04 December 2009

2666: The part about the title

Previously, the only connection that I found between the Roberto Bolaño novels 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas was the character of General Entrescu who appeared in "The Part About Archimboldi" and whose name was listed in Nazi Literature's "Epilogue for Monsters." Recognizable because of the mention of the general's “asset” and his cinematic (if weird) death.

A clue to the book's title can be found from the epigraph of 2666 taken from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage”:

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.

The original poem in French and several English translations can be found in here. The exact quote from the book comes from the version of Geoffrey Wagner; it is the last poem in the above link.

In part VII of “The Voyage”, the first stanza reads in full:

O bitter is the knowledge that one draws from the voyage!
The monotonous and tiny world, today
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our reflections,
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!

The last line ends in an exclamation here and the thread is explicit in the futuristic aspect of the year 2666: “today / Yesterday, tomorrow, always …” The implication is that 2666 is just an arbitrary year, albeit a convenient and conscious choice as the number refers to the mark of the beast, thereby invoking an apocalyptic resonance. The Quarterly Conversation's great review of 2666 interpreted these extended lines of the epigraph as a direct evocation of the heinous crimes in Santa Teresa. The translator Natasha Wimmer, in her biographical essay on B, points out from these poetic lines the literal health hazard posed by a long and arduous travel in the desert.

The book’s subject matter supports the notions of apocalypse and the futuristic in the enigmatic title. Throughout the book, individual and collective histories are given a chilling treatment, from the world wars to the holocaust to unsolved mass murders in Santa Teresa. Human struggles and the persistence of evil are the voids that characterize the desert of human heart. The traveller’s journey, into the “desert of boredom”, will invariably lead him and his thirst into “an oasis of horror”. A pure black vision.

The notion that evil is here to stay, that it is a permanent feature of existence, is terrifying and, what’s more disturbing, it is of our own making. Because by our silence and omission, we manifest our refusal to act against the tides of injustice and crime. Etc., etc.

Anyway, what strikes me is that the lines quoted can very well constitute the general framework of 2666. The world that men created here on earth, at this time, at any time (past, present, future), is just a reflection of human folly. It just “shows us our reflections.” This phrase of Baudelaire’s occur in other translations as “shows us our image”, “The horror of our image will unravel”, “we see / ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday”, “The small monotonous world reflects me everywhere”, “So terrifying that any image made in it / Can be splashed perfunctorily away”, “where trite oases from each muddy pool / one thing reflect: his horror-haunted eyes!”

Our reflections. In terms of Jared’s chosen quote in Nazi Literature, the novel’s pages are “darkly mirroring” a book of history.

To contextualize further the intertextuality between 2666 and Nazi Literature, I'm quoting in full Jared's brilliant take on it:

In Nazi Literature in the Americas, the entry on Harry Sibelius contains the following quote describing Harry's own monstrously-sized (and -charactered) novel: "Then the novel proper - The True Son of Job - begins: 1,333 pages darkly mirroring Arnold J. Toynbee's Hitler's Europe."

Which is interesting. This "novel" is a kind of negative image of Toynbee's, it is in fact "darkly mirroring" it, which is to say that it presupposes another alternate set of 1333 pages, totaling out to 2666 of them.

Further down the page, another interesting passage materializes: "In the final analysis, the British professor's [Toynbee] aim is to testify against crime and ignominy, lest we forget. The Virginian novelist seems to believe that 'somewhere in time and space' the crime in question has definitively triumphed, so he proceeds to catalogue it."

These two sets of quotations easily reminded me of the novel 2666, especially of the 2nd volume's exhaustive and brutal account of the murders in Sonora. The sheer amount of ink devoted to the individual murders is vastly unsettling, and leads the reader to question why Bolano would have him/her sit privy to such a bloody catalogue. The first hypothesis mirrors Toynbee's motivation: perhaps Bolano wants to testify against crime and ignominy, lest we forget. And I believe that this is a part of it. But the answer seems more complicated than that, too. Bolano touches on each murder case with the cold but meticulous gaze of a forensics expert, devoid of judgment, but casting an extremely intimate eye, infringing on the privacy of each character with the kind of omniscience that only an author can possess. And yet there's a public aspect, too, in which the sheer frequency of the publicizing resembles newspaper articles. The great paradox of news media is that horrific events are prodigiously reported, but that such reports reported in such magnitude lose their emotive effect; the public becomes numb to violence, and reports become mere catalogues. Bolano, I think, takes this paradigm to its most taut logical extension: around 250 pages (I admit, I haven't read the book in about 6 months' time) of brutality, daring you not to wince, daring you to ignore it. This, to me, is one aspect of 2666, the theory of narrative strategy: if one wants to write about horror, the horror of history or the recurring horrors behind it, how does one most effectively communicate that horror? To testify sometimes seems naive, and too overtly subjective; perhaps even too optimistic at this point. Perhaps selection is more important: instead of using declamatory statements or opining or rallying, one ought to simply record, record, record, organize, and publish. If the criminal horror exists, if it already exists and will continue to exist up to the year 2666, one might as well write about it and leave it at that.

Or something.

Elsewhere in Baudelaire’s poem, one can associate the main character in 2666 with the desert traveler: the novelist Archimboldi, perennial dreamer in sleep, disappearing without a trace:

… the true travelers are they who depart
For departing's sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: "Let us go on!"

These have passions formed like clouds;
As a recruit of his gun, they dream
Of spacious pleasures, transient, little understood,
Whose name no human spirit knows.

And the poem’s ending can also loosely refer to Archimboldi, a bold diver of the depths of the sea, welcoming Death should it join him swimming amid the seagrasses and seaweeds:

O Death, my captain, it is time! let us raise the anchor!
This country wearies us, O Death! Let us make ready!
If sea and sky are both as black as ink,
You know our hearts are full of sunshine.

Pour on us your poison to refresh us!
Oh, this fire so burns our brains, we would
Dive to the depths of the gulf, Heaven or Hell, what matter?
If only to find in the depths of the Unknown the New!

Ah sunshine! The sun whose metaphor so suffuses the book in many instances. And there is certainly a hope that in the horrifying depths of the Unknown (void), something New can still be found. It does not matter whether the discovery of the (shocking) New is for the good or bad. So long as the sunlight accompanies the journey.

In her essay, Wimmer also quoted Bolaño about the closed-looping relation of the Unknown to the New (which in effect is the Cure):

While we search for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, the new, that which can only be found in the unknown, we must continue to turn to sex, books, and travel, even knowing they will lead us into the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place we can find the cure.

How elusive the cure. Meanwhile we can read more books, we can take leave and travel, and then we make love.

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