Tuesday, April 20, 2010

2666 and Hannah Arendt

How comparable are the atrocities that makes up The Part About the Crimes to the Holocaust, which is featured in the following and final section of 2666, The Part About Archimboldi?

I want to tackle this via Hannah Arendt and her concept, perhaps inevitable to a discussion of 2666, of the “banality of evil.”  The phrase echoes in obvious ways with the crimes in Santa Teresa as portrayed by Bolaño: the repetitiousness of the section, while constantly horrifying, can in another reading be described as pointing to how banal such violence becomes.  The fact that they just become a part of the background for the people living in Santa Teresa has featured in a number of the posts by those involved in the group read the past few months.

Bolaño, moreover, seems to invite the comparison by putting the two atrocities back to back and, in this week's reading, by introducing the figure of Leo Sammer and his story of overseeing the murder of a group of Jews accidentally sent to him by apparent clerical error.  I’m no Arendt expert, but my understanding of her use of the phrase “banality of evil” was meant to suggest that the participation of minor authority figures and middle men, not to mention its large-scale architect Adolf Eichmann (whose trial was the centerpiece of the book where she coined the phrase), was ultimately not due to an extraordinary and unusual evil but a commonplace human tendency to simply do what you are told, even when that means killing others.  (I, probably like many others, am most familiar with Arendt by way of the reference to her by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who devastatingly demonstrated her ideas by having random strangers come into a room and agree to shock someone else to death simply because a scientist was there to tell them to keep pushing the voltage higher.)

Yet, the juxtaposition of the two atrocities also points to differences.  Sure, the regularity of the Santa Teresa murders becomes banal to an extent, and people let it slide into the background, but it didn’t seem like there were and Sammer figures lingering.  Indeed, there is absolutely no central organization to the murders—that’s why, despite the possibility of maybe several serial killers, it is so hard to end them.  Are the murderers in Santa Teresa being told by a higher authority to kill, and they just don’t have the willpower to resist?  It seems unlikely, except for murders possibly tied to narcos who might have underlings to dispose of things.  It is not a possibility highlighted in the section.

Indeed, the characters, besides Sammer, that could be more plausibly discussed in this context would be Reiter’s father and Reiter himself.  Both are serving in wars in which they don’t really believe.  This is highlighted with Reiter’s father when he hears Germany has lost World War I and responds, “good” (638), and it seems to be true of how Reiter ends up enlisted as well.  Even here there are, of course, differences: soldiers, and drafted soldiers at that, are not in the same position as middle-class administrators.  So how far can we really take this “banality of evil” comparison?  Is the text undercutting these differences or highlighting them—and does that matter?

As a postscript: Before beginning this post I did I quick Google search for other bloggers who had mentioned the Arendt connection to 2666 (at first glance, there were fewer than I expected, but I did not go especially deep in the stack).  The primary entry I found came from a blog others involved in the group read might find interesting: it is only two posts long, and the author claims to be…Boris Ansky.  So it is someone having a bit of fun, but they do have one particularly intriguing post making claims about real-world connections for the name Hans Reiter, in which they also briefly explore the Arendt connection to the character of Sammer.  If what "Boris" has to say is true, it makes for a fairly dark reading of Archimboldi: indeed, it would seem to validate the idea that Bolaño sees Archimboldi as equally implicated in the "banality of evil."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Machismo vs. Machismo

A couple of people recently have jumped into a discussion I also have been holding off on, trying to figure out what I think of it: Bolaño’s representation of homosexuality (or, more often, homophobia) in 2666.  Jeff Anderson has a good post on the relation of the homophobia in the text to the misogyny and general culture of machismo that frequently come up in the plot.  Dan Summers has decided he is ready to fully dismiss Bolaño himself as homophobic—not just pointing it out but engaging in it. 

I’m disappointed to say I mostly agree with Dan.  I could equivocate on the example that sent him over the edge: the “faggot” sea anemones are called that by a fisherman, not the narrator, and could potentially be just another example of the pervasiveness of homophobia in everyday life (647).  And there is a moment near the end of the book, which I will point out when we get there, that I think offers the biggest contrast to the novel’s norms for addressing homosexuality and thus a possible way to distance Bolaño from his characters.  But overall in contrast to misogyny I have to confess that Bolaño seems at best indifferent to homophobia and quite possibly thinks it is just funny.

Maybe it is worth listing some of the key moments where characters have voiced homophobia or their homophobic thoughts are narrated to us.  It struck me that each of the first four sections of the novel had at least one very prominent moment of homophobic reaction.  Notably several of them happen with regard to characters that are otherwise not very likeable anyway, and yet their general hatefulness does not seem to fully explain their homophobia.  At least for me, the uncertainty I had felt about the tonal relation to the homophobia comes from this sense of its excessiveness beyond explanations via character.  Anyway, here are the moments that struck me most directly.

The Part about the Critics: Norton, Espinoza, and Pelletier temporarily worry that Amalfitano might be gay and in a relationship with Dean Guerra’s son.  They are relieved when they decide the relationship is just Socratic “since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano” (128, 130).

The Part about Amalfitano: The voice in Amalfitano’s head keeps asking him if he is queer (among other variations, most of which are more insulting), taunting him.  (201 for the first time the voice appears; 207 for the beginning of the taunting over sexuality)

The Part about Fate: Fate watches a daytime talk show (a la Jerry Springer) in his hotel room, and thinks the man among the three people being interviewed “was clearly a faggot” (257).  This is noticeable mostly because it feels so out-of-the-blue and gets dropped as soon as it is mentioned.  Later, when Fate proposes he cover the Santa Teresa murders, his editor, sent into a rage by Fate’s use of a single French word (important given the U.S. context—it links up with the homophobia), rants that Fate “want[s] to coucher avec moi [fuck me], but you’ve forgotten the voulez-vous [please], which in this case ought to have been your first move” (295).  In response, Fate tells his editor he can “stick Count Pickett up [his] black faggot ass.”

