March 25, 2010

1333 + 1333 ≠ 2666


I’m rereading 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas by the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. Both are part of group reads: 2666 is ongoing over at bolanobolano.com while discussion of Nazi Literature by Bolaño Shelfari group starts on April 1. I'm still catching up with the 2666 group read. Still making progress (I think) though I'm left behind in the middle of "The Part About Fate." Here's a rather long rambling post of my thoughts so far.

Rereading a book by Bolaño is, to use his words, like going back to the scene of the crime. Like entering the yellow tape-obstructed door and looking for possible clues that the early detectives may have overlooked. His books can be tagged as crime and detective novels. They are usually about a search for a mysterious artist or a killer or a poet, or a combination of any of them. He uses various styles to make this search a complex examination of human natures. I think his success in this genre is due in part to reader participation encouraged in the books. I don’t mean to say that Bolaño solicits participation. The act of reading itself is participation. But his books involve the reader into the narrative in such a way that the reader is part of the detection. The momentum of narratives and the cross-references practically implicate the reader to a more active role. The reader is left to ponder, trying to put two and two together. Hidden mysteries sustain him. The clues in the novel are misplaced and the elements of a crime (motive, means, and opportunity) and its unfolding (interview, investigation, and resolution) are not ticked off one by one. Sometimes, the case is embedded in the numbers. Numbers betray the novelistic design. As noted before, an alternative interpretation to the numeric title "2666" (apart from it being a futuristic/apocalyptic year) is as the summation of two sets of pages of a history book, each of which totals 1,333 pages. The metaphor came from Nazi Literature in the Americas wherein one of the encyclopedia entries on "Harry Sibelius" (1949-2014), under the section "Magicians, Mercenaries, and Miserable Creatures," makes reference to Sibelius’s 1,333-page novel titled The True Son of Job, "darkly mirroring" the book Hitler’s Europe by the (real) historian Arnold J. Toynbee.

... the British professor’s [Toynbee’s] aim is to testify against crime and ignominy, lest we forget. The Virginian novelist [Sibelius] seems to believe that "somewhere in time and space" the crime in question has definitively triumphed, so he proceeds to catalogue it.

It appears that the books by Sibelius and Toynbee share only structural similarities. The True Son of Job also seems to be a book wholly unlike 2666. As with most imagined titles described in the playful entries of this encyclopedia of Nazi literature in the Americas, Sibelius's book can be considered a joke, being a pastiche of stories borrowing characters from several books (by Hemingway, Faulkner, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Gone With the Wind, etc.). One can even say that the book in question, made up of hundreds of stories not following any principle or overall vision, is the complete opposite of Bolaño's novel, its parody. Curiously, in its original Spanish the novel 2666 ran to around 1,126 pages. Had he lived to edit and finish the book to his liking, Bolaño probably would have written more pages to stretch it to 1,333. Nah, I'm just stretching this idea. But anyway, the idea of a pseudo-history book with 1,333 pages (following the structure of another book) could be correlated to Liz Norton's dream in "The Part About the Critics" which borrowed Borges's image of two mirrors. I believe this dream offers a central perspective to the book, not least because there is a counterpart of double mirrors to "reality" (that is, the two mirrors exist in Norton’s hotel room). Here is the entire dream sequence:

