Tuesday, February 16, 2010
2666 Part 4: Crimes
[Previously: part 1; part 2; part 3] And so we come to it, the notorious fourth section: ‘The Part About the Crimes’. It is, as people warned, a thoroughly grueling read: 300 pages mostly filled with detailed quasi-forensic descriptions of the bodies of many many raped and murdered women.
Here’s one from early on:
The next month, in May, a dead woman was found in a dump between Colonia Las Flores and the General Sepú industrial park. In the complex stood the buildings of four maquiladoras where household appliances were assembled. The electric towers that supplied power to the maquiladoras were new and painted silver. Next to them, amid some low hills, were the roofs of shacks that had been built a little before the arrival of the maquiladoras, stretching all the way to the train tracks and across, along the edge of Colonial La Preciada. … In the dump where the dead woman was found, the trash of the slum dwellers piled up along with the waste of the maquiladoras. The call informing the authorities of the discovery of the dead woman came from the manager of one of the plants, Multizone-West, a subsidiary of a multinational that manufactured TVs. The policeman who came to get her found three executives from the maquiladora waiting for them at the dump. Two were Mexican and the other was American. One of the Mexicans said they hoped the body would be removed as soon as possible. One of the policemen asked where the body was, while his partner called an ambulance. The three executives accompanied the policeman into the dump. The four of them held their noses, but when the American stopped holding his nose the Mexicans followed his example. The dead woman had dark skin and straight black hair past her shoulders. She was wearing a black sweatshirt and shorts … The dead woman spent that night in a refrigerated compartment in the Santa Teresa hospital and the next day one of the medical examiner’s assistants performed the autopsy. She had been strangled. She had been raped. Vaginally and anally, noted the medical examiner’s assistant. And she was five-months pregnant. [358-9]
And here’s one, several score similar victims later, from the end of the section:
On November 16 the body of another woman was found on the back lot of the Kusai maquiladora, in Colonia San Bartolomé. According to the initial examination, the victim was between eighteen and twenty-two and the cause of death, according to the forensic report, was asphyxiation due to strangulation. She was completely naked and her clothes were found five yards away, hidden in the bushes. Actually, not all of her clothes were found, just a pair of black leggings and red panties. Two days later, she was identified by her parents as Rosario Marquina, nineteen, who disappeared on November 12 while she was out dancing at Salon Montana on Avenida Carranza, not far from Colonia Veracruz, where they lived. It just so happened that both the victim and her parents worked at the Kusai maquiladora. According to the medical examiners the victim was raped several times before she died. [603-4]
On and on it goes, from the start of the section to the end of it: near-enough 300 pages of women raped and murdered, all reported in this horribly depersonalized manner. Not all the murdered women are the victims of the serial killer, or killers; some are killed in more conventional mode by jealous boyfriends or husbands. The police even manage to apprehend some of these. But the majority are killed and dumped anonymously, and the police no sooner turn up the crimescene than they shelve the case forever as unsolvable. In all instances, Bolaño provides a knot of circumstantial details, and he reports in a leisurely, neutral tone the precise nature of the sexual violations, mutilations and manner of death of the victim. It makes for a horrible read, although the sheer number of instances means—I suppose deliberately, (although it’s not a complicated trick, technically speaking, for a writer to pull off)—that the reader feels much less visceral horror at the reports of the later victims than s/he did at the early. One’s sensibilities get bludgeoned.
