Saturday, February 20, 2010
2666 Part 5: Archimboldi
[Previously: one, two, three and four]. It ends with the fifth section: ‘the Part About Archimboldi’. And, apart from being (obviously) about Archimboldi, the reclusive German novelist who so obsessed the Critics in part one—this section not only ends the novel but is about endings, I think, although in a rather veiled way. The structure is a more-or-less straightforwardly linear narrative of Archimboldi’s life. His birth-name is Hans Reiter. The son of a one-legged First World War veteran and a one-eyed woman, he grows up near the Prussian North Sea coast. As a boy he is fascinated with the bottom of the sea; he dives repeatedly (on two occasions he comes close to drowning), reads about seaweed, daydreams about the submarine world. He grows very tall, and remains an odd, singular, friendless child. Come WWII, he is mobilized into the regular German army and fights mostly on the Eastern Front—he is even awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, although his bravery is actually a kind of passive recklessness predicated upon a state of mind that would welcome death. Although he is badly wounded, he does not die. Recuperating, he discovers the manuscript memoir of a Jewish Soviet writer called Boris Ansky—this enables Bolaño to interrupt his tale with a lengthy digression on Ansky’s revolutionary fervor and disillusionment in Moscow 1920s/30s, and in particular his friendship with Evraim Ivanov, a science fiction writer. I was very interested to read a novel about an imaginary Soviet science fiction writer. In my opinion, there should be many more novels about imaginary Soviet science fiction writer than there are. Anyhow, Ivanov falls foul of the purge, and is executed; and it’s unclear what happens to Ansky, although presumably he is killed in the war. Recovered from his wounds, Reiter is sent back to the front, and the book hurries through the rest of the war.
Afterwards, in a prison camp waiting to be processed by the victorious allies (who, of course, are sieving their captives for war criminals) Reiter befriends a soldier called Zeller. Zeller reveals that he’s adopted this name in part to put off interrogation by the Americans (who are working through the camp alphabetically). His real name is Leo Sammer, and he wasn’t a soldier at all: he was a mid-level administrator. He ran a portion of occupied Poland, and tells Reiter what happened when a trainload of 500 Greek Jews mistakenly ended up in his town rather than Auschwitz, where they were supposed to go. At first Sammer feeds them and gives them blankets, up to a point, whilst he tries to get the Nazi bureaucracy to admit and correct its mistake; but nobody wants to take responsibility, and finally he is given a verbal order to ‘dispose’ of the Jews.
‘Do you understand?’ asked the voice from Warsaw.
‘Yes I understand,’ I said.
‘Then we have a solution, don’t we?’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘But I’d like to receive the order in writing,’ I added. I heard a pealing laughter at the other end of the line. It could by my son’s laugh, I thought, a laugh that conjured up country afternoons, blue rivers full of trout, and the scent of fistfuls of flowers and grasses.
‘Don’t be naïve,’ said the voice without a hint of arrogance, ‘these orders are never issued in wiritng.’
Sammer then kills four-fifths of his Jews by convening work parties to march them into the woods and shoot them, a few score at a time, but it’s amateurishly and clumsily done. His work parties, including gangs of Polish children, don’t like it at all; and neither does he. As the Russians approach he vacates the town, and now in Allied custody he’s anxious that his true identity will be uncovered. But before that happens he is strangled in the camp—by Reiter.
Then the narrative follows Reiter’s postwar life; hardscrabble at first, although leavened by a relationship with the love of his life, the lovely if bonkers and tubercular Ingeborg Bauer. Reiter and Ingeborg have a lot of sex. He works at various low-grade jobs, and writes his first novel. When it comes to publication Reiter is concerned that the Allies might finger him for murdering Sammer; so he chooses a pseudonym, based on the Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, whom Reiter likes. His publisher points out that ‘Benno von Archimboldi’ is a stupid name, but Reiter sticks with it.