In Norton's dream she saw herself reflected in both mirrors. From the front in one and from the back in the other. Her body was slightly aslant. It was impossible to say for sure whether she was about to move forward or backward. The light in the room was dim and uncertain, like the light of an English dusk. No lamp was lit. Her image in the mirrors was dressed to go out, in a tailored gray suit and, oddly, since Norton hardly ever wore such things, a little gray hat that brought to mind the fashion pages of the fifties. She was probably wearing black pumps, although they weren't visible. The stillness of her body, something reminiscent of inertia and also of defenselessness, made her wonder, nevertheless, what she was waiting for to leave, what signal she was waiting for before she stepped out of the field between the watching mirrors and opened the door and disappeared. Had she heard a noise in the hall? Had someone passing by tried to open her door? A confused hotel guest? A worker, someone sent up by reception, a chambermaid? And yet the silence was total, and there was a certain calm about it, the calm of long early-evening silences. All at once Norton realized that the woman reflected in the mirror wasn't her. She felt afraid and curious, and she didn't move, watching the figure in the mirror even more carefully, if possible. Objectively, she said to herself, she looks just like me and there's no reason why I should think otherwise. She's me. But then she looked at the woman's neck: a vein, swollen as if to bursting, ran down from her ear and vanished at the shoulder blade. A vein that didn't seem real, that seemed drawn on. Then Norton thought: I have to get out of here. And she scanned the room, trying to pinpoint the exact spot where the woman was, but it was impossible to see her. In order for her to be reflected in both mirrors, she said to herself, she must be just between the little entryway and the room. But she couldn't see her. When she watched her in the mirrors she noticed a change. The woman's head was turning almost imperceptibly. I'm being reflected in the mirrors too, Norton said to herself. And if she keeps moving, in the end we'll see each other. Each of us will see the other's face. Norton clenched her fists and waited. The woman in the mirror clenched her fists too, as if she were making a superhuman effort. The light coming into the room was ashen. Norton had the impression that outside, in the streets, a fire was raging. She began to sweat. She lowered her head and closed her eyes. When she looked in the mirrors again, the woman's swollen vein had grown and her profile was beginning to appear. I have to escape, she thought. She also thought: where are Jean-Claude and Manuel? She thought about Morini. All she saw was an empty wheelchair and behind it an enormous, impenetrable forest, so dark green it was almost black, which it took her a while to recognize as Hyde Park. When she opened her eyes, the gaze of the woman in the mirror and her own gaze intersected at some indeterminate point in the room. The woman's eyes were just like her eyes. The cheekbones, the lips, the forehead, the nose. Norton started to cry in sorrow or fear, or thought she was crying. She's just like me, she said to herself, but she's dead. The woman smiled tentatively and then, almost without transition, a grimace of fear twisted her face. Startled, Norton looked behind her, but there was no one there, just the wall. The woman smiled at her again. This time the smile grew not out of a grimace but out of a look of despair. And then the woman smiled at her again and her face became anxious, then blank, then nervous, then resigned, and then all the expressions of madness passed over it and after each she always smiled. Meanwhile, Norton, regaining her composure, had taken out a small notebook and was rapidly taking notes about everything as it happened, as if her fate or her share of happiness on earth depended on it, and this went on until she woke up.