Interleaved with these multiplied accounts of raped and murdered women are a handful of other storylines. One concerns a weirdo, dubbed by the newspapers ‘The Penitent’, who loiters in Santa Teresa’s various churches moaning loudly and pissing prodigious quantities of urine over the floor. Sometimes he smashes up statues and assaults the church staff. Bolaño also gives us half-formed narratives of some of the policemen investigating the crimes (one interviews, and then has an affair with, the female director of a local insane asylum; another narrative line follows a young lad called Lalo Cura, who starts out as a bodyguard before being recruited by the police, working as a flatfoot for several years). There are a few other significant characters: a TV psychic who claims to have supernatural insight into the crimes; a powerful female politician whose close female friend (possibly lover; I wasn’t sure) has disappeared and may be one of the victims. The police arrest a young German-born Mexican-American citizen called Klaus Haas, a store-owner with spooky eyes. They are convinced that he is the killer; and although there’s no evidence he is incarcerated without trial. The murders continue, but that doesn’t shake the police’s sense that they have their man. All these developments are related as interspersed bulletins inserted into the relentless thud-thud-thud of ‘the body exhibited stab wounds, most of them very deep, to the neck, chest and abdomen. In the forensic examination a significant sampling of semen was found in the vagina’  and ‘early in September the body of a girl later identified as Marisa Hernández Silva appeared. She was seventeen and had vanished at the beginning of July on her way to the Vasconcelos Preparatory School in Colonia Reforma. According to the forensic report she had been raped and strangled’  and ‘four days later the mutilated corpse of Beatriz Concepción Roldán appeared by the side of Santa Teresa-Cananea highway’ .
Having read this part, the decision of Bolaño’s estate not to issue 2666 as five separate novels makes a little more sense to me. Published as a standalone ‘The Part About the Crimes’ would make a very unappetizing novel—not only because it is so monotonously intense and repetitive, and on such a horrible subject, but because the material that isn’t simply an account of these crimes is tenuously and sometimes inconsequentially developed.
What to say about all this grim stuff? It makes for onerous, painful reading: a fictional experiment taken to relentless and indeed remorseless lengths. As I writer I suppose I have a (as the phrase puts it) grudging respect for Bolaño and the persistence with which he worked this portion of his book. It is unpleasant to read; it must have been deeply unpleasant to write.
One thought that occurred to me was that Bolaño offers this section almost as a dare to the reader. I don’t mean in a ‘I dare you to finish reading this!’ sense, although perhaps there’s something in that. I mean in the sense that he dares his reader to make something of this mass of posthumous horribleness. The mass murder of women becomes, clearly, the lens through which a whole society is seen, and we are challenged to agree, or disagree, that this in turn illuminates something appallingly true about the world at large. Mostly Bolaño pursues his theme by refusing editorial comment, and (mostly) keeping his thumb out of the balance; but occasionally he fills in some of the non-murderous context of masculine Mexican society’s default misogyny. Here, for instance:
Cops at the end of their shifts met for breakfast at Trejo’s, a long coffee shop like a coffin, with a few windows. There they drank coffee and ate huevos rancheros or eggs and bacon or scrambled eggs, And they told jokes. Sometimes there were monographic, the jokes. And many of them were about women. For example, one cop would say: what’s the perfect woman? Pues, she’s two feet tall, big ears, flat head, no teeth and hideously ugly. Why? Pues two feet tall so she comes right up to your waist, big ears so you can steer her, a flat head so you have a place to set your beer, no teeth so she can’t bite your dick, and hideously ugly so no bastard steals her away. Some laughed. Others kept eating their eggs and drinking their coffee. And the teller of the first joke continued. He asked: why don’t women know how to ski? Silence. Pues because it never snows in the kitchen. Some didn’t get it. Most of the cops had never skied in their lives. Where do you ski in the middle of the desert? But some laughed. And the joke teller said: all right, friends, what’s the definition of a woman? Silence. And the answer: pues a vagina surrounded by more or less organized bunch of cells. And then someone laughed, an inspector, good one, González, a bunch of cells, yes, sir. And another one, international this time: why is the Statue of Liberty a woman? Because they needed an empty head for the observation deck. And another: how many parts is a woman’s brain divided into? Pues that depends, valedores! Depends on what, González? Depends how hard you hit her. And on a roll now: why can’t women count to seventy? Because by the time they get to sixty-nine their mouths are full. 
