Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Part About The Crimes

The fourth and longest part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, The Part About The Crimes, painstakingly describes the murders of dozens of young women and girls in Santa Teresa between 1993 and 1997. This is the event the preceding parts were leading up to. In the first part, the Arcimboldi critics travel to Mexico to look for their beloved writer, and remain indifferent to the signs of the femicide occurring around them. In the second part, we see evidence of the crimes interesting characters like Amalfitano and Marco Guerra. In the third part, Fate, an Afro-American journalist becomes entangled with the investigation when he meets a Mexican journalist who wants to interrogate the prime suspect. It takes many pages, however, before we meet this suspect, Klaus Haas, a German-born US citizen living in Santa Teresa. This part is not about advancing the plot, it is to analyse an entire society, its economy, its morals, its mentality, its institutions, its crime. We are made to witness the fraying of civilization in Santa Teresa, the destruction of its citizens from poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and familiar indifference.

I have to admit, however, this part was not one of my favourites. It was too repetitive, and Bolaño isn’t exactly a master of language who can describe anal and vaginal rape in one hundred different ways. In fact I think it’s valid to ask, is this part meant to be tedious? This is the part of the novel that gets everybody excited, and terrified. People talk about how horrible and violent it is. I did not feel horrified at all, no doubt because I’m one of those famous ‘90s children who grew up desensitized by television violence. Damn David Fincher for ruining my appropriate reaction to a novel I’d read fifteen years later! But then I thought, what if this is what Bolaño wanted? This novel made me think of a French movie called Irreversible, which is mostly famous for a lengthy, raw rape scene involving Monica Belluci. And it’s a scene that just drags on and on and on. And at first you’re sympathetic to her character, and you want it to end because she’s writhing and screaming and crying, and it’s horrible to watch. But minutes pass and you find yourself looking at the watch and thinking, couldn’t we just get on with the movie? And I think that’s what Gaspar Noe, the director, wanted, to test our empathy. Needless to say I get low marks. And I wonder if this was Bolaño’s intentions too, to see if the reader would eventually become like the citizens of Santa Teresa, indifferent to the mass murders happening right in their backyards. Of course that’s for each reader to decide.

But what else is this part about? I think it’s also about micro-stories, about telling the small dramas of many people caught up in the investigations. It is, for instance, about xenophobia in the sense that foreigners are immediately targeted as suspects:

A Salvadorean immigrant found the body behind the Francisco I School, on Madero, near Colonia Álamos. It was fully dressed, and the clothes, except for the shirt, which was missing several buttons, were intact. The Salvadorean was accused of the homicide and spent two weeks in the cells of the Police Precinct #3, at the end of which he was released. When he got out he was a broken man. A little later he crossed the border with a pollero. In Arizona he got lost in the desert and after walking for three days, he made it to Patagonia, badly dehydrated, where a rancher beat him up for vomiting on his land. He was picked up by the sheriff and spent a day in jail and then he was sent to a hospital, where the only thing left for him to do was die in peace, which he did.

This is also what I mean by micro-stories. Bolaño gives us a capsule description of the Salvadorean’s life after he’s released from prison, following him up to his death. Here’s another micro-story about innocent victims: two prostitutes, Rubí Campos and Nati Gordillo, are charged with murdering a a prostitute called Leticia Contreras Zamudio:

The two of them, it was established, had a very close relationship. And it was proved that Rubí had been verbally attacked by Leticia two days before Leticia was killed. Another girl had heard Rubí say that Leticia would pay. The suspect didn’t deny this, although she made it clear that she had planned to beat her up, not murder her. The two whores were transferred to Hermosillo and locked up at Paquita Avendaño, the women’s prison, where they remained until their case was handed over to another judge, who was quick to declare them innocent. In all, they spent two years in prison. When they got out they said they were going to try their luck in Mexico City, or maybe they went to the United States. The one thing certain is that they were never seen in the state of Sonora again.