The Part about the Crimes: Klaus Haas considers at length his disgust with sex among men in prison, including his feeling that raping and killing women would be preferable to having sex with a man (488).

The second moment in The Part about Fate suggests that Bolaño is well aware of how homophobia can be tied to anti-intellectualism (the editor’s refusal of the story, and tied to it in this conversation the gay/French stereotype which is left implied).  And in general he seems to me aware that it is tied to the misogyny the book otherwise seems to deplore.  This is why it is especially frustrating to think that he might nonetheless endorse it.

I think Amalfitano’s voice is the clincher for me, actually, although I was open to there being some other explanation when I read that section.  The conversation between Amalfitano and his voice with regards to the insinuation Amalfitano is gay revolves in part around his masculinity, whether he will “run away” (208) from the voice and the violence around him.  And in that sense it is very much about Amalfitano living in the midst of a city experiencing horrible violence, doing nothing, and feeling inadequate about that.  And it seems to me (and I’m open to other opinions on this) that Bolaño endorses the idea that there is a problem with his inaction—a problem that his actions at the end of the Fate section perhaps redeem (sending Rosa away, but also serving as a delay by going out to talk to the men in the black Peregrino).  This critique of inaction might not be a problem in and of itself, but Amalfitano’s mode of regret and subsequent redemption, if it is that, suggest that the voice’s homophobic taunting was a necessary strategy to be “man enough” to do the right thing.

And this is a problem, because it suggests that Bolaño’s solution for combating machismo and the culture of violence it perpetuates is another kind of machismo.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Uncanny Questions on Plata and Norton

Can you hear it?  That would be everyone sighing with relief at finishing The Part About the Crimes.  I have to admit, I didn’t dislike it as much as a number of others seemed to.  Not that I didn’t feel the punch or the agony or would want it to keep going, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t find it too long and it didn’t lose my attention.

But what I really want to talk about is those mirrors.  Yes, one of our new temporary leads, Congresswoman Azucena Esquivel Plata,[1] seems to stay in the exact same Santa Teresa hotel room as Liz Norton did in the Part about the Critics.  We are told directly she stays at the Hotel México, which is the same hotel the critics stayed in, but the mirrors suggest it is the same room.  Both notice the mirrors are positioned similarly and that they can see the mirrors reflect one another but not Norton and Plata themselves (a crucial difference from the quote below).  Norton also notices that having two mirrors in a room is a difference from the other rooms she has seen, the apparent clincher.

Why would this matter?  Well, remember Norton’s dream about the mirrors?  (Long quote ahead.  See here for Maria Bustillos’s original comments on this dream during this section of the group read.)

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….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 the signal she was waiting for before she stepped out of the field between the watching mirrors and opened the door and disappeared….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….She’s just like me, she said to herself, but she’s dead. (115-6)

And there is plenty more I cut out or that comes after the end of what I quoted.  The question, then, is this: is Plata the woman Liz Norton sees in the mirror in her dream?  If so, this might seem a little more magic-realist than we would expect from Bolaño (at least as I recall from reading somewhere, he was fairly disinterred in it as a literary mode).  We could, though, get around that by saying that even if it isn’t Plata, the similarity of the room is meant to suggest a parallel between the figures—either way Plata becomes a doppelganger for Norton. 

In what sense a doppelganger?  We could take Norton’s dream as implying that Plata’s investigation and involvement will lead to her death (much like the various other reporters or other investigators into the crimes end up murdered).  We could suggest that Plata’s appearance, then, is a warning to Norton.  The doubling is uncanny in a very Freudian way: it suggests a fear on Norton’s part that she has more in common with the victims of Santa Teresa that she wants to admit (“just like me…but she’s dead”), and this is one route to its becoming a warning (this could be you if you stay in this place).

Beyond this I am curious about the possibilities for drawing a parallel between Norton and Plata.  For example, another formal parallel is that each woman gets to be a temporary first-person narrator at the end of the first and fourth sections of the novel: the fragments of Norton’s email at the end of The Part About the Critics vs. Plata’s narration of her search to Sergio.  Norton’s email ends the first part with the announcement of romance; Plata’s narration ends, in the next-to-last segment of the fourth part, with an invitation to Sergio to join forces—another kind of romance, perhaps? 

A lot of speculation to I’m not sure what end: the suggestion that Norton and Plata have some things in common.  Why?  To suggest even Norton’s rather banal life is as caught up in the production of violence as the lives of people in Santa Teresa?  Is her turn to Morini a suggestion that she is rejecting her participation in the brutality implicit in her relationship with Pelletier and Espinoza?  In that case, is their romance our ray of hope in the novel (a pretty slim one given the broader problems of the later sections)?  Or does the reflection double back and reveal Plata’s deeply felt and invested attempts to pursue justice to be only as banal as Norton was?  A depressing thought, as I at least am inclined to see Plata as relatively sympathetic and with the potential to dig something substantial up with regard to the crimes.  This is tied in part to the fact that she has much more power at her disposal to make things happen—but how much power is that against, for example, the narcos that she seems to be running up against?

[1] It seems like it is left unclear unless I just missed the explicit connection, but does anyone get the feeling that Sergio is the reporter that Guadalupe Roncal is replacing in The Part About Fate, and that the Congresswoman’s recruitment of Sergio for her attempts to investigate the crimes, particularly that of her friend, is going to be the thing that gets him good and dead ?