The fifth and final part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, The Part About Arcimboldi, is as incongruent as the other parts. We’ve come a long way since the first part. The parts oscillated between bird’s eye view of action and subjective narratives. In the first part we had the stories of four literary critics, followed by the quiet descent into madness of Amalfitano. Next was the story of Oscar Fate, before a panoramic look at Mexican society. The novel concludes with the story of Benno von Arcimboldi, the object of the critics’ obsession.
This part has a bit of everything: World War II, Holocaust, Soviet Union, hidden manuscripts, thoughts about writing and what a writer is, literary parties, and even family reunions. We also find out more about Mrs Bubis, Klaus Haas and what his relationship to Arcimboldi is. However, we can say that first and foremost the last part is a künstlerroman, that is, a novel about the growth of an artist to maturity.
We discover that before being Benno von Arcimboldi, he was Hans Reiter:
In 1920 Hans Reiter was born. He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed. Canetti, and Borges, too, I think – two very different men – said that just as the sea was the symbol mirror of the English, the forest was the metaphor the Germans inhabited. Hans Reiter defied this rule from the moment he was born. He didn’t like the earth, much less forests. He didn’t like the sea either, or what ordinary mortals call the sea, which is really only the surface of the sea, waves kicked up by the wind that have gradually become the metaphor for defeat and madness. What he liked was the seabed, that other earth, with its plains that weren’t plains and valleys that weren’t valleys and cliffs that weren’t cliffs.
Hans Reiter is an outsider from the start. His future change of name only heightens that, giving himself an Italian-sounding name in Germany. He doesn’t fit. His mother is a one-eyed maid at a rich estate, and his father an angry one-legged World War I veteran. In 1933 Hans leaves school because of ‘apathy and poor attendance’ and his family get him a job “in a fishing boat, which lasted three months, until the skipper let him go, because young Reiter was more interested in gazing at the bottom of the sea than helping to cast the nets,” the first of many jobs he’s fired from because of his idleness or lack of interest. At one point a character describes him as “a time bomb, no question about it: an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected. Which was untrue.” Later his mother gets him a job at the estate where she works, but this doesn’t last long either and he travels to Berlin. With the coming of the war he’s drafted into the Wehrmacht and goes to the front, seeing action in Poland and Ukraine. There’s very little action, though, since Reiter spends most of his time walking around looking for shelter in abandoned ruins, and scavenging for survival. “Reiter acquired the habit of inspecting the dead like someone who inspects a lot for sale or a farm or a country house, and then going through the dead man’s pockets in case there was any food to be found.” Great life experience for a budding writer.
In one of his hideouts he discovers the autobiographical writings of a Russian writer called Boris Ansky. Ansky is a Soviet soldier-cum-writer, a revolutionary writer who believes in the socialist utopia, who nevertheless had a tense relationship with the Soviet authorities. In Ansky’s narrative we meet another writer, Ivanov, a science fiction writer who wrote about scientific utopias. His conception of what a real writer should is one of the highlights of the novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t overshadowed the more famous but less interesting ‘bookish pharmacist’ passage:
For Ivanov, a real writer, a real artist and creator, was basically a responsible person with a certain level of maturity. A real writer had to know when to listen and when to act. He had to be reasonably enterprising and reasonably learned. Excessive learning aroused jealously and resentment. Excessive enterprise aroused suspicion. A real writer had to be someone relatively cool-headed, a man with common sense. Someone who didn’t talk too loud or start polemics. He had to be reasonably pleasant and he had to know how not to make gratuitous enemies. Above all, he had to keep his voice down, unless everyone else was raising his. A real writer had to be aware that behind him he had the Writers Association, the Artists Syndicate, the Confederation of Literary Workers, Poets House. What’s the first thing a man does when he comes into a church? Efraim Ivanov asked himself. He takes off his hat. Maybe he doesn’t cross himself. All right, that’s allowed. We’re modern. But the least he can do is bare his head! Adolescent writers, meanwhile, come into a church and don’t take off their hats even when they’re beaten with sticks, which is, regrettably, what happens in the end. And not only do they not take off their hats: they laugh, yawn, play the fool, pass gas. Some even applaud.
But maybe I can just relate so much because this is a perfect description of most Portuguese writers. It should also not be forgotten that the novel is riddled with ideas of what writers are and aren’t, of how they should behave. There’s of course Amalfitano’s diatribe about South American writers being all subservient to the state. And Oscar Fate wrestles between his assignment to write a frivolous boxing article and his journalistic integrity to expose the Santa Teresa crimes. Reiter takes after Ansky, who also introduces him to painting and the painters Gustave Courbet and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. And so we return to that other great theme, besides writers, that informs the novel: painting. We need a quick recap.
We can begin with Marcel Duchamp to get him out of the way on a technicality. In fact Duchamp is not mentioned in the novel as a painter. Amalfitano finds comfort in building one of Duchamp’s readymade: a geometry book hanging from a clothesline. It’s only for a reason of tradition that we still call Duchamp a painter. “From Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp to Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg, we live in a century that declares that things rather than symbols are the stuff of art,” writes museum curator Ann Temkin. Duchamp was the great innovator, who took art from technique to concept, a good career move since technically he was a mediocre painter.