At the same time, Bolãno begins exploding the impression that the crimes are being committed by a single individual, a super-Jack the Ripper. In fairness, he got the reader prepared to think that in the first part, when Morini, hearing about the news for the first time, comments that, “[i]n Italy there were serial killers, too, but they hardly ever killed more than ten people, whereas in Sonora the dead numbered well over one hundred.” In fact, although there’s a prime suspect, Klaus Haas, it’s obvious the mass murder of women is really a patchwork of crimes perpetrated by dozens of murders, for several reasons: drug trafficking, settling of accounts, madness, domestic abuse, etc. One such case involves the investigation of the Penitent, a madman who goes around desecrating holy places. At one point the police apprehend a suspect, one Luis Castillo Jiménez, charged with killing his mother, but he also turns out to be a dead end:

When he was asked what made him jam the piece of wood in his mother’s vagina, first he answered that he didn’t know, and then, after thinking about it more carefully, that he had done it to teach her. Teach her what? asked the policemen, among whom were Pedro Negrete, Epifanio Galindo, Ángel Fernández, Juan de Dios Martínez, and José Márquez. To take him seriously. Then he lapsed into incoherence and was transferred to the city hospital. (…) When he was released from the psychiatric hospital, Luis Castillo Jiménez was taken to the Santa Teresa prison, where he proved to be unusually talkative. He didn’t like to be alone and he was always requesting the presence of policemen or reporters. The police tried to pin other unsolved murders on him. The prisoner’s willing nature invited it. Juan de Dios Martínez was sure Castillo Jiménez wasn’t the Penitent. Probably the only person he had killed was his mother, and he couldn’t even be held responsible for that, because it was clear he was mentally unstable.

In this part we also meet Albert Kessler, alter ego of real-life crime investigator Robert K. Ressler, famous for having coined the term serial killer, who travels to Santa Teresa to offer his expertise, to no avail, perhaps because there’s no serial killer, perhaps because it’s all just a series of unconnected events that seem to form a unity because of their proximity to each other. The allure of having a super-serial killer in Santa Teresa, of course, also corresponds to our expectations. The serial killer is the modern bogeymen thanks to Hannibal Lecter (and there’s even a current TV show about him), a creature on whom we can pin all our fears, and through whom we can expiate our guilt over society’s failures, because his readymade justification for killing – good old-fashioned insanity – spares us the problem of thinking too much about why the modern world is still such a dangerous world for women.

But eventually the investigation narrows down to one suspect, a “very tall, very blond man” who is arrested on crummy evidence, like all the other suspects. But even after that the killings continue. The narrative prepares us to doubt his guilt, even after we discover some of the disturbing things he’s prepared to do to prove his innocence. In prison he’s visited by journalist Sergio González (based on a true Mexican reporter), with whom he has a conversation that may either be illuminating or pure gibberish:

Do you want me to tell you something? said Hans. Here in prison, the first few days I was afraid. I thought the other inmates, when they saw me, would come after me to avenge the death of all those girls. For me, being in prison was exactly like being dumped on a Saturday at noon in a neighbourhood like Colonia Kino, San Damián, Colonia Las Flores. A lynching. Being torn to pieces. Do you understand? The mob spitting on me and kicking me and tearing me to pieces. With no time for explanation. But I soon realized that in prison no one would ever tear me to pieces. At least not for what I was accused of. What does that mean? I asked myself. That these shitheads are impervious to murder? No. Here, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is sensitive to what happens outside, to the heartbeat of the city, you might say. What was it, then? I asked an inmate. I asked him what he thought about the dead women, the dead girls. He looked at me and said they were whores. So in other words, they deserved to die? I asked. No, said the inmate. They deserved to be fucked as many times as anyone wanted to fuck them, but they didn’t deserve to die. Then I asked him if he thought I had killed them and the bastard said no, not you, gringo, as if I was a fucking gringo, which inside maybe I am, although I’m becoming less and less of one. What are you trying to say to me? asked Sergio González. That here in prison they know I’m innocent, said Haas. And how do they know it? asked Haas. That was a little harder for me to figure out. It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious. Suddenly someone dreams it and after a while half the prisoners dream it. But the noise you hear isn’t part of the dream, it’s real. First someone and then everyone hears a noise in a dream, but the noise is from real life, not the dream. The noise is real. Do you understand? Is that clear to you, Señor Reporter?