The nightmare's "minor effects" are plenty here: the dim light, the gray suit and hat, the dead woman reflected in the mirror who was distinct from Norton, the reflected woman’s swollen vein (which grows), the woman’s head turning, the clenched fists, an empty wheelchair, the dark forest of Hyde Park, the woman’s gaze, her smile and twisted grimace and expressions of madness. The images are all deployed from the perspective of reflection, in the two mirrors. Many interpretations are put forward as to the dream’s meaning and in fact all of these interpretations are plausible. Because it can be argued that the (literary) language of dreams can be interpreted in any number of ways, in the same way that two mirrors facing each other reflects each other infinitely. This dream among many other dreams in the book can hold a clue to the book’s title as a 2,666-page history book and to the books "reflective" design. It is arguably the creepiest and certainly the longest dream described from among the three critics dreaming their own dreams at the same time. The interesting part for me is the mention of Norton’s note-taking at the end of the dream, just before she woke up. This can correspond to the cataloging of crimes and evil deeds as a valid (ethical) response of an artist when confronted by horrors. The dead woman reflected in the mirror (who looks like Norton but was not her) could be standing for the murdered women of Sta. Teresa, Mexico. The swollen vein and the grimace and gestures of madness evoke the horrors of distress, torture, and suffering. The woman turning her neck is quite scary enough; I couldn’t help but think of The Exorcist! Norton’s response to the dream, to take notes furiously, reflects that role of a writer (a novelist or a journalist) to catalogue everything and to write and describe the cold facts around her, to make a written report of it if only to bear witness to the terrible crimes (its naked truth, brutality, and horror), if not to try to understand them. So while Norton is oblivious to the crimes happening around her, she is haunted by this dream of a dead woman reflected in the mirror. The litany of deaths is cataloged in "The Part About the Crimes" and the novelist’s unflinching response to what is happening around her defines the role of the novelist in the face of evil. The ethical dimension of the persistence of poetry after the triumph of evil had been argued before, in Adorno’s dictum, and rejected in several ways by uncompromising and sublime writers such as W. G. Sebald. The moral position of these writers is absorbed in the lambent quality of their works. And so the inevitable question. Does Bolaño have a moral position? A writer puts forward his position through the objective clinical treatment of undeniable hard facts, through exposing the crimes and retrieving it from the censorship of horrible and heinous things. Unspeakable rapes and murders are spoken. Bodies are counted. Injuries are described dispassionately. Irony heightened to accompany the violence. The fragmented truth held to the light. The brutal scalpel of fiction serving as an instrument to the autopsy of victims. A victim’s body after body paraded if only to remind us, constantly and unforgiving, over and over and over, that sick things happen and they are the doings of our fellow human beings. And thus, the image in the mirror and its reflection. The historical novel and its reference, the history book that is full of dark momentous events. The historical book and its negative twin book, both of which when taken together constitute a book of a certain number of pages. The restless waking life reflected in a restless nightmare. In the labyrinth of reflecting mirrors there is clearly a double-layer of double-meaning: a double-image, a double-reflection in the metaphors of twinning and twin mirrors, images of images. Nightmares could be cries from hell, nightmares could literally take place in hell, Borges said in his lecture on nightmares. In his last interview, when asked of his description of hell, Bolaño said that it is "like Ciudad Juárez, our curse and mirror, a disturbing reflection of our frustrations, and our infamous interpretation of liberty and of our desires." And so to illustrate the reflection of reality in nightmares, of images in mirror, of hell in the void (a gaping black hole capturing all the light, essentially the image of the negative), 2666 (like Nazi Literature, Distant Star, and the other books) is riddled with references to mirrors and reflections, twins and image negatives. Thus, the glass shards in Amalfitano's neighbor's fence reflecting each other's light. And then the metaphor of a "negative image" early in the book when the critics speculated on the identity of the Swabian (a cultural promoter) who claims to have seen Benno von Archimboldi (the missing novelist):

According to Morini, the Swabian was a grotesque double of Archimboldi, his twin, the negative image of a developed photograph that keeps looming larger, becoming more powerful, more oppressive, without ever losing its link to the negative (which undergoes the reverse process, gradually altered by time and fate), the two images somehow still the same ...

Another clue is perhaps left by the novelist in "The Part About Amalfitano," where a reference to another year can be stretched by our reading. The following passage comes from a book that Amalfitano was reading, "scarcely one hundred pages long, [written] by a certain Lonko Kilapán, published in Santiago de Chile in 1978." The title of the book is O'Higgins Is Araucanian: 17 Proofs, Taken from the Secret History of Araucania.

Kilapán wrote: "Killenkusi was a Machi priestess. Her daughter Kinturay had to choose between succeeding her or becoming a spy; she chose the latter and her love for the Irishman; this opportunity afforded her the hope of having a child who, like Lautaro and mixed-race Alejo, would be raised among the Spaniards, and like them might one day lead the hosts of those who wished to push the conquistadors back beyond the Maule River, because Admapu law prohibited the Araucanians from fighting outside of Yekmonchi. Her hope was realized and in the spring of the year 1777, in the place called Palpal, an Araucanian woman endured the pain of childbirth in a standing position because tradition decreed that a strong child could not be born of a weak mother. The son arrived and became the Liberator of Chile."