In the novel we do have a conceptual painter who paints with ‘things’ instead of symbols, the fictional Edwin Johns, introduced in the first part as the painter who cuts off his hand and puts it on his self-portrait. “A serious work of art cannot, by current definition, ‘illustrate’ death, but it can embody or imply it,” Temkin continues. Johns is also making a statement on the limits of painting to portray reality. This in turn will lead us to Gustave Courbet.
But first we have George Grosz, admired by Mrs. Bubis: she’s a frivolous, hedonistic rich woman, indifferent to the books her publisher publishes. To her Grosz’ main asset is that he’s funny, a view that puts her at odds with a friend who’s a Grosz expert, who sees the artist as embodying a grave sadness.
Finally we have Giuseppe Arcimboldo, an emotional support for Ansky. “When he was near despair, Ansky returned to Arcimboldo. He liked to remember Arcimboldo’s paintings, though he knew or pretended to know almost nothing about the painter’s life, which wasn’t in a state of constant turmoil like Coubert’s, true, but in Arcimboldo’s canvasses Ansky found something that for lack of a better term he called simplicity, a descriptive term that would not have been to the liking of many scholars and exegetes of the Arcimboldian oeuvre.” Gustave Courbet, father of the realist painting, is the other painter Ansky writes about. Courbet became famous for making a break with religious and historical themes and favouring everyday themes, even for introducing unsavoury subjects to painting, like poverty and the working class, and for pushing the envelope of sexual content. Reiter reacts more deeply to Courbet, whose destruction of painting The Return from the Conference, described by Ansky, fills “Reiter with tears in his eyes, tears that sting and rouse him.” So here we have art with the power to commove people. It’s worth pointing out Arcimboldo and Courbet are the only traditional painters mentioned in the novel. I still don’t know the point is, if any, of all these references to visual arts. It may just be to show how art means different things to people.
This part of the novel also focuses on the theme of violence and systematic murder, via the Holocaust. When Reiter is captured by the US army, he’s put together with other inmates. One of them is Zeller, although eventually he confides to Reiter that he’s using an alias. He’s real name is Leo Sammer. He’s hiding his identity because he’s afraid the Americans will find out that he was responsible for disposing of hundreds of Jewish prisoners. In a lengthy section, Zeller recounts the problems he had with killing Jewish workers that had been sent to him. After much hesitating, Zeller, an apparently meek and nice guy, decides he has no alternative but to kill them:
I’ve been too kind to these people, I said to myself, it’s time I got tough. But it isn’t in my nature to be tough. There was a hollow that one of my secretaries knew about some ten miles from town. We went to look at it. It wasn’t bad. It was in a remote spot, lots of pine trees, dark soil. The bottom of the hollow was covered in masses of fleshy leaves. According to my secretary, people came here in the spring to hunt rabbits. The place wasn’t far from the road. When we got back to the city I had decided what had to be done.
The next morning I went in person to fetch the police chief at his house. On the sidewalk in front of my office, eight policemen gathered, joined by four of my men (one of my secretaries, my drive, and two clerks) and two farmers, volunteers who were there simply because they wanted to participate. I told them to act with dispatch and to return to my offices to inform me of what happened. The sun wasn’t up yet when they left.
At five in the afternoon the police chief and my secretary returned. They looked tired. They said everything had gone according to plan. They had stopped at the old tannery and left town with two brigades of sweepers. They had walked ten miles. They had turned off the road and headed with weary steps toward the hollow. And there the deed had been done. Was there chaos? Did chaos reign? Did chaos prevail? I asked. A little, they answered sulkily, and I chose not to press them.
The next morning the same operation was repeated, with a few changes: rather than two volunteers we had five, and three policemen were replaced by three others who hadn’t taken part in the previous day’s labours.
It is curious that the volunteers increase in number, people were anxious to join in and kill helpless people. The simple, direct, journalistic description of this massacre echoes the prosaic register Bolaño uses to describes the femicide in Santa Teresa. But it also reminded me of Slavenka Drakulić’s description of the life of Dražen Erdemović, witness in a massacre of Muslims as part of the Srebrenica massacre. Dražen was a jobless locksmith caught in the Balkans War, trying to get out of the country with his wife and baby son to Switzerland, but he lacked documents to travel, and a friend told him the armed forces paid well, so he enlisted as a temporary solution. Eventually his unit was used to execute civilian prisoners. This is how Drakulić describes it in They Would Never Hurt A Fly:
The commander assembled his unit and told them the buses would be brought in carrying civilians from Srebrenica. He meant captured Muslim men who had surrendered to the units of Republika Srpska. They are to be executed by our unit, the commander told them. Dražen and his comrades-in-arms suddenly learned that their squad was to become a firing squad, and he didn’t like it at all. Never before had they been assigned such a task. But nobody said a word. Only one of them, Pero, seemed eager to begin, but Dražen noticed that he was drinking from a bottle of brandy. Dražen looked at the prisoners. They were standing with their backs to the soldiers. One man half turned his head towards them, as if he expected something. Was there something he wanted from them? Dražen felt a strong revulsion and he was afraid that he would vomit.