There are pages of this, literally dozens of women-hating jokes (‘why don’t men lend their cars to women? Because there’s no road from the bedroom to the kitchen. … How do you give a woman more freedom? Get her a bigger kitchen’) at which most, though not all, these policemen laugh heartily. I wonder whether the repetitiveness here, as (on a larger scale) the repetitiveness of Bolaño’s accounts of the murders, isn’t designed to say something about men—Mexican men, or possibly men more generally. The point is not just that they so often relate to women only in terms of sexualized aggression and hostility; but more precisely that there is something mechanical, a structuring monotonous repetition, about that violence. Men are like jack-hammers, banging away over and over and over (banging in a sexual sense; banging in a discursive sense—banging, in this man’s novel at this point, in a textual sense); and it is women who find themselves underneath the hammerhead. This vision, that the world is always and everywhere horribly the same dominates the section, and justifies its experimental form. There are some passages that challenge it, although they are rather drowned out by the hammering of the main theme. So, for instance; here is the TV psychic Florita Almada and her youth:
Then they moved, for reasons not worth discussing to Villa Pesqueria, where her mother died and where she, eight months later, married a man she barley knew, a hardworking and honorable man, who treated her with respect, someone quite a bit older than she was, incidentally, thirty-eight to her seventeen … Sometimes she went with him on his [business] trips … It was a unique opportunity to see the world. To get a glimpse of other landscapes which though they might seem familiar, when you looked at them carefully were very different from the landscapes of Villa Pesqueira. Every hundred feet the world changes, said Flora Almada. The idea that some places are the same as other places is a lie. The world is a kind of tremor. [429-30]
Those last three sentences speak to something important, I think; but that point of view is almost drowned out by the bellowing counter-proposition: the masculine vision that everything is everywhere remorselessly the same; and that sameness is the repetitive monotony of male sexual violence, of hatred and suffering inflicted and death.
It’s not to deny the validity of that apperception to note that Bolaño’s representation of it here is, ultimately, wearying. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Part 4. But having come this far, I’ll see what Part 5 has to offer.
THANK YOU. I had figured the first 75 pages or so of this section was sufficient as a view of the whole, but I’m grateful that you’ve scouted ahead, and I’ll take it as an all-clear signal to proceed with part 5.
I seriously think any reviewer who neglects to mention the painfulness of this section probably didn’t read the book.
As for its significance, I recall nursing a hunch that the whole book was a sort of satire of hermeneutics (specifically, the interpretation of literature in section 1, human psychology in section 2, sociology and public events in section 3, who dunnit crimes in section 4, and whatever section 5 covers) and/or that section 4 is sending out a giant FU to detective fiction in particular for being too pat and not as messy as reality.
But I dunno--that doesn’t seem like a good enough point to make with this much material, and I didn’t finish and then forgot most of what I thought about the first three parts.
Anyway, this section is certainly a giant FU aimed at someone, maybe the reader.
This is, I think, not completely right: “...the reader feels much less visceral horror at the reports of the later victims than s/he did at the early. One’s sensibilities get bludgeoned.”
I thought the fourth book was incredibly good, because I think that it did one few murder stories do - it eliminated the normal person. To my mind, the visceral horror turns into something else, which is the dawning recognition of how close to murder, as either perpetrator or victim, everyone is - except that women are much, much closer. I can only compare the feeling to what it would be like for a cow to suddenly become humanly aware of what is happening in a slaughterhouse.
This is one of the pre-eminent experiences of the 20th century. I think Bolano is quite right to link it to the war on the eastern front. The fourth section, to my mind, elevated murder to a political power - a sort of institution, like business or labor unions. And one doesn’t have to look long at the countries - Colombia, Mexico - where corruption, the inability of a governing power to limit predation or restrain its own predatory power, etc. - has actually unfolded to see how truthful this section is. Over the last two years, for instance, the narcos killed something like one hundred musicians in Mexico. Your usual corridos singers. Why? Nobody knows why.
The fourth book is, to my mind, a brilliant literary resolution of this enigma, bringing together two 20th century genres - the detective novel and the genocide novel.
