during the war, and finally meets for brief liaisons for the remainder of his career. Archimboldi is a recluse, running from a murder he commits after the war, disappearing into hiding only to surface in remote locations with a new manuscript, stories focusing on human suffering – how we endure it, how we survive it, and what it means. And so of course, in the end, he is drawn to Santa Teresa, to Mexico, and to Klaus Haas, promising his sister Lotte that he will “take care of it all” for her, get to the bottom of the horrors unfolding in the desert.

This is a brilliant and fearless novel, a political novel exploring how individuals manage to cope in a post-national world, where individuality is often sacrificed in the name of progress, or in the advancement of ideology. Literature, the text seems to imply, offers a tool we can use to impose some sort of order onto the mess. Bolaño argues that art – far from being the product of an idle mind – is one of the most effective weapons we have in an ongoing struggle against a history increasingly blind to human suffering. Viewed through that lens, every writer (and reader, too) has a duty to ask and answer tough questions. So many of us choose to do just the opposite, to turn a blind eye to the big questions, enabling situations like the murders in the Sonoran desert to continue:

“What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. 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.”

Because these “minor works” not only waste our time, they obscure the real combat happening in the masterpieces. The big questions that need to be asked and answered. “Behind every answer lies a question … Behind every indisputable answer lies an even more complex question … Only in chaos are we conceivable.”

Go big, then. Or go home.