More like a Cemetery

Michael Wood

Roberto Bolaño likes to prolong his jokes well past the moment when even the slowest reader has got the point. Nazi Literature in the Americas, for example, looks like a single gag – the brief deadpan biography of an imaginary Fascist or near Fascist writer – multiplied by 30-odd cases over 200 pages. But then it dawns on even the slowest reader that what looked like the point wasn’t the point; and that the jokes were not only jokes. This book is not a satirical attack on the right-wing imagination in North and South America: it is a darkly comic celebration of the wilder horizons of writing, good, plodding, lunatic and terrible.

What is compelling about these portraits is not their plausibility, which is slender and intermittent, but their profusion and variety. Here are socialites, adventurers, psychopaths, thugs and dreamers, united in a single obsession: literature. They all write, in the romantic, non-clerical sense of the word. And what’s frightening about the portraits is that the right-wing here is clearly, for Bolaño, a mirror image of the left. It’s not that the politics don’t make a difference. They make all the difference. But they may be the only difference there is to make, and the sheer intensity of the parallel investment in writing becomes all the more troubling. Literature on both sides – there probably isn’t any literature in the centre, at least in Bolaño’s view – is delusion, disease. It could also be the cure for that condition, but we don’t know that yet, and if it isn’t the cure, there is no other.

It takes a while for the above-mentioned slowest reader, myself in this instance, to realise that there is something strange about the imaginary dating in this book. The actual years of publication of Nazi Literature in the Americas were 1996 in Spanish and 2008 in English. All the writers described are dead, and the 30 principal cases are followed by a list of 61 ‘secondary figures’, also dead. They were born in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Port-au-Prince, Los Angeles, Topeka, Pittsburgh, all over the continent; and they died across an even greater geographical range, from New York to Paris or Berlin, and from Cordova to Kampala and Rio. One of them, ‘the infamous Ramírez Hoffman’, was born in Santiago de Chile in 1950, three years before Bolaño, and like Bolaño later lived in Lloret del Mar in Spain. He died in 1998, while Bolaño died in 2003; and he was the vicious madman that Bolaño perhaps thought he himself could have been. The curious thing, though, is that although all of the characters in the book are dead, they are not all dead yet, either in 1996 or 2009. Some have death dates of 2017, or 2029, and one of them dies as late as 2040. None of them reaches 2666, the title time of Bolaño’s last novel, but we do see the post-dating device at work. This book knows the future and is glancing backwards from an even further future.

The Nazi writers aren’t all Nazis, some were just fond of their old photographs of Hitler or keen on Nazi uniforms or inclined to blame the Jews for everything. Others managed to die in Berlin in 1945 or write sagas about the Fourth Reich, or found organisations like the Aryan Brotherhood. This doesn’t sound like great material for comedy, but Bolaño’s mournful inventiveness can make you laugh out loud. I was particularly drawn to one figure in Zach Sodenstern’s Gunther O’Connell saga, ‘a mutant, stray German Shepherd with telepathic powers and Nazi tendencies’. ‘He tried desperately to make friends,’ we hear of a literary editor, ‘but enemies were all he ever had.’ The Duchess of Bahamontes was ‘a fine gardener in her old age’. The last work of an Argentinian football fan turned writer ‘contains historical inaccuracies, which may, however, be deranged metaphors for truths of another kind’. What are we to say of the career of the Texan convict who ‘dabbled in a broad range of delinquent activities without developing a particular specialty’? Or of the even sadder trajectory of Luiz Fontaine de Souza, a Brazilian philosopher who started out by publishing a massive refutation of Voltaire, went on to write sizeable separate books refuting Diderot, D’Alembert, Montesquieu and Rousseau respectively, and finally managed to get into one hefty volume a refutation of Hegel, Marx and Feuerbach?

This very life is a desperate refutation of its refutations, and the sympathy for failure we find everywhere in Bolaño’s work is matched only by an ever present anxiety about avoiding it. In 2666 a Russian writer is haunted by various fears: ‘Fear that one’s efforts and striving will come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace … But above all, fear of being no good.’ On a lighter but still chilling note, a mental hospital that is initially described as ‘a house for the vanished writers of Europe’ turns out to shelter figures marked by something worse than disappearance. ‘The old man in pyjamas,’ we are told, ‘looked less like a vanished novelist than like a justly forgotten novelist.’ You need to have thought a lot about the way writers look (and the way they fail) to understand this distinction, let alone be interested in it.