From then on, it’s the slow burn of Reiter/Archimboldi’s career: uncommercial ‘experimental’ novels that initially do not sell, but which slowly accrue readers and, as we know from part 1, academics. I discover that somebody has made a Wikipedia page for Archimboldi, so I don’t need to list all his novels here. Though I will mention in passing that the Wikipedia page for this imaginary individual’s writing career is longer and more interesting than the pages of some actual writers. So it goes. Archimboldi, always fame-shy, becomes positively reclusive after the death of Ingeborg. The last section of Part 5, and the last of the novel as a whole, shifts attention to Archimboldi’s sister, Lotte; her postwar experiences, her marriage to an auto-shop owner, their only child Klaus, and his decision to move to the USA. This, we discover, is the same Klaus Haas imprisoned under suspicion of murdering women in Santa Teresa in Part IV: and the novel ends with the elderly, now widowed Lotte worn out by repeated visits to her son in prison, asking her brother to take over.
”And that woman was very nice,” said Lotte, “even though my son is rotting in a Mexican prison. And who will look after him? Who will remember him when I’m dead?” asked Lotte. “My son has no children, no friends, he doesn’t have anyone,” said Lotte. “Look, the sun is coming up. Would you like some tea, coffee, a glass of water?”
Archimboldi sat down and stretched his legs. The bones cracked.
“Will you take care of it all?”
“A beer,” he said.
“I don’t have beer,” said Lotte. “Will you take care of it all?” 
That’s everything, except for a tangential coda: Archimboldi has an ice cream on a terrace restaurant, a ‘Fürst Pückler’ (‘chocolate, vanilla and strawberry’) when he meets a descendent of the original Herr Fürst Pückler, who invented the ice cream. The ancestor was ‘an enlightened man’, a gardener and botanist, the author of notable botanical and travel books.
”No one remembers the botanist Fürst Pückler now, no one remembers the model gardner, no one has read the writer. But everyone at some moment has tasted a Fürst Pückler, which is best and most pleasant in spring and fall.”
“Why not in summer?” asked Archimboldi.
“Because in summer it can be cloying. Ices are best in summer, not ice cream.”
Suddenly the park lights came on, although there was a second of total darkness, as if someone had tossed a black blanket over parts of Hamburg.
The gentlemen sighed. He must have been about seventy, and then he said:
“A mysterious legacy, don’t you think?”
“You’re right, I do,” said Archimboldi as he got up and took his leave of the descendent of Fürst Pückler.
Soon afterward he left the park and the next morning he was on his way to Mexico. 
I’d say that’s how the novel ends, but in fact there’s a four-page afterword by Ignacio Echevarria, explaining the circumstances of publication and elucidating the opaque title of the whole, which in appropriate postmodern manner I take to be the actual final section of the novel. Now the number 2666 appears nowhere in the novel itself, but Echevarria tells us that it does appear in an earlier Bolaño book, Amulet (1999), in which a character describes an avenue in central Mexico City as ‘more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974, or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eye of a corpse or an unborn child.’ I’ve noticed several reviewers alluding to this without mentioning that it’s all spelled out in the book itself; as if to puff up their own implied knowledge of Bolaño’s oeuvre. Don’t be fooled by them.
So: ice cream? A mélange, something many would find cloying if taken at the wrong time, the mysterious legacy of an enlightened individual, something simultaneously gustible and chilling. The novel itself, clearly. Archimboldi, who worked as a gardener in the early stages of his writing career, and who is also a novelist, presumably feels some connection with Fürst Pückler (who is a real person it seems): his mysterious legacy will, I suppose, have something to do with his nephew in Mexico, and nothing to do with his esteemed novels or (doubtless) excellent gardening.
