Saturday, May 8, 2010

Parting Thoughts on 2666

I ended the last post promising one more on 2666 but after thinking about it I’m not sure I have much left to say that makes for some sort of grand exit.  Here are some scatter-shot departing thoughts.

1) As I said before, I found the ending a little too neat and satisfying, but perhaps one way in which that is not true is the overall portrait of Reiter/Archimbolde.  He does not exactly turn out to be the heroic writer figure some may have wanted him to be earlier.  He is as mired in day-to-day reality as everyone else.  Yet, I was also left unsure as to how culpable he is supposed to be, and I remain unsure of how far overall we can take the connection of the final section to the previous one.  As I commented at David’s blog, what do we make of his murder of Sammer?  Vigilante justice seems fairly easy and without consequence here as opposed to Santa Teresa. 
2) Ok, here’s the anticlimax.  I mentioned when the conversation about homophobia was getting started that there was one later instance where the book seemed to show a different kind of reaction to same-sex innuendo.  It comes when Archimbolde reacquaints himself with the baroness and, in post-coital conversation, she jokes that “it was clear Archimbolde had never fucked Entrescu” (814), and if he had then his viewpoint on destiny would be changed.  It is not notable because homosexuality is embraced (I really can’t imagine that happening in this book), but because the allusion to same-sex sex doesn’t spark a panicked, defensive machismo.  Archimbolde simply keeps on with the conversation.  Of course there is not much here, but in some ways that is the point—even given that she is saying he obviously hadn’t fucked Entrescu, in the context of this novel it is nearly miraculous he doesn’t freak out or react with disgust at the idea that he might.  Maybe this is just because, since he is fucking her, he knows he doesn’t have to “justify” himself to her.  In any case, the novel’s treatment of homosexuality has certainly been the most disappointing, and maddening, part about it.  I grant I’m not an expert on Mexico, but I found the arguments that the fourth section was registering some culturally specific use of the terms “faggot” and “maricón” to be unconvincing; indeed, much of the reasoning meant to support that argument seemed to me to end up undermining it (Jeff suggests this as well with further explanation in his follow-up comment to his original post, which I highly recommend).
3) Can I just say I’m glad I found a copy of the three-volume edition of 2666 before they went out of print?  It was nice not to have to haul around the whole thing.  Plus the individual covers were a nice touch.
4) I wonder if the issue of excessive closure in the final part isn’t related to what David has discussed in terms of the possible biographical reading of the novel as an extended reflection on death.  But then, having not read most of Bolaño’s work, I don’t have much earlier in his career with which I can compare it.
5) One thing I found remarkable about the final section was the representation of WWII from the perspective of a German soldier.  As much as anything, this remarkability is due to my still far too limited reading of literature in translation, but the descriptions of the war, particularly Reiter’s attempts at getting shot, reminded me both of the English and American literary response to WWI and the response in American fiction to WWII.  Vonnegut and Heller were especially useful points of comparison regarding the overall tragic absurdity.  Yet, since Reiter is fighting for the Germans, it also has a different valence.
6) Participating in the group read was a great way to start book blogging.  Thanks to those who ran it and who participated in it in various ways.  It has been a great conversation to follow.  
7) Enough is enough, though!  It is time for this blog to comment on something besides 2666.


  1. Interesting posts. I'm curious what you thought of Savage Detectives? I liked parts (I sometimes alone in this) but not the whole thing. I found some of the little sections about the poets less than interesting a gave it bit baggy feel.

  2. Thanks, Paul.

    I really enjoyed Savage Detectives--far more so than 2666. I am glad to have read 2666, but if I had felt about the same or worse about SD I probably wouldn't have taken on something longer. I would have read something else by Bolaño, but would have gone for a shorter work. In SD I felt all of the unrelated fragments came together really well as a meditation on they way people are (or increasingly are not) remembered. That said I remember reading other reactions and feeling like people focused too much (in some part due to the roman a clef possibilities I'd guess) on Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima and not enough to Juan García Madero.

