2666

09/02/2012

More Rumour than Actuality

In a passage in 2666, in the section The Part about Amalfitano, a character talks of his liking for shorter novels rather than the big books, The Metamorphosis over say The TrialBartleby over Moby Dick, and the central character in this section, Amalfitano, wonders why people like 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.” But while it is true that the book that we have in our hands as we’re reading this passage is almost nine hundred pages long, we also know elsewhere that one of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s favourite writers was, according to Aura Estrada in her essay ‘Bolano and the Return of the Epic’, none other than Borges – who of course never wrote a novel at all.

In the book’s last section, The Part About Archimboldi, an old man who gave up writing and devotes himself to reading says, “Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage… Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder.” Yet we may recall a passage from Javier Cercas’s The Soldiers of Salamis, where Bolano plays a key role in the last section of the book, and a role that is more or less indistinguishable from Bolano himself. At one moment in Cercas’s novel he says “I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street” –a fact borne out by his many references in his own books to writers who are not conventional masters. Thus while Bolano would seem to share the old man’s belief in the significance of reading – claiming in one interview that it’s more important to read than to write – would he share the view that one ought only to read the masters?

One needn’t try and arrive at a truth claim here, and work away at Bolano’s contradictions. First of all what a writer says in his work is not quite the same as what he says in an interview, and even if the character of Bolano in The Soldiers of Salamis is clearly based on Bolano himself, there is still artistic license at play: if Cercas puts words into Bolano’s mouth that is quite different from an interviewer doing the same. Better instead to be Borgesian about it; to see Bolano as a protean figure capable of containing multitudes, a figure who another character in Cercas’s novel thought was talented, “as well as an out-and-out liar.”

However if for some people lying is a failure of reality, for others it is the creation of alternative worlds. In The Soldiers of Salamis, the narrator and Bolano talk about men of action and writers, with Bolano provocatively claiming “a man of action is a frustrated writer”. The man of action after all is expected to enact, to live only one life and constantly dramatize that existence. Bolano appears to be the exact opposite: a writer who doesn’t even dramatize as a writer let alone as a man. Whatever Bolano’s reservations concerning Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a writer who he always believed had too much influence on Latin American writing), he takes further in his work Milan Kundera’s claim in The Curtain that what Kundera loved about One Hundred Years of Solitude was its absence of scenes: “they are completely diluted in the drunken floods of narration”. It is similar to Michael Wood’s point in his LRB review of 2666 where he says Bolano seems “driven by an apparently inexhaustible ability to invent concrete and detailed stories.”

It is perhaps in such comments, however, that we can nevertheless understand a certain paradox, an admiration for Borges’s slender tales, and Bolano’s own bulimic move towards big books, namely The Savage Detectives and 2666. Where Borges offered stories of “devastating brevity”, even Bolano’s big books contain an element of this devastation. Devastation is a good word in this context; central to Borges’ oeuvre is the devastation of psychology: “his work”, Estrada says, “erases the biographical, the psychological, and the local.” Out of this rubble a writer like Bolano nevertheless returns us to the psychological, but it returns as rubble. Bolano generally alludes to character rather than presents it, and often creates our sense of a self not through detail but its absence. He is a great writer if you like of the telling detail. In much classic fiction,  character information does not really tell us about the character; it instead fills out character, creating a rounded person that can illustrate personality but eradicate the self. There is plenty of information that locates a character in time, and place, work and family, but the very roundedness can today seem too close to ready assumption; as if we can’t quite believe that this is where a person so obviously exists. When a modern writer delineates a character in such a way it seems almost old-fashioned; and what is interesting about Cercas’s take on Bolano is how much less mysterious and distinctive it happens to be than Bolano’s approach to his own characters.

Cercas introduces him thus: “One of my first interviewees was Roberto Bolano. Bolano, who was a writer and from Chile, had been living for ages in Blanes, a coastal town on the border between the provinces of Barcelona and Gerona.” “He was forty seven years old, with a good number of books behind him, and that unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin Americans of his generation exiled in Europe.” Here Bolano is hastily if not unimpressively summed up, but the manner in which Cercas characterises Bolano leaves him ripe for narrative purpose. There is nothing to suggest Cercas wants to generate mystery around Bolano himself. Bolano however is a writer who constantly introduces characters in such a manner that they start off as enigmas in and of themselves. Even if a Bolano story appears to be going nowhere, by indicating straight away what defies summation helps generate a kind of ontological tension, a surprise within each being. In the third part of 2666, The Part About Fate, Bolano tells us that Rosa Méndez “had”, she said, “in her own words, four lovers who’d changed her life.” Early in the first section, The Part About the Critics, one of the critics Liz Norton was a woman who “had none of the attributes of the ambitious. Norton “preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness. If life is bound by social imperatives, as William James believed, as it’s therefore easier to go to war than it is to quit smoking, one could say that Liz Norton was a woman who found it easier to quit smoking than to go to war.”

Bolano in each instance doesn’t so much introduce us to characters as obliquely observe them. If much classic fiction is based on focusing initially on the dead centre of character, and then, as Kundera proposes in The Curtain and elsewhere, focuses on the scene, Bolano’s greatness lies in his angle on character and the eschewal of the scene. One may notice that this is never more apparent than the section, The Part About the Crimes, where instead of character and scene one has aftermath – as if the crime isn’t an event, but a scrap of character and corporeality as Bolano lists numerous deaths in a border town. One woman, Marisa Hernandez Silva “had a congenital dislocation of the right hip”; another, Adela Garcia Estrada,  “when her pants were removed in the forensic lab, it was discovered that underneath she had on another pair of pants, gray. Human behaviour is a mystery, declared the medical examiner.” Here we have fragments of character not preceding a scene but the remains of a crime scene.

Hundreds of pages are devoted to these descriptions, and it has been noted that Bolano became fascinated by the many young woman murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juaréz, and would ask for intricate details not only about the crimes, but also the layout of the town – a town to which he had never been. Perhaps more pertinent still is that just as we noted Bolano claimed he would rather be a reader than a writer, so he insisted in interviews that he wished he had been a pathologist instead of a novelist. We needn’t take this as fact, yet it is suggestive: that there is an aspect of Bolano’s work that in its rejection of conventional character scene setting, indicates a sense of the posthumous. A character exists less in the present than in the accumulation of their past. When many novelists introduce us to characters, even very good contemporary writers, they nevertheless introduce the character in a way that implies that what is in front of them will be more significant than what is behind them. When for example J. M. Coetzee introduces his central character David Lurie in Disgrace, he gives us a character relatively calm before the storm: “He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament. Is he happy?” We sense the drama awaiting him, and Coetzee acknowledges this with a comparison to Oedipus.

