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 ?

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