That ‘painful’ experience of reading the Part About the Crimes, to my mind, is integral to the moral ‘program’ at the core of 2666; i don’t think readers who skip the Part are really getting it (or maybe they’re getting it *too well*, depending on their reasons for *turning away*). Society has a tendency to *turn away* from these very real horrors (literally so; though fictionalized, by all accounts Part 4 faithfully catalogs the victims of the Ciudad Juarez killings); it is literature’s duty, almost, to counterintuitively *not* turn away. Now, while there may be a kind of survival instinct behind society’s natural response--a defense mechanism, maybe, against the dehumanizing effect of being bludgeoned, repeatedly bludgeoned--giving in to that tendency one also risks a kind of complicity with these horrors (as demonstrated in 2666). On the other hand, looking too hard can have its own dehumanizing effect (as demonstrated by the effect of *reading* 2666), and this may be seen as the burden of the literature that catalogs such horrors. The trick for the reader, maybe, is to be *conscious* of these effects, and i propose that 2666 is meant to equip us with that awareness: through 2666, we experience these effects ‘firsthand’ (that is, as close to firsthand as we can get by reading a book) and, in theory, become better equipped to *interrogate* those responses. Not necessarily to make sense of them, but at least to ask the necessary questions. Bolaño, as i understand him as much from his fiction as from what he says in interviews, is very much NOT about saying FU to the reader, but rather about giving as much as he can to the reader, i.e., helping the reader get as much as she can out of literature by putting as much as he (Bolaño) can--every fiber of his being, almost, martyr-like--into the writing.
Then again, he (Bolaño) also admitted to being a contrarian, and was, by all accounts, something of a prankster, so who knows? It may all very well have been an FU after all, but, let’s just say that, having read 2666, i personally choose to read it one way and not the other; Bolaño, at the very least, i like to think, had the generosity to give us both options.
Hunh. I guess, speaking as an anthropologist, that I just don’t get the moral program of fictionalizing the Ciudad Juarez murders this way. One of my former colleagues went to Ciudad Juarez to write about the murders ten years ago, and while I think it would have been an ambitious form to choose for her ethnography, I wouldn’t have recommended it there either.
I mentioned in another thread my personal interest in reading this, which has a form similar to part 4’s: http://www.amazon.com/reader/0811715337?_encoding=UTF8&ref_=sib_dp_pop_ex
As with part 4, I found it grimly fascinating to read as if it were a novel for about 10-15 pages, but not long in, hey, I get it--the efflorescence of maritime civilization featured also a bewildering variety of mass deaths and absurd accidents. Another 50-60 pages, and I’m done as a reader. But Grocott had a good reason to go on: it’s an historical reference work.
An ethnographer of Ciudad Juarez could make a similar claim to doing something documentary, but how much documentary stuff to include is a serious problem for ethnography as a genre: too much is the temptation, because details are relatively easy to gather, but too much also guarantees the work won’t be read. You have to decide whether you’re producing something that will be more of a reference work or else something with just enough evidence to make a point.
Boasian Americanists used to write tons of fiction as an alternative to ethnography, precisely because their ethnographic style was encyclopedic--an effort to document every detail about social practices that were rapidly disappearing. They knew their ethnographies weren’t very readable, so they wrote fiction too. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either (e.g. http://store.doverpublications.com/0486273776.html).
Getting back to Bolano, what I’m saying is that if he’s trying to make the point you guys think, then I think he should have written some fiction as an alternative to his fiction, because he’s missed the mark of producing just enough evidence to say what you guys are saying. By a long shot. And he doesn’t have the excuse of having done something documentary as a reference work.
I can take it as an experimental piece--maybe even something Bolano fully intended to provoke arguments about fiction vs. documentary--but as I see it, the point of long experimental works isn’t really to be read or to communicate but to astonish and to stand as limit cases for what has been done in literature. And part 4 makes an interesting *literary* point that something like Grocott’s reference work (or indeed any long police blotter) could be read as a coherent story. In that sense, it works great. But I’m quite surprised that anyone would try to defend either its readability or its moral program.
I lean towards the latter two comments. Part 4 is definitely not a fuck you and it’s definitely integral, the whole thing, to the book. Skipping this part is effectively skipping the book.
Er, my comment is rendered nonsensical by now. I do not agree at all with “D”. I find the section quite readable, and tend to think it’s the best part of the book, in part for the reasons the other two commenters give, and in part what Adam says about men. And that many, if not most, of the women worked at maquiladoras strikes me as highly relevant.