No, not clear to me at all. But what I think he means is that, on some subconscious level, they understand the murders can’t be explained by a single cause, but there’s something, an aura, enveloping Santa Teresa, a set of invisible causes that everyone feels nonetheless. And this takes us back to the recurring themes of the novel, sexism, male violence, normalized misogyny. Here’s a scene in a bar filled with cops relaxing, some of them investigators of the murders:

And the joke teller said: all right, friends, what is the definition of a woman? Silence. And the answer: pues a vagina surrounded by a more or less organized bunch of cells. And then someone laughed, an inspector, good one, González, a bunch of cells, yes, sir. And another joke, international this time: why is the Statue of Liberty a woman? Because they needed an empty head for the observation deck. And another: how many parts is a woman’s brain divided into? Pues that depends, valedores! Depends on what, González? Depends how hard you hit her. And on a roll now: why can’t women count to seventy? Because by the time they get to sixty-nine their mouths are full. And still going strong: what’s dumber than a dumb man? (An easy one.) Pues a smart woman. And full throttle: why don’t men lend their cars to women? Pues because there’s no road from the bedroom to the kitchen. And in the same vein: what does a woman do outside the kitchen? Pues wait for the floor to dry. And a variation: what do you call a neuron in a woman’s brain? Pues a tourist. And then the same inspector laughed again and said excellent, González, brilliant, neuron, yes, sir, tourist, brilliant. And González, tireless, went on: how do you pick the three dumbest women in the world? Pues at random. Get it. At random! It makes no difference! And how do you give a woman more freedom? Pues get her a bigger kitchen. And: how do you give a woman even more freedom? Pues plug the iron into an extension cord. And: how long does it take a woman to die who’s been shot in the head? Pues seven or eight hours, depending on how long it takes the bullet to find the brain. Brain, yes, sir, mused the inspector. And if someone complained to González about all the chauvinist jokes, González responded that God was the chauvinist, because he made men superior.

And the jokes go on for almost another page. It’s in the air, unseen, nobody notices it because everybody’s part of it.

We are left with a final mystery: is Klaus Haas Arcimboldi? They’re both German, tall, blonde and have blue eyes. We know Arcimboldi was in Mexico, that’s why the critics went looking for him there. If they’re not the same person, are they connected? Arcimboldi disappeared from the novel after the first part. The final one is dedicated to him. Some answers at last, perhaps.

Read for Caravana de Recuerdos' readalong.


  1. Miguel, I think this part is meant to be tedious for some of the same Irreversible-like reasons you mention. And I would have been disappointed in Bolaño or any other writer who would be a "master of language" who "can describe anal and vaginal rape in one hundred different ways." For me, this section gets at a different question, which I'll be taking up in my next two posts on the novel: should I feel guilty for enjoying the writing in this, by far my "favorite" section in the book, when it's based on the real life murders of hundreds of women and seems to be designed to arouse the reader's indignation instead? The micro-stories you mention in this part of the book are riveting to me, and the "fraying of civilization" that you say we are made to witness is fascinating--not least for the repercussions that it will have in "The Part About Archimboldi." Is Klaus Haas Archimboldi? It sure seems like he could be. Unless, perhaps, you think of how old he is. Anyway, fine post and you raise many good questions here that I think the others in the group will also find profitable for discussion and reflection.

  2. The passages about murders are maybe the whole point of it all. The way they disrupt the narrative flow, provoke the reader into questioning the whole gratuitous enterprise. It is gratuitous, and heinous, like pure evil. A test for the reader's patience. The reader can always skip those passages a la Hopscotch, guilt-free. But that would be an entirely different crossing of the desert. It's like turning a blind eye on what is happening.

    1. The reader can always skip those passages a la Hopscotch, guilt-free. But that would be an entirely different crossing of the desert. It's like turning a blind eye on what is happening.

