Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Part About Amalfitano



In the second part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, titled “The Part About Amalfitano,” we follow Professor Amalfitano, a Chilean living in Santa Teresa, Mexico. We met him in the first part, where he chaperoned the critical quartet and whose diatribe about Latin American intellectuals was one of the highlights. Amalfitano is a reserved, quiet man who teaches literature at a University, harbouring several heartbreaks.

A good deal of that grief comes from Lola, Amalfitano’s estranged wife and mother of his only child, Rosa. Lola runs away with a friend, Imma, to Spain, to meet a poet locked up in a mental asylum, and writes letters back to Amalfitano. Her letters remember the reader of the letters Liz Norton writes at the end of the first part. The search for the mad, reclusive poet also mirrors the critics’ search for Archimboldi. Lola ends up working as a cleaning lady and dying from AIDS. Lola is a bit batty: she has no problem sending Amalfitano letters about making love to other men, but she refuses a marriage proposal because she’s already married. Now that’s class.

But enough about Lola. Amalfitano has his own idiosyncrasies. He teaches at a university, and to appease the boredom of the classroom he draws diagrams and names them after thinkers and philosophers. He’s also on a quest for a writer, but a real one, Rafael Dieste (1899-1981), a Galician poet. He hangs one of his books from a clothesline, Testamento geométrico (1975), just to see what the weather will do to it. This is a Duchamp joke, by the way, one of his readymades. Amalfitano gets the idea from him.

That night, when Rosa got back from the movies, Amalfitano was watching television in the living room and he told her he’d hung Dieste’s book in the clothesline. Rosa looked at him as if he she had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, said Amalfitano, I didn’t hang it out because it hot sprayed with the hose or dropped in the water, I hung it there just because, to see how it survives the assault of nature, to see how it survives this desert climate. I hope you aren’t going crazy, said Rosa. No, don’t worry, said Amalfitano, in fact looking quite cheerful. I’m telling you so you don’t take it down. Just pretend the book doesn’t exist. Fine, Rosa said, and she shut herself in her room.

Rosa is going to become more important in the next part. There are many references to painting in the novel, so far: George Grosz, Marcel Duchamp, there’s a fictional painter mentioned in the first part who cuts off his hand and puts it on his self-portrait. Why painting? I should have started paying attention sooner, it’s too late now.

This part also has a passage that has become as popular as the novel itself, Amalfitano’s rumination on bookish young pharmacists:

The mention of Trakl made Amalfitano think, as he went through the motions of teaching a class, about a drugstore near where he lived in Barcelona, a place he used to go when he needed medicine for Rosa. One of the employees was a young pharmacist, barely out of his teens, extremely thin and with big glasses, who would sit up at night reading a book when the pharmacy was open twenty-four hours. One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Péuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Some readers see this as Bolaño indulging in self-referentiality. I don’t think they’re wrong. I also think this puts a damper on anyone trying to find any higher meaning to the novel. So far it’s been mostly a collection of fragmentary episodes, disjointed sub-stories, interesting fragments mind you, but to me the parts, in spite of some mirroring here and there, don’t cohere. Perhaps Duchamp offers a clue: as an artist, he is associated with dada, a movement that desacralized art, that challenged the traditional perfectionism of art. For that matter, Groz was also part of dada. It became the norm for art to proudly exhibit its scars, warts and wrinkles, the messy seams showing the sewing of the narrative. I think 2666 is a lot more interested in those seams, real life doesn’t cohere either.

Read for Caravana de Recuerdos' Readalong.

9 comments:

  1. I love reading your posts, Miguel! and seeing how you reflect on these pieces of a whole work. I, too, puzzled over the meaning of the artist's hand, and am quite satisfied with a quote I found later about destroying oneself in a variety of ways. I'll be looking for more art/information about the hand and destruction as we go. Not that they'll reappear again.

    I, too, wrote parts of the great quote you put in at the end. It struck me very powerfully. Great masters, artists, writers, the average person...we all seem to be struggling against something. I think it's part of the human condition, and for me personally, I can only point to faith as the greatest comfort. But, I digress.

