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.
Read for Caravana de Recuerdos' Readalong.