[Note: so far, I have only read Book 1]
12 March 2015
First half of Book 1 – The Part about the Critics
This is an easy novel to read, but hard to write about. It seems to be as much about how narratives are created as about anything else. And Bolaño presents a narrator who doesn’t like to make anything easy, so his novel is full of stories and versions of events that leave a lot of uncertainties.
We think we know where we are at first. Three academics – the ‘critics’ of the subtitle – have all gained reputations in the study of a German novelist with the unlikely name of Benno Archimboldi. Bolaño creates a whole imaginary structure around this man, with factions growing up around different aspects of his growing reputation. But nothing is ever quite real in this novel. The authorial voice is self-assured, entirely confident about what needs to be told – but it isn’t quite the narrative voice you usually find in novels. It’s a version of the familiar omniscient narrator, but with a twist. He will sometimes be vague about who did what, as though this isn’t his story at all, but one he’s heard somewhere. At one point, for instance, one of the academics at the centre of a love-triangle that develops makes an important telephone call to the other, but the narrator isn’t sure which. Never mind, he implies, it doesn’t really matter.
Bolaño’s characters might have made names for themselves in academia, but that doesn’t really matter either as the imperatives of love and sex dictate their behaviour as much as their desire to publish the next paper. There’s nothing real about their world as Bolaño describes it, about the easy way that first one, then another of the academics hooks up with the woman they met a few conferences back. Her role seems to consist almost entirely of being the object of desire and, like them, has no life outside the relationship that Bolaño chooses to describe. All we really know of them is that they have a shared enthusiasm for a German author who might not quite exist – nobody ever sees him, and if his name is a pseudonym, nobody knows what he is really called – for lazy, drifting evenings spent at conferences, and for guilt-free sex.
It might sound as though I think Bolaño is an inept writer. Perhaps, if I came to this novel with no prior knowledge of his reputation, I would be thinking that right now. But I’m assuming that what he is seeking to achieve is all deliberate. He’s created a post-Freudian (or simply Freudian) world in which the details of a rounded personal or professional life are simply not deemed to be relevant. They don’t exist for these people, who feel more like figures in a folk-tale than characters in a novel. And Bolaño does not seem to feel the need to assign a psychologically rounded set of motivations to them. Things happen. Get over it.
Plot. The three academics become friends by meeting at conferences. Then they meet a woman, younger than they are, who seems to have plenty to offer in their field. First one of them falls in love with her and starts to see her regularly on weekend visits. Soon another of them does exactly the same thing and, when they find out about one another, they are ok with it. The possibility of a threesome hangs in the air during one evening, but it comes to nothing. Eventually she brings it to an end that might be temporary, might signal that she is about to choose one over the other, or… or well, you know how it is. There is an ex-husband, although one or other (or both) of the lovers sometimes doubts whether he ever really existed. There is also a man on the scene who might or might not be important.
The third academic also likes the woman, but he has health problems and is always presented as being far less passionate, in all respects, than his two friends. He has to take to a wheelchair not far into the novel. But… the woman invites him for a weekend as well. That’s ok. They are all friends, and although the dynamic is different when she is also the lover of two of them, they go along as though nothing has really changed. Maybe it hasn’t. The third academic doesn’t seem to have sex with the woman – only one hour of his visit is unaccounted for – but he enjoys her company. I’m trying to remember why he spends an energetic morning wheeling himself around a park near his hotel. He meets a man there who, inevitably, wants to tell him his story. It might not matter, of course.
There are other stories. The publisher’s wife who remembers the dealings her husband had with Archimboldi. The man in charge of culture in some obscure German backwater who remembers a visit by the great man, but whose story consists mainly of the reminiscences of a widow, covering at least two continents in a sentence that lasts over four pages. Of the main characters, only the woman has a back-story, about being married too young to a man who threatened her. Is the threat real? Is he? Is the young man the academics find at her flat when they pay a (highly implausible) surprise joint visit as ready to do violence to them as he seems? The woman assures them later that he wouldn’t harm a fly. Or something like that.