What else? Well, not-a-relation-of-mine ‘adam’, commenting on an earlier post said: ‘I thought the fifth section was filled with everything I hate about modern writing (overly pretentious, nonsensical prose), but still better than the fourth.’ There are certainly moments where I can see why he might think this, but I’d suggest the ‘This Is Modern Writing’ aspect of ‘The Part About Archimboldi’ has to do with structure rather than style; and I’d also suggest it can be justified. There is something frustratingly modish and echt-experimental about Bolaño’s refusal to tie-up the loose ends of his tale, not least because he teases the reader by offering various small developments of plotlines or characters from earlier in the novel. So whilst we learn some small things about Klaus’s family, and Archimboldi’s background, we don’t learn if the Critics ever catch up to Archimboldi; we don’t discover what happens to Amalfitano (father or daughter), or to ‘Fate’ and his female friends; and we move no closer at all to solving or even understanding the mass-killings around which the novel is built. But this ending-avoision (‘I don’t say evasion, I say avoision’) is elaborated in pretty much all the narrative strands of this section of the novel. Or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say: narratives are set in motion, and developed, only to be abruptly truncated throughout the section—consider for example the science fiction writer Ivanov, whose career trajectory has parallels with Archimboldi’s, except that, in his prime, he is shot by the KGB. Or consider the long inset narrative about French anthropologists who discover an Edenic ‘stone-age’ tribe in Borneo, introduced as ‘a joke that Ivanov told him [Ansky] at a party’ —and which we read, therefore, expecting a punchline; but which burns out into inconsequential misunderstanding between scientists and natives. Or the love-story between Archimboldi and Ingeborg, which also rather peters out. They holiday in the mountains near the Austrian border, and the dying Ingeborg disappears in the middle of the night; Archimboldi searches for her, expecting that she has done away with herself. But she hasn’t; she’s just watching the stars. Cold, they go to the border guardhouse, where they find the guards murdered—but we never discover why, or by whom. There are many other examples like this, to the point where it becomes clear that it’s a deliberate narrative strategy.
Of course, this is part of the larger Bolaño effect, and this sort of structural skewed elegance is constitutive of the Experimental Novel. It acquires added resonance here, because 2666 is so long and detailed, and has planted so many questions in the reader’s mind. Accordingly this section’s elaborate ‘you weren’t so foolish as to think you’d get answers, were you?’ feels more contrived than it might. Part of the point, presumably, is to say: answers aren’t the currency of existence. To say: life is not structured like a whodunit, with a long speech in the library near the end that explains everything. Death is always an interruption, life is always left unresolved. But part of it feels like obliqueness for the sake of obliqueness: ‘you might understand all this … if you puzzle it over until the year 2666, hah!’ Here’s Ignacio Echevarria again:
In one of his many notes for 2666, Bolaño indicates the existence in the work of a ‘hidden centre,’ concealed beneath what might be considered the work’s ‘physical centre.’ There’s reason to think that this physical centre is the city of Santa Teresa, faithful reflection of Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-U.S. border.
I find myself wanting to resist the idea that the whole 1000-page monsternovel is just a massive shaggy-lupine elaboration of Henry James’s ‘’Figure in the Carpet’ short story, however much Echevarria wants to push that line.
Part 5 is a much more readable section than the horrible Part 4; and finishing the novel is to have it echo weirdly in the mind. I’ll let it bounce about a little and come back to it in a little while.
Re: “Obliqueness for the sake of obliqueness” ...
I still haven’t gotten to part 5 yet, but this is exactly what I thought about the dreams and side stories (e.g. the story about the woman in Argentina) in part 1, the madness in part 2, the strange social interactions in part 3, and the brick wall of unsolved crimes in part 4.
I had a feeling that if Barthes were dissecting this text a la S/Z, every other lexia would be marked HER for hermeneutic, but it’s all enigmas, mostly unanswered.
And the general tone struck me as satirical, because people who’re in each case supposed to understand something never seem to figure it out. You’ve got literary critics who can’t understand the author their careers are based on; a husband and wife who can’t understand each other or themselves or their daughter; a black political journalist who can’t understand his sports assignment (or anything really) in Mexico; and a whole mess of people--detectives, politicians, etc.--who can’t understand a whole mess of murders they’re supposed to deal with.
If that’s what Bolano was aiming at, i.e. a satire of interpretation--a sustained argument that people who’re supposed to understand things never really do or never really can--then the obliqueness, at least in the parts I finished, could reasonably be compared to the figure in the carpet, except in James’s story someone did work out the solution. This’d be more like saying that although we see figure in the carpet situations everywhere, there aren’t really, just opaque screens of facts, and the people who are trying to solve them are trapped, because even their authors don’t have the answers.
Anyway, thanks again for sharing your reading of this.
If 2666 were as resonant in popular culture as Lost, we’d get lots of solutions and plot conclusions that critics (who have lives and careers) have not had the time to find.