Then she continues with a thorough description of the murders, with buses full of people arriving throughout the day for the soldiers to kill. I do think Bolaño wants to paint a comprehensive canvas of the bloodiness of the 20th century. From Reiter’s father, wounded in World War I, to the mass murders in Mexico that end the century, we realize how war and violence, and their normalization, were the shaping forces of our era. Reiter gives his contribution by killing Zeller.
At the same time, if this part seems too bleak, I also think it has some of the happiest passages of the novel. After the war Reiter is reunited with Ingeborg, a weird girl he had met during the war. They marry and live together for a few years, before illness kills her, enjoying a small reprieve from the darkness they knew all their lives. Reiter was a soldier in the front, whereas Ingeborg survived the war on prostitution. In spite of that, their marriage has an idyllic nature to it even though it’s always impaired by the Ingeborg’s illness:
Of course, they often laughed, though not always at the same things. Reiter, for example, was highly amused when their Brandenburger neighbour fell through the gap in the stairs. Ingeborg said the Brandenburger was a nice person, always with a kind word on his lips, and anyway she couldn’t forget the flowers he had given her. Reiter warned her that nice people weren’t to be trusted. Most of them, he said, were only criminals who deserved to be strung up in the main square, an image that gave Ingeborg the shivers. How could a person who bought a flower every day to wear in his buttonhole be a war criminal?
Ingeborg, meanwhile, was amused by more abstract things and situations. Sometimes she laughed at the patterns traced by the damp on the garret walls. On the plaster or stucco she saw long lines of trucks emerging from a kind of tunnel, which for no reason she called the time tunnel. Other times she laughed at the cockroaches that occasionally ventured into the attic. Or at the birds that watched Cologne perched in the blackened coffers of the tallest building. Sometimes she even laughed at her own disease, a nameless disease (its namelessness gave her real amusement), which had been vaguely diagnosed by the two doctors she’d seen – one of them a patron of the bar where Reiter worked and the other an old man with white hair and a white beard and a booming, theatrical voice whom Reiter paid with bottles of whiskey, one per visit, and who was probably, according to Reiter, a war criminal – as something halfway between complaint and a pulmonary ailment.
In any case, they spent many hours together, sometimes talking about the most random things, or sometimes with Reiter at the table writing his first novel in a notebook with a cane-coloured cover and Ingeborg lying in bed, reading. It was Reiter who usually did the housecleaning and shopping, and Ingeborg cooked, which was something she was quite good at. Their after-supper conversations were strange and on occasion turned into long monologues or soliloquies or confessions.
After her death in an Adriatic village, when Reiter is also a somewhat successful writer called Benno von Arcimboldi, he becomes a recluse, corresponding with his editor, Bubis, from a distance, while travelling. Bubis continues to manage his career even though Reiter never becomes a big name. “His books were cult objects, a caprice of university students.”
When it seems there’s nothing else left to tell, Bolaño throws the reader a curveball. He breaks off Reiter’s narrative to tell the story of Reiter’s sister, Lotte, married to Werner Haas and mother of Klaus Haus. It turns out the prime suspect of the Santa Teresa killings is in fact Arcimboldi’s nephew. Still it’s not that simple. Klaus is described very much like his uncle: as a child he’s anti-social, lonely, prefers appliances to people, and seems equally fated to being a human failure. As he grows up, Klaus gets into fights, fails at his studies, gets in trouble with the police, and even goes to a reformatory for attempted sexual assault. After he got out he continued to get into fights and practise vandalism. Finally he leaves for Berlin and then New York, where he stops replying to his family, much like Arcimboldi had lost contact with Lotte. In every sense Klaus is Arcimboldi’s doppelganger. So what makes them different? How did they end up different? Why is one a successful novelist and the other a possible serial killer? That’s the final unsolved mystery of the novel that could lead us to the old debate about nature versus culture. Or maybe it’s just the last of the many mirror-images that populate this novel. We finish the last 250 pages without advancing much since the end of part four.
I still don’t understand what this novel is supposed to be about. Writers? Art? Violence? Misogyny? Loneliness? Social misfits? Instead of a traditional narrative Roberto Bolaño gives us narrative clusters that orbit, unveil and cover each other, simultaneously giving the impression that a higher meaning is being revealed and changing that same meaning. Or perhaps it’s a novel that wants to play an active role in exposing the social injustices of our time, like bygone Marxist literature, but at the same time it’s conscious that engaged literature can no longer sacrifice its identity as literature without becoming crude reportage, hence all the excrescencies around the Santa Teresa murders to make it look more literary. Or is it a vortical book designed to invite idle speculation and pretentious associations, like a Rorschach test? Or maybe 2666 is the testimony of an adroit narrator who can haunt us with his skills at controlling several different strands. For me that’s quite enough.