In Amulet (1999), Bolaño’s remarkable novella published between The Savage Detectives (1998) and 2666, the narrator gives us a three-page prophecy about which writers will be doing what in the 21st and 22nd centuries (‘Paul Celan shall rise from his ashes in the year 2113. André Breton shall return through mirrors in the year 2071. Max Jacob shall cease to be read, that is to say his last reader shall die, in the year 2059’). This narrator, who first appears and tells a piece of her story in The Savage Detectives, is tempted to call herself ‘the mother of Mexican poetry’ but seems more like an inspired literary groupie. She doesn’t carry her predictions as far as the 27th century, but she does name the date that gives Bolaño’s later book its title. She is describing a street in Mexico City at night and says it ‘is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child’. The first three dates are all relevant to the narrative of Amulet, and the leap to the fourth is startling, not only because of the sheer distance in time but because of the precision: the cemetery has a tag on it; even oblivion likes statistics.

By Night in Chile (2000) – the Spanish title literally involves a nocturne – returns to the world of Nazi Literature in the Americas but without the burlesque tone. Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix is a Chilean priest who has always been, as he says, ‘on history’s side’, although he is confused enough to believe that claiming to be ‘the most liberal member of the Opus Dei in the Republic’ is some kind of defence of his position. His worst crime appears to be to have given belated lessons in Marxism to Pinochet and other members of the Junta, anxious to catch up on their history and political theory lessons. Pinochet was especially attentive. The priest is also a poet and a reviewer, thoroughly devoted to literature, however haplessly, as so many of Bolaño’s characters are. He is dying, and reports his confused and not so confused memories to us in the first person. He is certainly clear-headed enough to remember that the literary salon he used to attend took place in a house where people were being tortured in the basement. His hostess, whom he meets up with again long after these events, says, ‘That is how literature is made in Chile,’ and our narrator eagerly takes up the tune:

That is how literature is made in Chile, but not just in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy. That is how literature is made. Or at least what we call literature, to keep ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump.

It’s not clear whether literature is made because or in spite of the torture in the basement, and this ambiguity is part of what is disturbing about the power of Bolaño’s fiction. Could he do without the torture? Is he overly taken with it? Maybe the question is too hypothetical, given the horrors the world affords without any special encouragement.

In the English-speaking world Bolaño has already met with the kind of success that among Latin American writers only Gabriel García Márquez has achieved, an ironic victory given Bolaño’s endless attacks on what he regarded as a mere mainstream of literature. The distinctive signature of his work should assure his ghost that he need no longer worry, if he ever did, about being no good. Whether he is as good as he wanted to be, or in the way he wanted to be, is another question, and the answer can’t be simple. It depends, I think, not only on the literary quality of the hugely ambitious late work, especially 2666, but on how we read it and what we are looking for.

Bolaño’s literary executor, Ignacio Echevarría, tells us that ‘the novel as it was left at Bolaño’s death is very nearly what he intended it to be.’ He had a plan for publishing the five parts of the book as five separate novels, but this, it seems, was a dying man’s scheme to make more money for his wife and children, and there is no doubt that the parts belong in one work, and that, interesting as they are in their apparent independence, they make significant sense only when taken together.

That sense is pretty elusive, though, and the local pleasures of the novel, the anecdotes, excursions and digressions, the pile-up of histories from 1914 to 2001 and from Berlin to the US-Mexican border, are much easier to grasp and enjoy. ‘The style,’ Bolaño’s narrator says of a novel within the novel, ‘was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere.’ Bolaño’s own writing is clear, often matter-of-fact, only occasionally lifting into lyrical or gothic metaphor, and driven by an apparently inexhaustible ability to invent concrete and detailed stories. It’s as if the method of Nazi Literature in the Americas had become a malleable narrative device, a sort of throwback to Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights. A trip to a restaurant in London generates a full biography of a painter who worked in the neighbourhood; when a man in Germany rents a typewriter we get the full history of the person who owns the machine; the procedure is almost endless. The way these stories arise and fade away doesn’t give us the sense that the narrative leads nowhere; just the sense that it doesn’t lead anywhere obvious, and that we are going to have to work out the connections that Bolaño has left for us to make.