In other words, I think that Bolano provides a lot more information about the crimes and the connections of his characters to the crimes than a single fast reading of the novel can reveal…
For example, some of the crimes clearly resemble others of the crimes which resemble the threat to Rosa Amalfitano… Some of the crimes are actually solved, some seem to be crimes of passion, some are the work of copycats, and so forth. Some were probably committed by Archimboldi’s nephew.
I’m reminded here in its frustrating obliquity of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet (not the movies)... And also, of course, the Soviet science fiction writer who resembles the characters in a certain recent British science fiction novel.
D. “...except in James’s story someone did work out the solution.“ Well, we’re told there is a solution; we’re not shown what it is. the story is metainterpretive, not interpretive, in design; and maybe Bolaño’s novel is too.
Tulkinghorn: “If 2666 were as resonant in popular culture as Lost, we’d get lots of solutions and plot conclusions that critics (who have lives and careers) have not had the time to find. In other words, I think that Bolano provides a lot more information about the crimes and the connections of his characters to the crimes than a single fast reading of the novel can reveal…“
I’d say both these statements are likely, and I very much take the force of the latter: that I am reacting straight off the cuff to a first read-through, rather than cogitating more critically, considering it longer, re-reading and so on. Still. I wonder how apposite the Lost comparison is? All the smoke-and-mirrors of that show are on the surface, as it were; narrative misdirection designed to spin out the franchise as long as it’s commercially profitable. But it’s all in service of a much more straightforward ‘solution’, which this final series is now galumphing towards. But the smoke-and-mirrors are ‘2666’; they’re integral to it. It’s not a simple mystery-solution device, surely; it’s a much more complicated mystery/metamystery machine.
“For example, some of the crimes clearly resemble others of the crimes which resemble the threat to Rosa Amalfitano… Some of the crimes are actually solved, some seem to be crimes of passion, some are the work of copycats, and so forth. Some were probably committed by Archimboldi’s nephew.“
Well, yes, I’d agree that if we take the novel as a whodunnit, there are things we can probably say about its crimes. I assume the bulk of the murdered women are killed by narcos; and I’d assume that some of the characters are more involved than the surface of the narrative admits. But I’m just not sure that this is the level of which it’s best to take the novel.
“I’m reminded here in its frustrating obliquity of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet (not the movies)... And also, of course, the Soviet science fiction writer who resembles the characters in a certain recent British science fiction novel. “
"I’m just not sure that this is the level of which it’s best to take the novel.”
It’s a pretty good place to start. In fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to deal with part 4, for example, without at least trying to work out the narrative structures—even if they appear to be the shallowest sort of police procedural banality. Otherwise, as so many have said, the effect is like getting hit in the face by a shovel, over and over again.
Bolano was, if anything, resolutely not precious. The depths are there, but you’ve got to see the surface first.
Take a hint from his affectionate but satiric look at the critics in part 1.... I’d be willing to bet that if they had actually gotten to meet Archimboldo, he would tell them that they were completely missing the point.
I’ve appreciated your readings, Adam, but I’ve especially appreciated the interventions of the various commenters not named D or Tony.
I can’t imagine getting to the beginning of part 5 and expecting that answers, such as they are, would be revealed. And, again, for me the most compelling reading, as experience, was part 4. Frankly, I dreaded it going in, expecting the “brick wall” D thinks he finds there. But in fact the section is much more varied and lively and overwhelming than I expected. Overall I found it more readable than part 5--in part because part 5 has a few “re-beginnings”, if you will, where we are introduced to a new character, from the beginning, born such and such a date, etc, as if we were embarking on a normal novel. Each time it recovered from this effective halt to regain my interest, but still, each time it had a little work to do on that front.
I’d also like to say that the links to other Bolano works are there, but perhaps overstated. While there is the brief passage where we get the idea that one of the cops is the son of one or both of the poets in The Savage Detectives, I think it’s a mistake to read too much into that, for the purposes of reading this novel. And as it happens, along with The Savage Detectives, Amulet was one of the other Bolaño books I’d already read, and I remember the reference to the year 2666. But I doubt it adds up to much, other than Bolaño being playful, and filling in parts of a not rigid mythos of his own making. (Basically all of his fiction appears to be at least tangentially related in this way.)