How does this differ from the manner in which we are introduced to characters superficially similar to Lurie in 2666, a character like Jean-Claude Pelletier in The Part About the Critics? Pelletier was born in 1961, Bolano says, and by 1986 had already become a professor of German in Paris, but before this Bolano covers several years of his life in the first couple of pages. We’re informed that Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi, a contemporary novelist who will become his life’s obsession, in Christmas 1980, “from that day on…he became an enthusiastic Archimboldian and set out a quest to find more works by the author. This was no easy task,” as we follow Pelletier’s attempts. Bolano however doesn’t set in motion what we might call a scenic mystery, a story where the narration gives way to the scene, as Pelletier dramatically searches out other Archimboldi texts, and then later Archimboldi himself. The narration always remains the thing, with the scene generally weak next to narrational strength. For example, even in one of the book’s most dramatic episodes in the first section, where Pelletier and a fellow Archimboldian Espinoza give a taxi driver a severe beating after insulting Norton, Bolano tells it not with dramatic tension, but instead a sort of narrational explanation. As he describes it, the scene almost already seems to be over. The insults were “the last straw for Espinoza, who stepped down and opened the driver’s door and jerked the driver out, the latter not expecting anything of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman.” “Much less”, we‘re told, “did he expect the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza alone, but then by Pelletier too…”  When they invoke Salman Rushdie as they beat him, the narrator puts in parenthesis “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent”, it adds to the indirect approach.

The indirectness of style is again relevant in the third section, The Part About Fate, where there is a lengthy build up to a fight that is promptly concluded. Obviously this isn’t a new device – Henry James devoted many pages to Isabel Archer’s burgeoning relationship with Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, and then skipped the wedding altogether. Yet James would still be very interested in the grounded scene, fascinated by what people would observe in the middle of a situation, even if the characters themselves were peripheral to it, or James might make them more focused on their own thoughts than their present actions, with James as narrator more attuned to the observation of his characters than dramatizing their behaviour. At the beginning of chapter 10 of Washington Square, for example, the handsome Morris Townsend turns up at Catherine’s door and they discuss when they ought to talk to her brusque father of their affections. James moves in and out of Morris’s point of view in the first few paragraphs. As he speaks to Catherine, he was passing “his hand through his hair and giving a glance at the long, narrow mirror which adorned the space between the two windows, and which had at its base a little gilded bracket covered by a thin slab of white marble…”  Shortly afterwards James leaves Morris’s observations behind and promptly addresses the reader as though from Catherine’s father’s perspective. “It will probably be seen by the reader, however, that the doctor’s vigilance was by no means excessive, and that these two young people had an open field.”

James creates maximum perspective, an omniscience that is the opposite of what Bolano seeks in his rather different indirect approach. Where Pelletier and Espinoza are in the thick of a violent action and Bolano’s narrator an appalled yet quizzical by-stander to the mysteries of human instinct, James is the grand observer, moving at will between a dialogue exchange, a character’s self-perception, and a comment that incorporates the breadth of the book and the reader as well. The scene very much stands, no matter the number of perspectives James can offer upon it.

If the scene collapses in Bolano’s work it is partly due to the limitation of perspective, the lack of omniscience available to a narrator who can go anywhere, but also knows that from this new point of view another one becomes hidden. He has learnt much from Borges, and not least the final impossibility of perspective that of course Borges explores so well in his story ‘The Aleph’. Here the narrator writes of being locked in a cellar and being privileged to see “the limitless aleph”, where in that “single gigantic instance I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful…what my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive.” When certain critics have praised Bolano’s book it is as if they were responding to 2666’s achievement in response to Borges’ claim: “Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal.” “2666 is a book full of other books…”, said The Times; “all human life is contained in these burning pages”, according to The Independent on Sunday. Putting aside the hyperbole, how does Bolano succeed where Borges claims inevitable failure?

Where James offers omniscience, Borges the ‘ineffable’, Bolano keeps pursuing the partial, achieving a multiple partiality that can by the end of the book seems like it encompasses much, if not all, of reality. From the point of view of the Part About the Critics, Archimboldi is a mystery as the critics try to trace him to Mexico, while in The Part About Archimboldi he is a picaresque character avoiding publicity but not shy of the human encounter. From one point of view he is an elusive figure, from another alive to the exchanges and stories that presumably become part of his own creativity. Bolano searches out however neither the omniscience of a James, nor the ineffability of Borges, but a human perspective. If Bolano’s work doesn’t feel like a post-modern game on the play with perspective, it is that one senses the human limitation is stronger than the ludic – the difficulty of knowing more pronounced than the knowingness of keeping the reader in the dark. When James says “dear reader”, this is James as the late Victorian saying the narrator knows best, but it also hints at the sort of writers, from Barthelme to Barth, who would constantly invoke the conventions beings utilised. The human, however is, after all, constantly and impossibly partial in their perspective: to see a building from one angle requires moving and losing the angle one has just been seeing it from. Where a ludic approach would indicate that all angles can be seen, but that only the narrator is privy to this multiplicity of perspective,  Bolano, like Borges, but inversely, says since a story or novel is a humanly created object, shouldn’t it accept the limitations not as a game, but as an ontological inevitability?

Partiality becomes mystery, and a person can never be more than the sum of the parts that are observable. From one point of view, Archimboldi is a picaresque figure; from another, a shadowy obscurity. At the same time characters are self-mysteries; with Pelletier and Espinoza’s beating  of the taxi driver as inexplicable to themselves as an aggressive, wealthy character Marco Antonio Guerra’s befriending  of Amalfitano in the second part of the book, and telling him what should be done to the poor of the town, or Amalfitano’s own diagrams with various writers and philosophers’ names. If first of all there is the problem of human perspective, secondly there is equally the problem of human behaviour. If one can only see spatially from certain positions and thus lose other angles, then there is also the problem of people themselves containing multitudes, selves within selves in a mystery that is equal to the failure to know the other.

Know thyself might be a philosophical ambition, but it is one constantly undermined by the psychoanalytic awareness that we are so much more than the sum of our immediate consciousness. As Amalfitano says at the beginning of The Part About Amalfitano, “I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself, after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? He asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.” Many writers will be as aware of the impossibility of spatial omnipresence and of Freud and Lacan as Bolano, but it is one thing to know about shifts in perspective and the clutter of identity that psychoanalysis inevitably forces upon us, but that doesn’t mean it is absorbed. Bolano takes the impossibility of knowing not as the game an author plays – a game possible on the one hand because of developments in science that make certainties look less certain, and on the other by the ludic awareness that just because this is so in life doesn’t mean it needs to be in the man-made realm of creativity – but as an ontological impossibility. One reason why perhaps many post-modern fictions appear lacking in humanity is that they are; and this is less a criticism than an observation. They are made up of the stuff of science and the stuff of games – the problem physics forces upon us concerning knowledge, yet the knowing awareness that the writer can still play God as long as he knows he is playing.

