Saturday, March 27, 2010

Not You, Gringo


[This post began as a response over at Las Obras de Roberto Bolaño (although as of yet it hasn’t made it through the moderation queue).  I’ve slightly edited it to stand alone and made a couple of additions at the end.]

Maria Bustillos has begun a conversation about the mysterious and creepy Klaus Haas in part four of 2666.  The thread raises an important question about Haas’s authority within the Santa Teresa prison.  While, as Steve points out in the thread, part of this authority has to do with his immediate willingness to use violence as a warning to others, I was also reminded of a moment when Haas speaks to something less tangible in his ability to remain untouchable.  When Haas speaks with Sergio González over the phone, he reflects on why he hasn't been killed in prison, and a conversation he’s had with a prisoner who seems fairly disinterested in the murders or in accusing him:

Then I asked him if he thought I had killed them and the bastard said no, not you, gringo, as if I was a fucking gringo, which inside maybe I am, although I'm becoming less and less of one.  What are you trying to say to me? asked Sergio González. That here in prison they know I'm innocent, said Haas.  And how do they know it? asked Haas.  That was a little harder for me to figure out.  It's like a noise you hear in a dream.  The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious.

Now I think, to an extent, Haas's description of the contagious dream holds some truth to how the inmates have come to perceive him.  But why does the dream take hold?  It seems to have to do with the fact that he hasn't been killed, and it has to do with some other kind of authority than what he has attained by violence.

And I wonder if this is where the seemingly innocuous aside about being called a "gringo" comes in.  Klaus is a foreigner, and a white foreigner at that. Does his exotic whiteness give him a kind of power in the prison (and maybe explain some of his power in relation to the media as well)?  Keep in mind, as well, that our first physical encounter with him has come from Fate (extremely conscious of race, but usually in the context of his blackness in a white-majority country), who sees him as "an enormous and very blond man," which mimics in turn the description of Haas that Guadalupe Roncal gave Fate.  In fact, Roncal uses his blue eyes, blond hair, and height as a lead-in to stating "he has the face of a dreamer."  I want to say she's romanticizing Klaus in just the way the prisoners do.  It seems like there might be something of a racial fantasy going on with everyone’s fascination with Haas—he’s not just a suspect, he’s always the blond-haired, blue-eyed suspect, the gringo. 

And Haas himself is playing into this fantasy that no gringo could ever be guilty: “inside maybe I am [a gringo], although I’m becoming less and less of one.”  In other words, his time in the prison drives him more and more insane and his realization of that takes the form of thinking that he is “becoming” one of the local Mexicans who are, by his estimation, naturally insane and violent.  I’m not saying this racial (mis)perception suggests he did or didn’t commit any of the crimes (although I tend to think he may be responsible for a few, or perhaps just the one that drew attention to him).  Rather, the people of Santa Teresa in the prison and outside of it are too caught up in the racial mystique to make a real effort to find out.  Racial fantasy is another one of the distractions keeping much real investigation from happening. 

2 comments:

  1. Dan: Nice to know I’m not the only 2666 blogger to get a late start. I read (most of) the book about a year ago and am finding reading it with a group much more enlightening than reading it solo.

    I think you are onto something with the idea of Hass as an exotic and his whiteness being an element of that. In the movie version of 2666, he’d be played by Blade Runner-era Rutger Hauer. I guess my question would be: why is his whiteness/exoticness a source of power, rather than an opportunity for victimization? He’s very Aryan, i.e. quintessentially white, and his German origin links him, I guess, to the evils of the Holocaust. Maybe he embodies some of the force of that particular evil. Also, all Americans and Western Europeans, who can cross into the US whenever they like, have a kind of unearned power in a country like Mexico, where so many people are trying to sneak across the border.

    Wondering what your thoughts are.

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  2. David: I've wondered about the same thing. My current answer would be to say that Bolaño is commenting on (or just noticing) an effect of the relation of Mexico and the U.S.--not that the U.S. is solely a white country of course but that it would have an association with whiteness that would get mixed in with its association as a place where you go to make a new/better life (a fantasy that even Haas himself has tried out, ironically, only to extend it to a second border crossing). But there is, as you say, Haas's previous life in Germany that ties into his uber-Aryan presence: I am not really sure what to make of that beyond what you say.

    And: Rutger Hauer, yes, spot on.

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