Each section of the book is titled ‘The Part about …’: there is ‘The Part about the Critics’, ‘The Part about Amalfitano’, ‘The Part about Fate’, ‘The Part about the Crimes’ and ‘The Part about Archimboldi’. The first and the fifth parts meet up since the critics – one French, one Italian, one Spanish and one English, like the characters in an old joke – are all specialists in the work of the reclusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi, whose story is told in the last section. The name, with its resemblance to that of the painter’s, is a strategy within the fiction, the writer’s choice of a pseudonym, and Bolaño’s mischievous invitation to confusion. Someone mistakes the writer for the painter on the first page. The critics don’t get to see the writer, although they follow his trail to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, an intricately developed fictional version of Ciudad Juárez. This is where they encounter and are taken around by Oscar Amalfitano, a Chilean philosopher who teaches at the University of Santa Teresa, and who is the subject of a section in his own right. The critics might have met (and Amalfitano does meet) the African American journalist whose adventures are the subject of the third part, less abstractly titled than it seems, since Fate is not, or not most immediately, the philosophical theme but the man’s name – his first name, like that of Amalfitano, is Oscar, as it happens. Nothing at all is made of this coincidence. Fate arrives in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match between a North American and a Mexican fighter – it’s over very quickly, before the end of the second round – and hears disturbing stories about the killing of women in the town, more than 200 in just a few years. These killings form the grim subject of ‘The Part about the Crimes’, Bolaño’s tour de force, and a piece of writing sufficient in its own right to give him good odds against oblivion.

Even here, though, the weight or significance of the stories remains elusive. Bolaño’s method is to describe the crimes not only without any stylistic frills or registration of affect but almost without variation, so that the sheer monotony of the accounts becomes part of the horror. We learn the name, the age, the height of the victim, what she was wearing or not wearing, where she was found, the cause of death. ‘The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was 13.’ ‘Five days later … Luisa Celina Vásquez was strangled. She was 16 years old.’ ‘In Colonia Lomas del Toro … the body of Rebeca Fernández de Hoyos, 33, was found.’ ‘The first dead woman was found in a room at Mi Reposo, a hotel in the centre of Santa Teresa … The second dead woman turned up next to a trash can in Colonia Estrella.’ ‘As for the dead women of August 1995, the first was Aurora Muñoz Alvarez and her body was found on the pavement of the Santa Teresa-Cananea highway. She had been strangled.’

Some of the women are prostitutes, many of them, including the children, work at the maquiladoras dotted around the city – these are assembly plants owned by US companies that send the finished products back to the US. In some cases the culprit is found, a violent husband or boyfriend; in other cases the women are not even identified. Certain killings seem to be done in sequence and by the same person, since they share similarities of method and style, the taking of slices of flesh from the corpse, for example. Others have different styles, or no style at all. At least one woman’s death is suicide. A German is arrested and tried, but the killings continue while he is in jail. How many killers are there? Legend wants to believe there is only one, but this is scarcely possible. But then is there some kind of epidemic? A Mexican journalist, a woman, says: ‘no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.’ The police are at a loss, and often don’t seem to be trying very hard to solve the crimes. An expert from the US, an ex-FBI man, is brought down as a consultant. Other stories punctuate the narrative: of the man who desecrates churches, of the police detective’s affair with a local psychiatrist, of various drug traffickers and their bodyguards, of an arts reporter from Mexico City who gets caught up by the case, of a powerful woman politician described as ‘the Maria Félix of Mexican politics’. But the killings continue, and have not ended when this part of the novel concludes. Or when the last part of the novel concludes, ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, with the writer on his way to the jail in Santa Teresa to see the German, who is his nephew.

It’s unlikely that the killings contain ‘the secret of the world’, or that the world has a single discoverable secret. But Bolaño’s journalist is not just making a phrase. The killings do have something to tell us, even and especially in their unsolved form. They tell us about violence towards women, of course, and about what we might think of as a pathology of rage and fear, one of the conditions, it may be, of living in modern history and on a border, either literal or figurative. The narrator of Amulet gives us an important clue when she tells us that a piece of ghastly information, the news of a man’s suicide, is ‘also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things’. As if reality were always at work on a great, surprising novel, and didn’t care if its surprises were horrific. Bolaño’s epigraph for 2666 is a line from Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Voyage’: ‘An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom’. The phrase is almost always read as enacting sheer negative reinforcement: boredom all around, and horror into the bargain. But Bolaño invites us to another, much scarier reading. In the desert of boredom – in the literal desert that surrounds Santa Teresa – there is after all an oasis, even if it is one of horror. That is what literature whispers in Bolaño’s ear, and what 2666 whispers in ours.