Bolano is in this sense a naïve writer, as though the ideas that concern him have not gone through the epistemological hiccups of the problem of certitude, but are humanly centred in a very basic way; and yet still very modern. Partiality of perspective is not a scientific discovery but a perennial human problem; the complexity and perplexity of behaviour inevitable perhaps in the face of a faster existence, where geographical movement is temporary (the holiday), lasting (the job) or permanent (emigration), but constantly now an issue. Bolano seems to understand simultaneously the problems of space and time, speed and motion, but on a very human scale. Perhaps we need humanism to return not as a morality, but as a situationist phenomenology: humanism as a human perceptual field, yet subtly different from the existential and the phenomenological in its containment of absence and presence, in the self as a source of its own inevitable mystery. When Merleau-Ponty says in Phenomenology of Perception that he sees in phenomenology that “all cognitions are sustained by a ‘round’ of postulates and finally by our communication with the world as primary embodiment of rationality”, for Merleau-Ponty this differs from the general notion of philosophy, “which dispenses in principle with this resource.”  It is a point echoed by Henri Lefebvre in Critique of Everyday Life (Vol. 3) when he says, “In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought…Things have changed…today philosophy can be defined by its relationship to daily life.”

Man is still grounded in being, but like Sartre’s figure he is basically useful and purposeful. Indeed this is how Sartre situates human action in relation to poetry. “Human action, in the real world, is dominated by needs and urged on by the useful. In this sense it is a means. It passes unnoticed, and it is the result which counts….poetry reverses the relationship: the world and things become inessential, become a pretext for the act which becomes its own end.” (Literature and Existentialism) In both human action and poetry, then, there is so often expressed the gap between action and reflection, but in the sort of situational phenomenology Bolano explores action and reflection are interestingly intertwined.

Yet Bolano is not at all a novelist of ideas in the Proust, Musil, Broch tradition, but rather a novelist who proposes human agency is fragile and multiple, separated not by action and reflection but by absence and presence. His characters seem full of aporias similar to the ones Deleuze talks of in Negotiations, commenting on gaps in one’s life: “I know what I was doing, where and how I lived during those years, but I know it only abstractly, rather as if someone else was relating memories that I believe but don’t really have”. This is less the problem of reflections and actions; but of absences and presences, and this is why we earlier mentioned the importance of the rubble of characterization. People, as we know, disappear every time they leave the room: usually they come back, occasionally they don’t. Bolano’s work captures that sense of disappearance as an always present possibility. From certain points of view people are disappearing every time they leave the room, and appearing later in another room, but no longer cognizant to the one who saw them leaving. What happens though if one creates a world where this coming and going acknowledges the fragility, the possibility that every time someone leaves a room they may not come back? It is entirely possible surely in a world constantly given to movement, one given over to the geographical fragility of our lives.

Not only is Bolano a great writer on the human scale, he also understands the capacity of peripatetic wealth within poverty. Obviously this is most clearly expressed in The Savage Detectives, where the two central Latin American characters float around Europe and where one ends up in Africa, but it is an aspect of his work that connects to what we are saying here. It is not at all a jet-set existence, which creates multiple presence, a ubiquity of the wealthy who keep on the move to make sure they miss nothing: Rio Carnivals, Cannes, World Cups, Olympics etc., and so seem everywhere simultaneously. Bolano explores the inversion: a sense of movement where one is constantly absent. If this is the genius behind Savage Detectives, it is nevertheless vital also to 2666. It is what sets the ‘tame’ detectives off to Mexico in search of Archimbaldi. They find it inexplicable that this reclusive writer and now very old man would be hiding out in central America, and at a small border town at that. “The question is what did Archimboldi come to the city to do, said Norton. After some argument, the three critics concluded, and Amilfitano agreed, that he could have come to Santa Teresa only to see a friend or collect information for a novel in progress or both reasons at once.” If the jet-setter symbolizes the ubiquitous, the omnipresent, the Bolano drifter indicates the opposite, the under-present, the figure that is more rumour than actuality.

Clearly such an approach to character works extremely well in relation to Bolano’s interest in characterisational obliqueness, where a character is not only partial through the partial information Bolano likes to give, but also through the partiality of an existence lived not in the light but in the shade. The difference between Bolano and Cercas is that even when talking of a character in the shade – as Bolano would have been – there is a determined descriptiveness on Cercas’s part in The Soldiers of Salamis to show the light. “He’d quit school when he was practically still a kid; he’d had all kinds of odd jobs (though he’d never done any serious work other than writing); he’d been a revolutionary in Allende’s Chile and in Pinochet’s he’d been in prison; he’d lived in Mexico and France; he’d travelled all over the world.”

Yet a couple of pages later there is a comment from Bolano that astutely captures his notion of character. Talking of heroism he indicates that a decent human being isn’t the same as a hero, going on to say that he thinks someone “can be a decent person for a whole lifetime, but can’t be awe-inspiring without a break, and that is why a hero is only a hero exceptionally…” He then mentions a story about someone in Madrid who saw a house enveloped in flames. “Without a word to anyone he rushed into the house and came out with a woman in his arms. He went back in and this time brought a man out”, and so on, until the fire was so ferocious that even the firemen wouldn’t go in, and back he went, never to come out again. What sort of man was he, Bolano asks. Maybe he wasn’t at all an ethical human being and acted not out of compassion, but a kind of instinct, “a blind instinct that overcame him.” Just as Amalfitano can say that he doesn’t know why he is in Santa Teresa, so the hero may not know why he is being heroic. Bolano manages when talking about another to indicate more mystery within himself than Cercas can when summarizing Bolano’s life.

A Bolano character would not be summed up in the manner in which Cercas talks of Bolano, but closer to the way in which Bolano talks about the hero from Madrid. There is always another within ourselves, and always a space where one isn’t in relation to where one is. If we can say that someone in Bolano’s work is under-present partly because they are more a rumour than an actuality, we can add that there are drives within us that can hardly be credited to our ‘personality’. We are always more than the sum of our parts, so simply to offer up the parts as if they are symptomatic of our fundamental being may be a useful literary device, but doesn’t quite get close enough to the question of being – the being within our being that Bolano alludes to in the story about the hero of Madrid.