Violence is often just beneath the surface in this way, It’s in the widow’s extravagant anecdote, in which she suggests an aggrieved young gaucho in South America was ready to cut her wide open when forced to lose a contest. It isn’t in the nature of the academics to behave in such a way, of course. And then it is. Half-way through Book 1, just before I stopped reading, an incompetent Pakistani taxi-driver speaks insultingly to them about the way they are pimping their whore. What do they do? The two who are, or have been, her lovers beat him almost to death. It’s like an orgasm for both of them, and leaves them (if I remember rightly) wishing that they could have sex all night afterwards. But their lover has told them it’s over for now, so they don’t.
I’m interested to see if I’ll be able to get any more of a handle on what Bolaño thinks he’s doing when I’ve read the rest of Book 1.
To the end of Book 1
No I don’t, not really. Have a handle on what Bolaño is doing. Famously, this novel was published after his death and he had wanted the five books to be published separately. They were published together because they should be taken as a whole, supposedly – I wouldn’t know – but they are clearly also to be seen as stand-alone works. So, for now, I’m left with a fiction which, like its characters, hasn’t been going anywhere for a while and now seems to have come to a full stop. Once the woman and her two sometime lovers reach Mexico, they seem to be stuck – until, somehow, she glimpses the existence of a reality elsewhere and leaves the others either endlessly rereading the same three Archimboldi novels or, in a way that seems equally pointless, pursuing a sad little affair with a young woman on a market stall. The novel seems to have become an existentialist allegory about the meaningless of life for some time before this, but in Mexico it turns into Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, or Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, or Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. There’s a distinctly 1960s pessimism in the way these seemingly capable people are trapped. And I’m wondering whether Bolaño is adding anything that wasn’t said a very long time ago.
I haven’t mentioned the names or nationalities of the academics because these things seem entirely arbitrary. Sometimes language is a problem, and one or other of them has to do some interpreting, but the issue of translations is subsumed into the bigger question of how divided human beings are from one another. This, again, is existentialist territory that has been well trodden since the mid-20th Century. From very early on in the novel, Bolaño has been in the habit of narrating parts of their story as though they are almost a single entity, using the third-person plural pronoun ‘they’ as though to deliberately gloss over any differences. But whenever there seems to be common cause – and often, two or three or all four of them seem to be having the same thoughts – this breaks up and they are all separate again. They have different dreams – Bolaño loves to describe their dreams, as though whatever is in them is at least as relevant as the simulacrum of reality of their waking lives – and respond differently to situations that arise. There is nothing like a telepathic connection, so when one of the two left stranded in Mexico isn’t reading as usual by the pool or in a hotel lounge, the other feels he has to check to see if he is alive.
However, the differences remain trivial. And by the end of Book 1, the entirely predictable mechanics of the love story have been played out: the woman leaves her two lovers, sends them almost identical emails, and seeks out the quiet one in the wheelchair. So it goes, in this universe.
The aimless days and weeks that they spend in Mexico are the culmination of their search for Archimboldi. They look for leads wherever they occur, and however tenuous they might be. They have all been to Switzerland to seek out an artist, now pronounced clinically insane, who cut off his own right hand and made it part of a self-portrait. I think it’s Wheelchair Man who makes the connection, and I think he is the one who later decides that the artist actually mutilated himself for purely commercial reasons, in order to break into an impossible art market. It is no more futile than the academics’ dedication of their own lives to what still, by the end of Book 1, seems to be a lost cause.
There is a doctoral student at one of the two-bit university cities they visit who tells them he knows somebody in Mexico who might have met Archimboldi. The man in Mexico is a cultural director with the unpromising nickname of The Pig, but they follow the lead anyay, and it takes all of them except Wheelchair Man – he seems to have had enough of it – to an even more out-of-the-way town near the border with the USA. And there, in the company of a professor who seems to become more depressed by the day, at least two of them remain for the rest of Book 1. Stories are told, men are seen who might be Archimboldi but soon turn out not to be, nightmarish dreams are dreamt…. It’s no surprise when the woman leaves, and no surprise either, having each caught fragmentary glimpses of what Bolaño calls ‘reality’, that the others decide to go back to their own universities. But, crucially, as Book 1 ends they haven’t actually left yet. One of them states that ‘he’s here,’ and the other says that he believes him. They’ve just been too clumsy, or Archimboli is too good at hiding, that’s all.