Great points about experimentation in 2666. i agree 2666 must be a literary experiment meant to test the limits of literature, particularly its ability to ‘represent’ reality (or even ‘replace’ reality, in the escapist--or, more to the point, ‘anti-escapist’--sense). As a kind of proposition or preliminary assumption to the experiment, i would suggest that 2666 also appears to conflate genres and modes of storytelling into a kind of ur-literature, in which such distinctions between, say, documentary and novel, while gestured toward, are also obscured almost to obliteration. (These points i think also form part of the rationalization for the fictionalization of the Ciudad Juarez killings [all the Santa Teresa killings allegedly having their direct real-world Ciudad Juarez counterparts in a similar catalog of murders found in Sergio Rodriguez’s Bones in the Desert--which i can’t attest to as i haven’t read the latter].) In that sense, the importance of part 4’s bloody-mindedness may be seen as simply fundamental to this ‘literary form’ 2666 takes, a form, it may be surmised, in which immersion matters as much as documentation (documentation employed as a novelistic instrument).
Nonetheless, the fact that this part can be read as standing in direct counterpoint to the real tendency of real people to look away from real horrors, particularly in light of that tendency’s implication in many (if not all) of the crimes (not just the killings) committed in 2666, makes it reasonable to assume a moral core to the experiment that *must* at some point be discussed. Furthermore, i reiterate that having the *experience* of reading the Part About the Crimes matters as much as ‘getting it’ in the intellectual sense that is possible from reading just a few pages of part 4--to be portentous, 2666 makes (or attempts to make) a grab at the reader’s soul as much as the reader’s mind (the latter, i add, doesn’t even preclude the form chosen for the experiment, regardless of the fact that ‘it only takes a few pages...’; as Mr Roberts has already suggested, the ‘grab for the mind’ also comes in the form of a dare, the dare to attempt to solve, forensically, 2666’s enigmatic puzzle).
This is not, however, to defend the ‘readability’ of The Part About the Crimes; if i’d given the impression that that was what i wanted to do, i apologize. ‘Readability’ must be judged on a case-to-case/reader-to-reader basis, and i merely present my own experience as a counter example to those of others: i got through part 4 just fine (if not unscathed), and, in fact, found it utterly compelling reading.
You seem to have ignored the cops—like reading Ian Rankin but not mentioning the central character.
It’s easy to get blinded by the horror of the crimes and miss the fact that Part 4 is a police procedural and that the efforts by the police and the press to solve the crimes involve characters and situations from Parts 1 and 2—including the flight of Rosa Amalfitano and the visit to Klaus Haas by the critics in Part 1. (For careful readers, he supplies a kind of end to his earlier Savage Detectives—one of the cops is the son of, it appears, both the male poets in Detectives)
Don’t forget that this is a NOVEL and that the parts are interconnected.
"You seem to have ignored the cops—like reading Ian Rankin but not mentioning the central character.“
You have a point, Tulkinghorn; although I do mention the cops, and I’d argue that the police procedures are very far from being equivalent to a ‘central character’ in this part. That stuff is rather overwhelmed by the murders; or, to be more precise, in my reading it was. Still, you’ve read The Savage Detectives and I haven’t, so I yield to your broader knowledge of Bolaño’s writing.
Tulkinghorne - thank you!
I’m not sure why the murders overwhelm the police procedural for you, Adam. To me, it is essential to the horror of the murders. The dead ends and disappearances are what would distinguish these murders from, say, the massacres in Blood Meridien. In Psycho, when the private detective is murdered, it is redundant - there is no need for that murder, on the level of the plot - but because it is redundant doesn’t mean it has no function. It functions to collapse the social order, for one thing. That is why I found D’s comment totally at odds with my reading of the book. Without the intricate plotwork that takes us into the jail, into tv studios, into the workings of the governing class, the 4th book would simply be one murder story after another. However, it is far from that. The murders form a city within the city - and it seems essential to me that the murders are investigaged. Some murders are described as murders, some are described as objects of investigation, and that is, I think, hugely important.