To help us further in relation to this question, we can turn to Graham Greene’s psychologically often astute The End of the Affair, and the numerous little character observations Greene provides. “I noticed when he shook hands he gave my fingers an odd twist. I think he must have been a freemason…” “She had always had the trick of getting on well with waiters.” “I wondered where I had seen those gentle apologetic eyes, that long outdated moustache damp with the climate?” These resemble Cercas’s remarks on Bolano; that he had an air of the hippy peddler. Greene and Cercas are offering character observation, where there is a clear notion of character that one can observe. The touch signifies the whole, a psychologically metonymic assurance that makes clear the detail can say much about the character of the person being sized up. Bolano often provides not the observation of another with the clear distinction of subject-object – with the former observer making observations on the latter that will bring out the subjectivity of the other person through the acuity of close observation, as evident in the Cercas and Greene comments. Instead he will create a hollowed out space within the person as they comment on themselves, or in the person they are commenting upon. In the first section of 2666, for example, Norton goes along to an art gallery and recalls that “I remember the glass of wine fell from my hands. I remember that a couple, both tall and thin, turned away from a paining and peered over as if I might be an ex-lover or a living (and unfinished) painting that had just got news of the painter’s death.” She also remembered that she “walked out without looking back and that I walked for a long time until I realized I wasn’t crying.”

What Bolano does is create a perennial doubt on the question of character: if one doesn’t know one’s own motives, how is it possible to know those of another? If there are questions within us that we cannot answer, what chance do we have of answering the questions concerning others by virtue of observation? There can be no sizing up of a character within this type of problematic. Even the astonishingly subtle Henry James, in the passage we quoted from Washington Square, still allows for confident assumptions concerning Morris’s character.

However, in Bolano’s work, though there are many base actions, they do not so obviously come from base motives. If we think of perhaps the most appallingly violent passage in a book containing page after page on a series of crimes, we can get a better idea of Bolano’s method. A few pages earlier Bolano has described the killing of Linda Vázquez, and Bolano observes the revenge enacted on the killers by inmates from the point of view of the character Klaus Haas, inside accused of various killings himself. Having already described the first stage of revenge, with Haas as onlooker, Bolano a couple of pages further on, shows Haas explaining to his lawyer what had happened. As Haas speaks to the lawyer she says “Oh, Klaus, you’re so naïve”, saying that everybody on the outside knows exactly what happened: Vásquez came from money and “those animals killed the daughter of a man with money. Everything else is beside the point. Just babble, said the lawyer.” However it is more the animal that Haas describes, as though money might have been the motivating factor, but finally it was a horrible pleasure principle at work. Klaus had noted that he “could feel the excitement in the cell block” when the murderers/victims arrived, noticing during the killings, “Electricity…pure life force”. It returns us to the moment Bolano describes in The Soldiers of Salamis about the Madrid hero. The motive might be money in the passage from 2666, but there is an instinct stronger than the payment they will receive. Once again Bolano gets at human surplus: in the Madrid hero there is a good deed that results; in 2666, the appalling action – but it is as though the operative word is animal. In the former it is almost an act of species protection; the latter of species destruction.

Thus while we have proposed Bolano fascinatingly works with the rubble of character, he also works from the instincts of being. He is interested in the peripheral and the unconscious, the apparently trivial and the deeply primal. The dead centre of characterization interests him the least, and the sort of observations numerous other writers make to bring out that sense of character is of little importance. It is not so much how to define character; more: how is a character undefinable? The former indicates the prioritising of traits that Greene for example does extremely well, but that can also leave a character superficially vivid but existentially vague. Bolano is willing to risk superficial vagueness for existential vividness, yet an existential precision based not on conscious action, but sub-conscious motivation, the sort of existential perspective that takes into account the troublesome edge of consciousness.

One sees this in the Part About Fate, with the section’s eponymous character, a journalist, returning home at four in the morning after a night of being drunk and not drunk. “Over the course of the night he had gotten drunk and then sobered up and then gotten drunk again, and now, outside his room, he was sober again, as if instead of drinking real alcohol Mexicans drank water with short-term hypnotic effects.” He thinks about his mother and Harlem, and her doing the dishes. The next day he gets up at two in the afternoon, and believes he must have been sick. “While he was sleeping he had woken up twice and both times he had smelled vomit….Now the smell was gone and there was no sign that he had vomited the night before.” He decides that he won’t keep an appointment where he was going to interview someone over the serial killings, believing that he wouldn’t be able to write on the subject, as he is in Mexico to write instead on a boxing match that doesn’t interest him. What Bolano captures so well is the trivial and the profound, the apparently irrelevant and the troublingly pertinent. A writer more concerned with character and story would have created problems around the late night drinking, the afternoon waking, and the decision not to do the interview. Instead Bolano opens up the space of indecision by the comments about Fate’s mother, by the vomiting that seems not to have taken place, and the fact that though Fate is in the town to report on a fight, he has no experience of sport journalism, and no interest really in the match.

The centre does not hold in terms of character and narrative, yet it is out of this absent centre that Bolano builds his books. Whether it is the central characters in Savage Detectives de-centred by existing through the accounts of others, or the mystery surrounding Archimboldi in the first section of 2666, Bolano always insists that character rather than life is elsewhere.

Bolano is a rare writer in that length doesn’t matter: whether the book is nine hundred pages long, or as brief as some of the stories in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, what counts is less the descriptive density so central to many a long book, where the premise cannot be played out except at great length – from War and Peace to Moby Dick– than Bolano’s fascination with aporia of narrative and refraction of character, meaning that even if he wrote hundreds of short stories and no novels, his significance would remain the same. This isn’t at all to say that Bolano needn’t have wasted his time on the big books; but it is to note that what makes the big books great isn’t the narrative thrust but the constant sense of fragmentation. It is the case there are certain frissons of narrative delight when we realize that Haas is Archimboldi’s nephew, that while the critics who are searching for Archimboldi with no idea why he is in Mexico, we at the end of the book realize that he will be there to help his nephew, but even here it is the disjunction as much as the conjunction that creates the frisson. In other words while we know at the end of the book that Archimboldi will go to Mexico, we also know that the critics do not know why he is there, as they will soon be going to follow him. This isn’t the narrative cohesion that ties together loose ends, but the loose ends constantly fraying because of the dislocation of time and place.  In many of Bolano’s longer books and shorter pieces, where numerous stories and novels utilise the character of Arturo Belano, there is a sense of a project always greater than the work to hand, as if Bolano was constantly trying to save from the immensity of the real, the memorialising of the fictive, the residue of life. In The Soldiers of Salamis, Bolano says at one moment, “To write novels you don’t need imagination… Just a memory. Novels are written by combining recollections.” The writer’s ontological necessity resides not in creating big, baggy books of narrative complexity and completeness, but in exploring the frayed edges of life, and finding a form with which to contain them.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

2666

More Rumour than Actuality

In a passage in 2666, in the section The Part about Amalfitano, a character talks of his liking for shorter novels rather than the big books, The Metamorphosis over say The Trial, Bartleby over Moby Dick, and the central character in this section, Amalfitano, wonders why people like 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." But while it is true that the book that we have in our hands as we're reading this passage is almost nine hundred pages long, we also know elsewhere that one of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano's favourite writers was, according to Aura Estrada in her essay 'Bolano and the Return of the Epic', none other than Borges - who of course never wrote a novel at all.