      I don't think that analogy even works, because Cortazar's novel was designed to be skipped, whereas in 2666 the murders are the nexus, everything converges to it. There's no escaping or avoiding these murders, without understanding the novel. Again I have to marvel at the novel's narrative construction, it's so genial.

  3. And I would have been disappointed in Bolaño or any other writer who would be a "master of language" who "can describe anal and vaginal rape in one hundred different ways."

    Interesting. Do you think that would be tacky?

    For me, this section gets at a different question, which I'll be taking up in my next two posts on the novel: should I feel guilty for enjoying the writing in this, by far my "favorite" section in the book, when it's based on the real life murders of hundreds of women and seems to be designed to arouse the reader's indignation instead?

    That is indeed a good question to ask. Arousing indignation, of course, is surely one of his objectives. I think that because I'm realizing more and more how the novel is heavily based on the actual crimes, down to using the figure of crusading journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, and knowing that they actually corresponded. I now realize this was a great trick to get this event into people's awareness, via art. And I think it has done a good job, although I don't want to make predictions of the effect that'll have on terminating the murder spree.

  4. Miguel - I haven't seen Irreversible, but from your description I don't get the sense that this is what Bolaño is attempting. We don't witness the actual violence, but its result, and the catalog of victims reads almost identically to that in the journalistic account I read of the murders, The Daughters of Juarez. They're factual, sterile, forensic. Curiously, on this second reading, I found them much harder to read than the first time, partly I think because it was less easy to be "blinded" by that sterile, reportorial tone from envisioning what the victims must have suffered. I agree with Rise's comment about their interruption of the narrative flow; I was struck too on this reading by the rhythm of the catalog, how it hits harder and harder the deeper one goes into the section.

    Your term "micro stories" is highly useful, and I'm so glad you led off with the one about the Salvadoran immigrant, since I'd made of note of the way that tiny "micro story" tells a larger story about the border, about the plight of those trying to cross over. There are so many of these, all cumulatively depicting the complexity of the forces that have come together to permit this atrocity. An "aura" indeed, one in which we're so enveloped that we can't see out of it. I'm thinking of the scene that Sarah mentions in her post about Esquivel Plata arranging the mirrored doors in her hotel room so that she can see both mirrors but not herself in them - unless she tries to open the doors a bit. In any case, per your comment in response to Richard's, I too am impressed with Bolaño's using art to "get this event into people's awareness," and also impressed that he sees beyond the particulars of Juarez to the wretched systemic ways in which women are marginalized and violated. One need only turn on one of those TV shows about serial killers for a dose of what he's writing about.

    1. Scott, I guess my comment about Irreversible is just a sign of how jaded I am. The fact is, this section of the novel didn't affect me at all. I've read so many people in the blogosphere saying how they could hardly stomach it and how terrifying it was, but I didn't understand all the commotion. It's remarkable in many ways, but like I wrote, I'm too much of a '90s child.

      I don't think the crimes interrupt the narrative flow, I think the crimes are the narrative. Without them there's no motive to write about Santa Teresa. They're the nexus, the skeleton of the novel, its gravitational pull, no matter how much Bolaño writes about literary critics and German authors. They're fascinating excrescences, though, and it's fun to dig past them, but what astonishes me the most is how Bolaño has succeeded in tackling a contemporary event in such a literary way without sounding like he's writing reportage.

    2. Miguel - Of course you're right about the crimes not interrupting the narrative flow but being the narrative. I suppose I should have rephrased that to say something more like that the forensic descriptions are used to punctuate those parts of the narrative that aren't the forensic descriptions. And he does this so well, constantly bringing the reader back to that "nexus" - and in fact refusing to let the reader simply wander away from it down those many diverting literary paths.

    3. And he does this so well, constantly bringing the reader back to that "nexus" - and in fact refusing to let the reader simply wander away from it down those many diverting literary paths.

      Although it was not my favourite part, I think it's certainly the best written, the most laboured and intricate one. It's the one that's less conventional, that one that is less novelistic I guess, and it works very well for its purpose. Once in a while I still find myself pausing to awe at its achievements.