I am suspicion that in other novels, concerning one murder, say, our senses are more alive to the murder victim. The murder in your average detective novel - or even in an extraordinary one, like Raymond Chandler’s - do not stay with the reader, at least in my experience, very long, even if they stay with the detective. It is rare that, a la crime and punishment, we spend a long time on the victim - they recede as the investigation takes up the brunt of the book. They are never remembered enough. Bolano’s continuous refrain of murder didn’t make me take the murders for granted, but instead points to the fact that in books about more individual murders, as we put some pagination between us and the victim, we forget them very quickly.
A lot of great comments here, and interesting analysis in the review itself. I tend to agree with Chiles, although I’m not fond of the idea of “moral programs” in fiction.
I do think there are progressions in section 4. It’s not that there are repetitious descriptions of women who have been murdered. It’s that there are descriptions of women who have been murdered between which we get to see a lot of different levels of society, so that as the section continues we return to each next murder in a slightly different context. Sometimes it’s only a tiny shift of understanding or context. Sometimes it’s a more than that. I also felt that Bolano’s use of repetition mirrored what it might feel like to live in a city undergoing such a continual horror: to be both numbed and horrified, among other, more complex effects. When readers say “Why won’t Bolano stop?” or “What is the point of this?” it makes the point clear: because sometimes these things don’t end just from wishing they will, sometimes the nightmare continues, and it’s a kind of lie to think otherwise, or to turn away. Reading fiction isn’t always going to be pleasant, nor should it. The genius of the section is precisely in the repetition, and in the way he doesn’t try to delve too deeply into the lives of the women, although he gives glimpses. That would be a kind of lie. In sticking just to the details, and making them precise, I found that that he gave a kind of individuality to each one, and a kind of truth, that first of all reflects the things a cop would note about them (important since many of the POVs are cops) and, in an odd way, lends dignity to the dead women.
In general, I think readers, writers, and critics are still acclimating themselves to the patterns in Bolano’s work, and to the rhythms in that work. Personally, I found the structure satisfying, and felt it was one of those books that colonize your brain and convert your way of thinking about structure and plot to the novel’s approach. It has made many books since that I thought I would enjoy seem two-dimensional. Nor did I feel that Bolano was being formally experimental in the sense of “let’s write a novel without the letter e,” for example. I especially didn’t see the description of the murders as experimental, the repetition. I saw that as simply the use at a macro level of a technique most often seen at the micro level, and rarely used so audaciously.
That presupposes that the novelist shares your view that the causes of the homicide are important in that particular way in the particular context of his novel and in the particular context of writing about Mexico, and in the particular context of writing about a certain place in Mexico. I would bet that he considered this quite carefully. I’d also debate that “street level” idea as I think Bolano moves between levels.
First, a quick note, not really to address any of the above commentary, or maybe to do so in a tangential, non-engagement sort of way: If there was an afterlife, an afterlife in which one could afford to sit comfortably and observe such things as blogs and comment threads, and if the things said about Bolaño and the things he said about himself (that i’ve read) are to be believed, i bet he would be both hailing us and laughing at us, all of us right now, every one of us who read and comment on these things, especially one of his own books…
Was that an unnecessary comment? Anyway. Respect, everybody.
i sometimes feel that ‘moral programs’ in literature are more necessary in some instances than in others; there was some discussion elsewhere on the inescapability of politics in South American literature, for instance, like that. i’ve recently started to think it may be necessary to reestablish a fiction with a more solid moral core of social awareness back in my home country. Personally, i tend to be leary of it when it comes off as didactic, and not implicit, or maybe essential to the nature of the text, as i feel it is in the case of 2666--one of its great successes to my mind.
i agree with Jeff’s comments re:the dignity of the women. Since reading 2666, i’ve come to think that the ‘superficial’ forensic treatment of the murders employed here is probably the best (most ethical?) way to treat material of this nature; the murders are examined closely (i.e., forensically) without being fetishized (although i’m not sure if that isn’t just a subjective response to the text). The victims are allowed the dignity of privacy (’look at me; look closely; look this far, but no further’) they would have been denied by a more invasive examination, the kind of scrutinizing examination of their lives others feel necessary to establish the kind of pathos necessary to make ‘*characters* we care about’ (as opposed to people--i’ve always felt that Bolaño’s books aren’t filled with characters, they’re filled with people, if you see what i mean).