In the book's last section, The Part About Archimboldi, an old man who gave up writing and devotes himself to reading says, "Every work that isn't a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage... Every book that isn't a masterpiece is cannon fodder." Yet we may recall a passage from Javier Cercas's The Soldiers of Salamis, where Bolano plays a key role in the last section of the book, and a role that is more or less indistinguishable from Bolano himself. At one moment in Cercas's novel he says "I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street" -a fact borne out by his many references in his own books to writers who are not conventional masters. Thus while Bolano would seem to share the old man's belief in the significance of reading - claiming in one interview that it's more important to read than to write - would he share the view that one ought only to read the masters?

One needn't try and arrive at a truth claim here, and work away at Bolano's contradictions. First of all what a writer says in his work is not quite the same as what he says in an interview, and even if the character of Bolano in The Soldiers of Salamis is clearly based on Bolano himself, there is still artistic license at play: if Cercas puts words into Bolano's mouth that is quite different from an interviewer doing the same. Better instead to be Borgesian about it; to see Bolano as a protean figure capable of containing multitudes, a figure who another character in Cercas's novel thought was talented, "as well as an out-and-out liar."

However if for some people lying is a failure of reality, for others it is the creation of alternative worlds. In The Soldiers of Salamis, the narrator and Bolano talk about men of action and writers, with Bolano provocatively claiming "a man of action is a frustrated writer". The man of action after all is expected to enact, to live only one life and constantly dramatize that existence. Bolano appears to be the exact opposite: a writer who doesn't even dramatize as a writer let alone as a man. Whatever Bolano's reservations concerning Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a writer who he always believed had too much influence on Latin American writing), he takes further in his work Milan Kundera's claim in The Curtain that what Kundera loved about One Hundred Years of Solitude was its absence of scenes: "they are completely diluted in the drunken floods of narration". It is similar to Michael Wood's point in his LRB review of 2666 where he says Bolano seems "driven by an apparently inexhaustible ability to invent concrete and detailed stories."

It is perhaps in such comments, however, that we can nevertheless understand a certain paradox, an admiration for Borges's slender tales, and Bolano's own bulimic move towards big books, namely The Savage Detectives and 2666. Where Borges offered stories of "devastating brevity", even Bolano's big books contain an element of this devastation. Devastation is a good word in this context; central to Borges' oeuvre is the devastation of psychology: "his work", Estrada says, "erases the biographical, the psychological, and the local." Out of this rubble a writer like Bolano nevertheless returns us to the psychological, but it returns as rubble. Bolano generally alludes to character rather than presents it, and often creates our sense of a self not through detail but its absence. He is a great writer if you like of the telling detail. In much classic fiction, character information does not really tell us about the character; it instead fills out character, creating a rounded person that can illustrate personality but eradicate the self. There is plenty of information that locates a character in time, and place, work and family, but the very roundedness can today seem too close to ready assumption; as if we can't quite believe that this is where a person so obviously exists. When a modern writer delineates a character in such a way it seems almost old-fashioned; and what is interesting about Cercas's take on Bolano is how much less mysterious and distinctive it happens to be than Bolano's approach to his own characters.

Cercas introduces him thus: "One of my first interviewees was Roberto Bolano. Bolano, who was a writer and from Chile, had been living for ages in Blanes, a coastal town on the border between the provinces of Barcelona and Gerona." "He was forty seven years old, with a good number of books behind him, and that unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin Americans of his generation exiled in Europe." Here Bolano is hastily if not unimpressively summed up, but the manner in which Cercas characterises Bolano leaves him ripe for narrative purpose. There is nothing to suggest Cercas wants to generate mystery around Bolano himself. Bolano however is a writer who constantly introduces characters in such a manner that they start off as enigmas in and of themselves. Even if a Bolano story appears to be going nowhere, by indicating straight away what defies summation helps generate a kind of ontological tension, a surprise within each being. In the third part of 2666, The Part About Fate, Bolano tells us that Rosa Mndez "had", she said, "in her own words, four lovers who'd changed her life." Early in the first section, The Part About the Critics, one of the critics Liz Norton was a woman who "had none of the attributes of the ambitious. Norton "preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness. If life is bound by social imperatives, as William James believed, as it's therefore easier to go to war than it is to quit smoking, one could say that Liz Norton was a woman who found it easier to quit smoking than to go to war."

Bolano in each instance doesn't so much introduce us to characters as obliquely observe them. If much classic fiction is based on focusing initially on the dead centre of character, and then, as Kundera proposes in The Curtain and elsewhere, focuses on the scene, Bolano's greatness lies in his angle on character and the eschewal of the scene. One may notice that this is never more apparent than the section, The Part About the Crimes, where instead of character and scene one has aftermath - as if the crime isn't an event, but a scrap of character and corporeality as Bolano lists numerous deaths in a border town. One woman, Marisa Hernandez Silva "had a congenital dislocation of the right hip"; another, Adela Garcia Estrada, "when her pants were removed in the forensic lab, it was discovered that underneath she had on another pair of pants, gray. Human behaviour is a mystery, declared the medical examiner." Here we have fragments of character not preceding a scene but the remains of a crime scene.

Hundreds of pages are devoted to these descriptions, and it has been noted that Bolano became fascinated by the many young woman murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarz, and would ask for intricate details not only about the crimes, but also the layout of the town - a town to which he had never been. Perhaps more pertinent still is that just as we noted Bolano claimed he would rather be a reader than a writer, so he insisted in interviews that he wished he had been a pathologist instead of a novelist. We needn't take this as fact, yet it is suggestive: that there is an aspect of Bolano's work that in its rejection of conventional character scene setting, indicates a sense of the posthumous. A character exists less in the present than in the accumulation of their past. When many novelists introduce us to characters, even very good contemporary writers, they nevertheless introduce the character in a way that implies that what is in front of them will be more significant than what is behind them. When for example J. M. Coetzee introduces his central character David Lurie in Disgrace, he gives us a character relatively calm before the storm: "He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament. Is he happy?" We sense the drama awaiting him, and Coetzee acknowledges this with a comparison to Oedipus.