  3. Dan; sorry to be so late commenting on your last 2666 posts.

    Regarding Reiter/Archimboldi's killing of Sammer, as always I'm hesitant to say I know exactly what Bolano is up to, especially when it comes to characters' motivations, but here's how I read it: Reiter, as you say, was just a foot soldier, drafted into Hitler's war machine, and not, as far as we know, particularly anti- or philosemitic. He has a viscerally negative reaction to the horrors of war, and he develops a revulsion toward antisemitism through his immersion in Ansky's papers. I don't want to reduce Reiter's encounter with Ansky to a matter of ideological reorientation, especially as Reiter's character is kind of portrayed as someone who stands outside of ideology, because its obviously much more than that (although that's not nothing!). Seeing Nazi ideology and the German war effort as a moral crime is certainly part of it, but it's also where Reiter begins to discover his vocation as a writer by immersing himself in Ansky’s writerly consciousness. In any event he identifies deeply with Ansky and begins to fear that he somehow inadvertently caused his death. Ansky becomes a stand in for Jews in general, and for everyone victimized by the war. I saw Sammer’s cold, Eichmann-like rationalizations of his disposal of the Greek Jews, and the way his own self-pity and instinct for self-preservation overrode the workings of his conscience, as pushing Reiter/Archimboldi over the edge. As to what Bolano meant this to mean, who knows? On the one hand, 2666 is a book in which no one has their hands clean, really. Why should Reiter be any different? Also, Reiter had been immersed in an environment in which massive unjustified killing was sanctioned, so it probably didn't take too much rationalizing to justify offing Sammer. It seems fair to say that the general proscription against killing is probably a lot less effective in wartime than in an otherwise civil society in the process of being decimated by criminal gangs.

    Homophobia: I do think that the focus on maricon versus faggot missed the point, which was that there were plenty of other ways in which homophobia was woven into the fabric of the novel. The most generous interpretation was that it had some kind of function in the argument of the book, the same way the misogyny did. The uncharitable take would be that, even if it did, it was still problematic, not least because of the way in which all homosexuals seemed to be perceived as potential faggots, i.e. men with stereotypically womanly qualities, qualities read as character flaws at best. I will say that years ago I worked in a restaurant in San Francisco where the staff was equal parts gay men and recent immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico, and the word maricon got thrown around a lot in a relatively friendly way. Faggot would have been perceived as much more offensive. But I think the focus on the different valence between the two words obscures all the other ways in which homophobia permeates the book. There may well be a way to read Bolano's deployment of homophobia in 2666 as morally and aesthetically astute, but try as I might I haven't been able to read it that way myself.

  4. Final Thoughts Part 2:
    Excessive closure: The final section definitely has a valedictory feel to it. It’s much more tender and sentimental than what’s come before (for the life of me I can't understand the idea that a novel has to be completely purged of sentiment to be “serious.” It's just a hoary modernist prejudice that refuses to die). As far as I can tell Bolano's novels have long been obsessed with death, in part I'm guessing due to his preoccupation with the violence of Latin American politics. But it seems pretty clear to me that his struggle with his own terminal illness is woven throughout this novel, in more or less sublimated ways, and the burden of proof lies with those who would argue that it isn't.

    Lack of antisemitism in section on WWII: I'm no holocaust scholar by ANY means, and this is probably a huge stretch, but I wonder how 2666 fits with what may be a trend toward a less holocaust-centric view of the Second World War? I'm not well-versed enough in the scholarship to comment on this with any kind of authority, but it does seem like the last 15 years or so has seen alternate takes on, or representations of, Nazism emerge that, while not denying the moral obscenity that was the holocaust, examine WWII through other lenses. For example W.G. Sebald's On The Natural History of Destruction (1997), which breached the taboo against the literary representation of German suffering during World War II; British philosopher A.C. Grayling's Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? (2006), which argued that the allied bombing of German and Japanese cities during WWII was indeed a war crime (though he in NO WAY apologized for German war crimes; and as I recall, Slaughterhouse Five is about the firebombing of Dresden). This was also dealt with somewhat in Errol Morris' film Fog of War. Then, of course there's the film Downfall, which "humanizes" Hitler and the Nazi high command. Again, I'm no holocaust scholar, but this is one thought that flashed through my brain when trying to contextualize the book's representation of WWII.

    Finally, I enjoyed reading your posts, and look forward to reading what you write about books by writers other than Bolano.


  5. David--Thanks so much for the comments. I appreciate the thoughts you've left here throughout, and have enjoyed reading your posts as well.

    I think you must be right about Reiter's connection to Ansky as part of his personal motive--although contra your last point that draws the narrative (in this section at least) into a more Holocaust-centric view of WWII. From what little I do know of Holocaust studies, though, there is movement towards thinking about it in terms of broader models of trauma and asking about its connections to other historical traumas and atrocities, which would seem to match up well with 2666.