    Thank you so much for your comments on my posts. So glad to know that we see eye to eye on much of what is going on, or at least have the same understanding.

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    1. The hand is a curious item. Perhaps it's the ultimate statement on conceptual art, a painter's self-portrait containing a physical part of him. Perhaps it also represents Bolaño's own relationship with the novel, knowing he was nearing death as he wrote, and so in a sense part of his body is in the book.

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    2. I agree about the hand. It seems to deliberately mirror Bolaño's own situation. The painter confesses that his motivation for creating his artwork was financial (as Scott also mentioned in his post). It mirrors B's desire to provide for his two kids, for whom the novel was dedicated. Before he died, he arranged for the 5 parts of the novel to be published separately because he thought doing so would bring in more money to his family. In a filial sense in his case, there's his desire for commercialization of art.

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    3. That's a very interesting theory, Rise. But even if his motives to split the novel in five parts were financial security, it's telling that the novel itself is not very commercial, in spite of the success it achieved. I think just the fourth part would be enough to turn off most readers.

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  2. MIguel - finally getting to your posts on parts 2 & 3 now that I've read and tried to digest them myself. I especially appreciate your last comments here about the "scars, warts and wrinkles, messy seams" of 2666. One crucial element in the novel, of which I'm aware but have not paid nearly enough attention, is that literature and art are subjects probably even more central than the atrocity of the murders. Thoughout the novel, Bolaño is skirting along the literary, narrative surface of his story(ies), constantly bringing in reminders that the enterprise is a literary one (and not a journalistic one). And I think you're right: the surface narrative mirrors life's lack of coherence.

    That hand in part one is quite potent. I'm grateful for Bellezza's pointing out the self-destructive element, and for Rise's theory about what it may represent in a more intimate way for the artist. There's an awful lot about hands in 2666; in some sense, the five parts are fingers of a giant hand that belong, perhaps, to the same giant body with giant steps suggested again and again in the novel.

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  3. Scott, thanks for reading!

    MIguel - finally getting to your posts on parts 2 & 3 now that I've read and tried to digest them myself. I especially appreciate your last comments here about the "scars, warts and wrinkles, messy seams" of 2666. One crucial element in the novel, of which I'm aware but have not paid nearly enough attention, is that literature and art are subjects probably even more central than the atrocity of the murders.

    That's something I realized too as I began organizing my notes on the final part. It's too late to notice it more in depth, but suddenly it became clear to me that writing and writers are a big part of the narrative, along with painters. A new reading would be necessary to fully digest everything.

    That hand in part one is quite potent. I'm grateful for Bellezza's pointing out the self-destructive element, and for Rise's theory about what it may represent in a more intimate way for the artist.

    I think Rise's theory, altough plausible, flies in the face of the fact that the novel is not very commercial, and indeed its success was unusual. I'm not taken with Bellezza's idea of self-destruction, because that falls in line with modern art notions: first of all, "inherent vice," the intrinsic properties of artwork that lead to their own degradation over time; secondly the 20th century's conscious decision to create artwork that self-destructs, like Jean Tinguely's self-destructive machines; thirdly modern artists' search for immediacy rather than permanence; fourthly modern art's tendency to replace symbols with things. When we consider all that, a severed hand is the ultimate modern artwork - self-destructive, perishable, shocking. But I wrote more about this in my last post.

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    1. I'm not taken with Bellezza's idea of self-destruction,

      I meant "I'm more taken with Bellezza's idea of self-destruction," of course.

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    2. The theme is certainly not commercial, but it's one of the two books - The Savage Detectives is the other - that's probably his most bestselling ones. RB is already a commercial name in Spanish literary scene even before he published it, and he knew it, and the heft of the book (if not the subject matter) certainly made it something worth betting on. The big publisher FSG lobbied to publish the two big books in translation, even if RB is already being published by indie New Directions, because they see something commercial in it. They were astute enough to capitalize on the brand Bolaño and promote the novel to their commercial advantage.

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    3. Oh well, then I stand corrected, Rise, I had no idea of those circumstances. For me Bolãno was a guy who had showed up out of nowhere a few years ago and found relative success shortly before his death.

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