How does this differ from the manner in which we are introduced to characters superficially similar to Lurie in 2666, a character like Jean-Claude Pelletier in The Part About the Critics? Pelletier was born in 1961, Bolano says, and by 1986 had already become a professor of German in Paris, but before this Bolano covers several years of his life in the first couple of pages. We're informed that Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi, a contemporary novelist who will become his life's obsession, in Christmas 1980, "from that day on...he became an enthusiastic Archimboldian and set out a quest to find more works by the author. This was no easy task," as we follow Pelletier's attempts. Bolano however doesn't set in motion what we might call a scenic mystery, a story where the narration gives way to the scene, as Pelletier dramatically searches out other Archimboldi texts, and then later Archimboldi himself. The narration always remains the thing, with the scene generally weak next to narrational strength. For example, even in one of the book's most dramatic episodes in the first section, where Pelletier and a fellow Archimboldian Espinoza give a taxi driver a severe beating after insulting Norton, Bolano tells it not with dramatic tension, but instead a sort of narrational explanation. As he describes it, the scene almost already seems to be over. The insults were "the last straw for Espinoza, who stepped down and opened the driver's door and jerked the driver out, the latter not expecting anything of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman." "Much less", we're told, "did he expect the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza alone, but then by Pelletier too..." When they invoke Salman Rushdie as they beat him, the narrator puts in parenthesis "an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent", it adds to the indirect approach.

The indirectness of style is again relevant in the third section, The Part About Fate, where there is a lengthy build up to a fight that is promptly concluded. Obviously this isn't a new device - Henry James devoted many pages to Isabel Archer's burgeoning relationship with Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, and then skipped the wedding altogether. Yet James would still be very interested in the grounded scene, fascinated by what people would observe in the middle of a situation, even if the characters themselves were peripheral to it, or James might make them more focused on their own thoughts than their present actions, with James as narrator more attuned to the observation of his characters than dramatizing their behaviour. At the beginning of chapter 10 of Washington Square, for example, the handsome Morris Townsend turns up at Catherine's door and they discuss when they ought to talk to her brusque father of their affections. James moves in and out of Morris's point of view in the first few paragraphs. As he speaks to Catherine, he was passing "his hand through his hair and giving a glance at the long, narrow mirror which adorned the space between the two windows, and which had at its base a little gilded bracket covered by a thin slab of white marble..." Shortly afterwards James leaves Morris's observations behind and promptly addresses the reader as though from Catherine's father's perspective. "It will probably be seen by the reader, however, that the doctor's vigilance was by no means excessive, and that these two young people had an open field."

James creates maximum perspective, an omniscience that is the opposite of what Bolano seeks in his rather different indirect approach. Where Pelletier and Espinoza are in the thick of a violent action and Bolano's narrator an appalled yet quizzical by-stander to the mysteries of human instinct, James is the grand observer, moving at will between a dialogue exchange, a character's self-perception, and a comment that incorporates the breadth of the book and the reader as well. The scene very much stands, no matter the number of perspectives James can offer upon it.

If the scene collapses in Bolano's work it is partly due to the limitation of perspective, the lack of omniscience available to a narrator who can go anywhere, but also knows that from this new point of view another one becomes hidden. He has learnt much from Borges, and not least the final impossibility of perspective that of course Borges explores so well in his story 'The Aleph'. Here the narrator writes of being locked in a cellar and being privileged to see "the limitless aleph", where in that "single gigantic instance I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful...what my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive." When certain critics have praised Bolano's book it is as if they were responding to 2666's achievement in response to Borges' claim: "Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal." "2666 is a book full of other books...", said The Times; "all human life is contained in these burning pages", according to The Independent on Sunday. Putting aside the hyperbole, how does Bolano succeed where Borges claims inevitable failure?

Where James offers omniscience, Borges the 'ineffable', Bolano keeps pursuing the partial, achieving a multiple partiality that can by the end of the book seems like it encompasses much, if not all, of reality. From the point of view of the Part About the Critics, Archimboldi is a mystery as the critics try to trace him to Mexico, while in The Part About Archimboldi he is a picaresque character avoiding publicity but not shy of the human encounter. From one point of view he is an elusive figure, from another alive to the exchanges and stories that presumably become part of his own creativity. Bolano searches out however neither the omniscience of a James, nor the ineffability of Borges, but a human perspective. If Bolano's work doesn't feel like a post-modern game on the play with perspective, it is that one senses the human limitation is stronger than the ludic - the difficulty of knowing more pronounced than the knowingness of keeping the reader in the dark. When James says "dear reader", this is James as the late Victorian saying the narrator knows best, but it also hints at the sort of writers, from Barthelme to Barth, who would constantly invoke the conventions beings utilised. The human, however is, after all, constantly and impossibly partial in their perspective: to see a building from one angle requires moving and losing the angle one has just been seeing it from. Where a ludic approach would indicate that all angles can be seen, but that only the narrator is privy to this multiplicity of perspective, Bolano, like Borges, but inversely, says since a story or novel is a humanly created object, shouldn't it accept the limitations not as a game, but as an ontological inevitability?

Partiality becomes mystery, and a person can never be more than the sum of the parts that are observable. From one point of view, Archimboldi is a picaresque figure; from another, a shadowy obscurity. At the same time characters are self-mysteries; with Pelletier and Espinoza's beating of the taxi driver as inexplicable to themselves as an aggressive, wealthy character Marco Antonio Guerra's befriending of Amalfitano in the second part of the book, and telling him what should be done to the poor of the town, or Amalfitano's own diagrams with various writers and philosophers' names. If first of all there is the problem of human perspective, secondly there is equally the problem of human behaviour. If one can only see spatially from certain positions and thus lose other angles, then there is also the problem of people themselves containing multitudes, selves within selves in a mystery that is equal to the failure to know the other.

Know thyself might be a philosophical ambition, but it is one constantly undermined by the psychoanalytic awareness that we are so much more than the sum of our immediate consciousness. As Amalfitano says at the beginning of The Part About Amalfitano, "I don't know what I'm doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself, after he'd been living in the city for a week. Don't you? Don't you really? He asked himself. Really I don't, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be." Many writers will be as aware of the impossibility of spatial omnipresence and of Freud and Lacan as Bolano, but it is one thing to know about shifts in perspective and the clutter of identity that psychoanalysis inevitably forces upon us, but that doesn't mean it is absorbed. Bolano takes the impossibility of knowing not as the game an author plays - a game possible on the one hand because of developments in science that make certainties look less certain, and on the other by the ludic awareness that just because this is so in life doesn't mean it needs to be in the man-made realm of creativity - but as an ontological impossibility. One reason why perhaps many post-modern fictions appear lacking in humanity is that they are; and this is less a criticism than an observation. They are made up of the stuff of science and the stuff of games - the problem physics forces upon us concerning knowledge, yet the knowing awareness that the writer can still play God as long as he knows he is playing.

