May 12, 2009

Bolaño and Pacquiao




The latest conquest (more than a week ago) in the ring by Filipino fighter Manny Pacquiao reminded me of the third part of Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666. The segment, called "The Part About Fate," is about one sports journalist, Oscar Fate, sent down to Sta. Teresa, Mexico, to cover a boxing bout. He was commissioned to cover the fight as a last minute replacement of a colleague who died.

What particularly struck me between the two fights (the real and the fictional) is the similarity with which they prematurely, and definitively, ended. The report by the Los Angeles Times contained this one-paragraph summary of the fight:

The fight summary is one paragraph. Pacquiao knocked Hatton down twice in the first round, dominated the second and caught Hatton with a vicious left hook as the round ticked down. Hatton's eyes rolled back and his body fell, like a sack of potatoes, flat on his back. Referee Kenny Bayless knelt over him for several seconds, then waved his hands, with one second left in the round, to signify that the fight was over.

Here is how the fight transpired in Bolaño's book:

The fight was short. First Count Pickett came out. Polite applause, some boos. Then Merolino Fernández came out. Thundering applause. In the first round, they sized each other up. In the second Pickett went on the offensive and knocked his opponent out in less than a minute. Merolino Fernández’s body didn’t even move where it lay on the canvas. His seconds hauled him into his corner and when he didn’t recover the medics came in and took him off to the hospital. Count Pickett raised an arm, without much enthusiasm, and left surrounded by his people. The fans began to empty out of the arena.

Both fights ended in the second round via a knockdown. In both instances the boxing watcher and the novel reader, after relishing every bit of the swift action, asks himself, That's it? That's the fight? One couldn't help shaking his head at what Pacquiao in the ring, and Bolaño on the page, just accomplished. It's as if the climax of the two matches is also its anticlimax.

The effectiveness of Bolaño's single paragraph is evident from its deadpan delivery and impeccable timing. The context of this passage is similar to the lengthy hype prior to the Pacquiao-Hatton tilt. A documentary by HBO, “24/7,” featured the rigid training of the two fighters, their daily regimen, their personal lives, and the assessment of their respective combative trainers. In the book, the hype also builds up as Oscar Fate interviews the fighters, their trainers, and the bettors ready with their fearless forecasts.

The paragraph is all the more telling because it announces the meeting of Oscar Fate with Rosa Amalfitano, the daughter of Prof. Amalfitano, the main character of the second segment of the book. From then on, there is no more talk of boxing in the rest of the story.

In the same way that Pacquiao emerged as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, does Bolaño carve for his own a portrait of the artist as a prizefighter? Why not? The boxer and the writer are tacticians in their respective fields. If they are any good, they have the instinct to smell it and then go for the kill. It’s just a matter of the right combinations of feints and punches deployed not a second too late. In the ring, as in the page, perfect timing is the key.

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