The year 1777 is of course just incidental. Or not? It is convenient that Bolaño allow Amalfitano to choose this book of Kilapán's, gaining a correspondence to the book's title. The childbirth could have happened at some other year, of all years. The historian could have recorded some other innocent year. The probabilities are interesting. Trebling the 7 is not so different as trebling the 6 in the novel’s title and also the halving of the 6's and thus the trebled 3 in the number of pages of a "fake" history book in Nazi Literature. The politics of history is never more fleshed out than in this book by Kilapán which Amalfitano thinks was published as a propaganda material by a dictatorship regime. Note also that a child mentioned in the book was named Lautaro, sharing the name of Bolaño's son, to whom, along with Bolaño's daughter, the novel 2666 is dedicated. Note also that the year 1777 was an extended form of the number in the subtitle, "17 Proofs." Bolaño's deadpan tone with respect to describing the book's contents relegates this book O'Higgins Is Araucanian to something like a joke, so much so that one could excerpt the entire passage of Amalfitano's "literary criticism" to be included as an additional entry to the Nazi Literature encyclopedia. But it turns out to be a real book. An unusual history book dealing with myths, magic, telepathy and racial issues. Can this be tied up to the intellectual responsibility of writers and the political regimes’ manipulation of literature to serve their totalitarian purpose, etc.? Maybe. Some useful background and great discussion of the Araucanian book can be found here.

We also find in an entry in the novel Nazi Literature a reference to another year, in a description of a book of poems called The Destiny of Pizzaro Street (second edition) by Andrés Cepeda Cepeda, aka The Page:

What does The Page propose [in his book of poems]? To what is he committed? A return to the Iron Age, which for him coincides roughly with the life and times of Pizzaro. Inter-racial conflict in Peru (although when he says Peru, and this is perhaps more important than his theory of racial struggle, to which he devotes no more than a couplet, he is also excluding Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador). The ensuing conflict between Peru and Argentina (including Uruguay and Paraguay), which he dubs "the combat of Castor and Pollux." The uncertain victory. The possible defeat of both sides, which he prophesies for the thirty-third year of the third millennium. In the final three lines, he alludes laboriously to the birth of a blond child in the ruins of a sepulchral Lima.

The year referred to is the year 2033, no three-peat in the digits but only in the way the year was described (33rd year of the 3rd millennium). It is possible this is just another incidental year in a book filled with hypothetical years. But it is hard not to compare this with the event in 1777 since in both years, a birth of a child was prophesied, a child who furthermore may (or will) play an important role in history.

There is certainly reference to the year 2033. In the novella Amulet one finds something from among a string of years "remembered" by the hallucinating imagination of Auxilio Lacouture: "For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033." That is hardly helpful, and one thinks that the thirty-third year of the current millennium is just a random, arbitrary year, in the same way that 2666 or 1777 is arbitrary. Not unless if, in search of lost time, we think hard of Proust's works on memory and things past. (Thus in Amulet, the meaning may not be stretched and we just go to the default interpretation of a futuristic, prophetic year 2033, without succumbing to any apocalyptic tendency. The years in Auxilio’s mind are still instructive in that we are treated to some privileged prophecies regarding the fate of literature and books: "Vladimir Mayakovsky shall come back into fashion around the year 2150. James Joyce shall be reincarnated as a Chinese boy in the year 2124. Thomas Mann shall become [an] Ecuadorian pharmacist in the year 2101" and this bold takes on the future state of letters goes on for a few more pages, with writers being reincarnated or rediscovered or falling into oblivion.)

This fixation on mirrors and numbers belies the fragmentation of 2666. The fragmentation arises from scattered images and characters, found objects and readymades. The books (real, imaginary, or something in between), can make detectives out of readers. But readers are consigned to not solve the case, to not find all the answers to the questions. Why are we still reading? Or as Czesław Miłosz asked more explicitly, what is poetry that does not save nations or people? Beats me, I imagine Amalfitano answering and then shrugging his shoulders. And then the professor might have relented and given his answer, in the way he described what he saw in the City of Sta. Teresa, "images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments."

As if his fate or his life on earth depended on it, Bolaño made a dash to finish his posthumous book. What he came up with are fragments, fragments that will not save nations or people. Pages and clues that do not give a puzzle-fit solution. Fake (fictional) books that mirror the horrible century. A whole unequal to the sum of its discrete parts. For it could be greater. For the reckoning could always be delayed. Say, 2667. Or the pages lengthened by an afterword.

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