Bolano is in this sense a nave writer, as though the ideas that concern him have not gone through the epistemological hiccups of the problem of certitude, but are humanly centred in a very basic way; and yet still very modern. Partiality of perspective is not a scientific discovery but a perennial human problem; the complexity and perplexity of behaviour inevitable perhaps in the face of a faster existence, where geographical movement is temporary (the holiday), lasting (the job) or permanent (emigration), but constantly now an issue. Bolano seems to understand simultaneously the problems of space and time, speed and motion, but on a very human scale. Perhaps we need humanism to return not as a morality, but as a situationist phenomenology: humanism as a human perceptual field, yet subtly different from the existential and the phenomenological in its containment of absence and presence, in the self as a source of its own inevitable mystery. When Merleau-Ponty says in Phenomenology of Perception that he sees in phenomenology that "all cognitions are sustained by a 'round' of postulates and finally by our communication with the world as primary embodiment of rationality", for Merleau-Ponty this differs from the general notion of philosophy, "which dispenses in principle with this resource." It is a point echoed by Henri Lefebvre in Critique of Everyday Life (Vol. 3) when he says, "In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought...Things have changed...today philosophy can be defined by its relationship to daily life."

Man is still grounded in being, but like Sartre's figure he is basically useful and purposeful. Indeed this is how Sartre situates human action in relation to poetry. "Human action, in the real world, is dominated by needs and urged on by the useful. In this sense it is a means. It passes unnoticed, and it is the result which counts....poetry reverses the relationship: the world and things become inessential, become a pretext for the act which becomes its own end." (Literature and Existentialism) In both human action and poetry, then, there is so often expressed the gap between action and reflection, but in the sort of situational phenomenology Bolano explores action and reflection are interestingly intertwined.

Yet Bolano is not at all a novelist of ideas in the Proust, Musil, Broch tradition, but rather a novelist who proposes human agency is fragile and multiple, separated not by action and reflection but by absence and presence. His characters seem full of aporias similar to the ones Deleuze talks of in Negotiations, commenting on gaps in one's life: "I know what I was doing, where and how I lived during those years, but I know it only abstractly, rather as if someone else was relating memories that I believe but don't really have". This is less the problem of reflections and actions; but of absences and presences, and this is why we earlier mentioned the importance of the rubble of characterization. People, as we know, disappear every time they leave the room: usually they come back, occasionally they don't. Bolano's work captures that sense of disappearance as an always present possibility. From certain points of view people are disappearing every time they leave the room, and appearing later in another room, but no longer cognizant to the one who saw them leaving. What happens though if one creates a world where this coming and going acknowledges the fragility, the possibility that every time someone leaves a room they may not come back? It is entirely possible surely in a world constantly given to movement, one given over to the geographical fragility of our lives.

Not only is Bolano a great writer on the human scale, he also understands the capacity of peripatetic wealth within poverty. Obviously this is most clearly expressed in The Savage Detectives, where the two central Latin American characters float around Europe and where one ends up in Africa, but it is an aspect of his work that connects to what we are saying here. It is not at all a jet-set existence, which creates multiple presence, a ubiquity of the wealthy who keep on the move to make sure they miss nothing: Rio Carnivals, Cannes, World Cups, Olympics etc., and so seem everywhere simultaneously. Bolano explores the inversion: a sense of movement where one is constantly absent. If this is the genius behind Savage Detectives, it is nevertheless vital also to 2666. It is what sets the 'tame' detectives off to Mexico in search of Archimbaldi. They find it inexplicable that this reclusive writer and now very old man would be hiding out in central America, and at a small border town at that. "The question is what did Archimboldi come to the city to do, said Norton. After some argument, the three critics concluded, and Amilfitano agreed, that he could have come to Santa Teresa only to see a friend or collect information for a novel in progress or both reasons at once." If the jet-setter symbolizes the ubiquitous, the omnipresent, the Bolano drifter indicates the opposite, the under-present, the figure that is more rumour than actuality.

Clearly such an approach to character works extremely well in relation to Bolano's interest in characterisational obliqueness, where a character is not only partial through the partial information Bolano likes to give, but also through the partiality of an existence lived not in the light but in the shade. The difference between Bolano and Cercas is that even when talking of a character in the shade - as Bolano would have been - there is a determined descriptiveness on Cercas's part in The Soldiers of Salamis to show the light. "He'd quit school when he was practically still a kid; he'd had all kinds of odd jobs (though he'd never done any serious work other than writing); he'd been a revolutionary in Allende's Chile and in Pinochet's he'd been in prison; he'd lived in Mexico and France; he'd travelled all over the world."

Yet a couple of pages later there is a comment from Bolano that astutely captures his notion of character. Talking of heroism he indicates that a decent human being isn't the same as a hero, going on to say that he thinks someone "can be a decent person for a whole lifetime, but can't be awe-inspiring without a break, and that is why a hero is only a hero exceptionally..." He then mentions a story about someone in Madrid who saw a house enveloped in flames. "Without a word to anyone he rushed into the house and came out with a woman in his arms. He went back in and this time brought a man out", and so on, until the fire was so ferocious that even the firemen wouldn't go in, and back he went, never to come out again. What sort of man was he, Bolano asks. Maybe he wasn't at all an ethical human being and acted not out of compassion, but a kind of instinct, "a blind instinct that overcame him." Just as Amalfitano can say that he doesn't know why he is in Santa Teresa, so the hero may not know why he is being heroic. Bolano manages when talking about another to indicate more mystery within himself than Cercas can when summarizing Bolano's life.

A Bolano character would not be summed up in the manner in which Cercas talks of Bolano, but closer to the way in which Bolano talks about the hero from Madrid. There is always another within ourselves, and always a space where one isn't in relation to where one is. If we can say that someone in Bolano's work is under-present partly because they are more a rumour than an actuality, we can add that there are drives within us that can hardly be credited to our 'personality'. We are always more than the sum of our parts, so simply to offer up the parts as if they are symptomatic of our fundamental being may be a useful literary device, but doesn't quite get close enough to the question of being - the being within our being that Bolano alludes to in the story about the hero of Madrid.

