January 03, 2009

Roberto Bolaño - "2666," "Part 5 - The Part About Archimboldi"

The last part of "2666" concerns the life story of the author who the critics were chasing in "Part 1". We follow Hans Reiter (who will later take the pen name Benno Von Archimboldi) from his birth on the North Prussian coast, through a childhood diving down to the seabed, his first job in the local aristocrats' semi-deserted home, his time in Berlin and then, for what feels like the bulk of the book, his conscription into the German army for the Second World War. Reiter fights on the Eastern front, pushing forward and then being forced into retreat, finally being interned by the Americans. Here, in perhaps the central action of this book (SPOILER ALERT!) he strangles a Nazi bureaucrat who confides that he has killed 500 Jews who were accidentally sent to the town he was running. Having left the camp, he begins writing, meets Ingeborg, his lover, who dies a little later and then lives in exile in the mediterranean whilst pumping out a succession of increasingly well-received books. Only during the final pages of the book do we find out that Klaus Haas - the German-American imprisoned in Santa Teresa as a serial killer - is his nephew. The book, the whole book, finishes with Archimboldi setting off for Mexico to try to help Haas.

My initial feeling is that this is the weakest section of "2666" (which, considering the general standard, is fairly mild criticism). In amongst the superb story telling (and once again, a succession of marvellous stories are folded into and pegged onto the basic narrative) there's something like wish fulfilment in the character of Archimboldi, the perfect outsider writer, who Bolaño presents as a kind of idiot savant, unaware or uninterested in the war he has been caught up in. He has to have Archimboldi kill the German bureaucrat almost to exculpate the character from his acquiescence up to this point. As for Archimboldi's publisher, Mr Bubis, he is so perfect, so supportive, so sure of his author's genius that for decades to come authors will be asking their agents to "find me a Bubis". I've already made the call.

But I can't help thinking that there must be more going on here than finishing with a panegyric to the writer as outsider and the publisher as loving parent. If the "Part About The Crimes" is the centre of the book - what the book is about - then is "The Part About Archimboldi" an epilogue of some sort? Because it seems a little strange to draw back from the brutality of the murders to this more bookish section, seeming, as it does, to undermine the feeling that when the critics come to Santa Teresa they've got it all wrong.

The connection can be drawn, I suppose, through a comparison Bolaño makes between Archimboldi and a detective: "he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer" (p817). The detective appears to be a key idea in Bolaño's work, from the various poems in "The Romantic Dogs" named for or about them and, of course, "The Savage Detectives," his other 'big' novel. So writers are detectives and novels are murder-mysteries. This certainly holds true for "2666" and "The Savage Detectives," which are both murder-mysteries seen from another angle.

I can't really draw any conclusion, which seems partly the aim of a book which ends with an anecdote about a great German botanist who ends up being remembered only as the name of a particular type of ice cream. But I think a further clue as to how to look at "2666" is provided in an afterword from Ignacio Echeverría in which he offers Bolaño's explanation for the absence of Arturo Belano from the book: "The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano." Or to put it another way, "2666" is the great book that Belano has been writing during his own exile in Europe - an exile that, we have learnt in "The Savage Detectives," has been brought about by Belano's own involvement in a killing in Sonora. If we think of Belano as the hidden character in the book, then we have to reconsider how we've viewed everything in it. It's not Bolaño's background story which we should expect to illuminate "2666," but the subtly different one of Belano. It's not Bolaño's wish-fulfilment but Belano's.

"Behind every indisputable answer lies an even more complex question. Complexity, however, makes him laugh, and sometimes his mother hears him laugh in the attic, like the ten year old boy he once was." (p736)


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