To help us further in relation to this question, we can turn to Graham Greene's psychologically often astute The End of the Affair, and the numerous little character observations Greene provides. "I noticed when he shook hands he gave my fingers an odd twist. I think he must have been a freemason..." "She had always had the trick of getting on well with waiters." "I wondered where I had seen those gentle apologetic eyes, that long outdated moustache damp with the climate?" These resemble Cercas's remarks on Bolano; that he had an air of the hippy peddler. Greene and Cercas are offering character observation, where there is a clear notion of character that one can observe. The touch signifies the whole, a psychologically metonymic assurance that makes clear the detail can say much about the character of the person being sized up. Bolano often provides not the observation of another with the clear distinction of subject-object - with the former observer making observations on the latter that will bring out the subjectivity of the other person through the acuity of close observation, as evident in the Cercas and Greene comments. Instead he will create a hollowed out space within the person as they comment on themselves, or in the person they are commenting upon. In the first section of 2666, for example, Norton goes along to an art gallery and recalls that "I remember the glass of wine fell from my hands. I remember that a couple, both tall and thin, turned away from a paining and peered over as if I might be an ex-lover or a living (and unfinished) painting that had just got news of the painter's death." She also remembered that she "walked out without looking back and that I walked for a long time until I realized I wasn't crying."

What Bolano does is create a perennial doubt on the question of character: if one doesn't know one's own motives, how is it possible to know those of another? If there are questions within us that we cannot answer, what chance do we have of answering the questions concerning others by virtue of observation? There can be no sizing up of a character within this type of problematic. Even the astonishingly subtle Henry James, in the passage we quoted from Washington Square, still allows for confident assumptions concerning Morris's character.

However, in Bolano's work, though there are many base actions, they do not so obviously come from base motives. If we think of perhaps the most appallingly violent passage in a book containing page after page on a series of crimes, we can get a better idea of Bolano's method. A few pages earlier Bolano has described the killing of Linda Vzquez, and Bolano observes the revenge enacted on the killers by inmates from the point of view of the character Klaus Haas, inside accused of various killings himself. Having already described the first stage of revenge, with Haas as onlooker, Bolano a couple of pages further on, shows Haas explaining to his lawyer what had happened. As Haas speaks to the lawyer she says "Oh, Klaus, you're so nave", saying that everybody on the outside knows exactly what happened: Vsquez came from money and "those animals killed the daughter of a man with money. Everything else is beside the point. Just babble, said the lawyer." However it is more the animal that Haas describes, as though money might have been the motivating factor, but finally it was a horrible pleasure principle at work. Klaus had noted that he "could feel the excitement in the cell block" when the murderers/victims arrived, noticing during the killings, "Electricity...pure life force". It returns us to the moment Bolano describes in The Soldiers of Salamis about the Madrid hero. The motive might be money in the passage from 2666, but there is an instinct stronger than the payment they will receive. Once again Bolano gets at human surplus: in the Madrid hero there is a good deed that results; in 2666, the appalling action - but it is as though the operative word is animal. In the former it is almost an act of species protection; the latter of species destruction.

Thus while we have proposed Bolano fascinatingly works with the rubble of character, he also works from the instincts of being. He is interested in the peripheral and the unconscious, the apparently trivial and the deeply primal. The dead centre of characterization interests him the least, and the sort of observations numerous other writers make to bring out that sense of character is of little importance. It is not so much how to define character; more: how is a character undefinable? The former indicates the prioritising of traits that Greene for example does extremely well, but that can also leave a character superficially vivid but existentially vague. Bolano is willing to risk superficial vagueness for existential vividness, yet an existential precision based not on conscious action, but sub-conscious motivation, the sort of existential perspective that takes into account the troublesome edge of consciousness.

One sees this in the Part About Fate, with the section's eponymous character, a journalist, returning home at four in the morning after a night of being drunk and not drunk. "Over the course of the night he had gotten drunk and then sobered up and then gotten drunk again, and now, outside his room, he was sober again, as if instead of drinking real alcohol Mexicans drank water with short-term hypnotic effects." He thinks about his mother and Harlem, and her doing the dishes. The next day he gets up at two in the afternoon, and believes he must have been sick. "While he was sleeping he had woken up twice and both times he had smelled vomit....Now the smell was gone and there was no sign that he had vomited the night before." He decides that he won't keep an appointment where he was going to interview someone over the serial killings, believing that he wouldn't be able to write on the subject, as he is in Mexico to write instead on a boxing match that doesn't interest him. What Bolano captures so well is the trivial and the profound, the apparently irrelevant and the troublingly pertinent. A writer more concerned with character and story would have created problems around the late night drinking, the afternoon waking, and the decision not to do the interview. Instead Bolano opens up the space of indecision by the comments about Fate's mother, by the vomiting that seems not to have taken place, and the fact that though Fate is in the town to report on a fight, he has no experience of sport journalism, and no interest really in the match.

The centre does not hold in terms of character and narrative, yet it is out of this absent centre that Bolano builds his books. Whether it is the central characters in Savage Detectives de-centred by existing through the accounts of others, or the mystery surrounding Archimboldi in the first section of 2666, Bolano always insists that character rather than life is elsewhere.

Bolano is a rare writer in that length doesn't matter: whether the book is nine hundred pages long, or as brief as some of the stories in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, what counts is less the descriptive density so central to many a long book, where the premise cannot be played out except at great length - from War and Peace to Moby Dick- than Bolano's fascination with aporia of narrative and refraction of character, meaning that even if he wrote hundreds of short stories and no novels, his significance would remain the same. This isn't at all to say that Bolano needn't have wasted his time on the big books; but it is to note that what makes the big books great isn't the narrative thrust but the constant sense of fragmentation. It is the case there are certain frissons of narrative delight when we realize that Haas is Archimboldi's nephew, that while the critics who are searching for Archimboldi with no idea why he is in Mexico, we at the end of the book realize that he will be there to help his nephew, but even here it is the disjunction as much as the conjunction that creates the frisson. In other words while we know at the end of the book that Archimboldi will go to Mexico, we also know that the critics do not know why he is there, as they will soon be going to follow him. This isn't the narrative cohesion that ties together loose ends, but the loose ends constantly fraying because of the dislocation of time and place. In many of Bolano's longer books and shorter pieces, where numerous stories and novels utilise the character of Arturo Belano, there is a sense of a project always greater than the work to hand, as if Bolano was constantly trying to save from the immensity of the real, the memorialising of the fictive, the residue of life. In The Soldiers of Salamis, Bolano says at one moment, "To write novels you don't need imagination... Just a memory. Novels are written by combining recollections." The writer's ontological necessity resides not in creating big, baggy books of narrative complexity and completeness, but in exploring the frayed edges of life, and finding a form with which to contain them.


© Tony McKibbin