Tag Archives: 2666

The truth and progress, 2: Santa Teresa

Cruces_Lomas_del_Poleo

This is the second reflection on ideas about “progress” and change through novels that explore the consequences of progress for ordinary people and their everyday live.  The first considered  Patrick Chamioseau’s Texaco, and here the conversation turns to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
―Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

Cesárea

The Savage Detectives and 2666 are monumental novels about a search for literary ghosts in the cities and towns of northern Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They were written by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Spain, searching for ways to make words reconcile the world that is with the world of his own experience and imagination.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño assumes a pose akin to Chamoiseau’s in Texaco, as a thinly disguised self called Arturo Belano, whose poetic vocation reflects his directionless quest for authenticity and escape from the Latin American “Boom” generation—those writers like Octavio Paz, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, & etc. whose work won four Nobel Prizes and utterly defined the “Latin American” voice. Their monumental dominance is for Belano and his generation a straight-jacket of Latin exoticism that is nothing like the world they grew up in. Belano/Bolaño’s world is one in which global currents are washing over Latin America, wearing away what the Boom Generation created.

Sion

Cesárea Tinojero’s only known poem, “Sión”

The Savage Detectives follows Belano’s group of poets—the “Visceral Realists”—from an early adventure in the mid-1970s to find an obscure 1930s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. In the 30s, she worked for one of the generals leading the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and only wound down by the 1930s. The Mexican Revolution itself was the constituting event in Latin American history that drew a line between the United States and everything south of the Rio Grande. It made the Boom Generation possible.

By the late 1970s, long after her general died, Cesárea is presumed living in somewhere in Sonora not far from Santa Teresa, itself a thinly disguised version of Mexico’s border boomtown, Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. After rambling through the desert, they finally find her, aged and alone, in a small room in Santa Teresa. Through a local teacher who had befriended Cesárea, they learn that she had lived a very lonely, impoverished life, lately having taken to scribbling visions of the future, afraid of persecution and even death, in a scene that appears to foreshadow 2666 without being specific enough to say anything at all.

“… Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.” (The Savage Detectives, p. 634)

Belano and his cohorts will meet Cesárea herself, but before anything much happens her end meets the end of the Visceral Realists in a thudding anticlimax that explains the preceding 400 pages chronicling the group’s dissolution and dispersal around the world.

Archimboldi

2666 isn’t a sequel to The Savage Detectives, but in important ways it picks up where the earlier left off, with a crew of literary critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi, a German author whose Pynchonian mantle of self-imposed obscurity only heightens the reverence of his followers. As with Cesárea Tinojero’s oblique reference to the year 2600, Archimboldi is also referenced in The Savage Detectives, as “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” credited for the Archimboldi of 2666‘s early novel, The Endless Rose. By the time of 2666, set around the turn of the millenium, Archimboldi has had a 40-year  career in which he has published 21 novels and is mentioned frequently as a short-list candidate for the Nobel Prize. Like most of their colleagues, Archimboldi scholars are a fanatical lot and would go to the ends of the earth to find their master—which leads them to Santa Teresa a quarter-century after Arturo Belano and the Visceral Realists arrived there to find their master.

What is different between the two novels is the Mexico they depict. Where The Savage Detectives chronicles a generation’s futile struggle against the grandiose and Nobel-studded world of their literary forbears, 2666 completes that story by portraying a Mexico that is at once devouring itself with it’s own misogyny and violence while at the same time it is irretrievably caught in a tide of globalization, which abets the local violence and even explains it as its own pathology. Like Texaco, 2666 is a novel about a city that stands for a larger story about the price of progress.

If the apogee of the Mexican revolution, in literary terms, is Octavio Paz’s Nobel Prize, then the nadir, in human terms, is the killing of up to 400 young women—femicidios—in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2004. These murders are historical core of 2666, just like slavery and urban modernization are the historical core of Texaco. Thumbnail sketches of the murders in the fictionalized Juarez of Santa Teresa, hundreds of them, are meted out in clinical detail for over 280 pages in the longest of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Plot points filter in and out of an utter fog of forensic reportage like familiar faces wandering into a dream, trying desperately to drag it into the waking world. The scourge of violence becomes banal and then fades into normalcy. “The Part About the Crimes” is the reader’s own exile from everything she knows, the reader as Aeneas in Hades seeing a prophetic vision of dystopian globalization that reverses the familiar story of progress, replacing civil society and the rule of law with a world descending into inexplicable, and inexplicably unjust, viciousness.

cjuarez_airshot

In the last section of the book, “The Part About Archimboldi,” we finally learn who this writer is in an epic tale spanning the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the emergence of computer technology, and the femicidios of Santa Teresa. In the end, it’s the story of how the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a Latin American novel that was written in Spain and unmoored itself from Mexico with a cast of characters from the United States, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Romania, Italy, Mexico, and other places. Set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in an international metropolis that reflects the two countries’ grand fraternal struggle for coexistence, 2666 continuously finds its border-crushing narrative crashing against the invisible wall between these two countries. Like Chamoiseau, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives and 2666 reimagines the world he has lived in and feeds it back to us in overlapping waves of murder mysteries, vision quests, and pilgrimmages. These books are the chronicle of Bolaño’s life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

Photographs and images:  The first photo is of crosses placed on Lomas del Poleo Planta Alta, Ciudad Juárez, in the place where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in 1996. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. The photocopy of Cesárea Tinajero’s poem, “Sión,” from p. 398 of The Savage Detectives, is a photocopy taken by Tom Sparks and posted on his blog, WFTM.  The air photo of Ciudad Juarez’s sprawl across the countryside up to the mountains was taken from an article in El País online, ¿Porqué Ciudad Juárez?

Five Latin American writers would win the Nobel Prize between 1945 and 2010:  Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010). These writers and many others equally as notable, including Jorge Luis Borges, Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, to name a few, not only created a globally recognized “Latin American Literaure” but they also exercised a palpable influence on post-World War II literature in general.  García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is recognized as the overarching masterwork of the era, bringing the notion of “magical realism” to fore in world literature, while Cortázar’s Rayuela has become a post-modern touchstone that has far eclipsed the Boom Generation.

From 1993 onward, around 400 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Most of the victims of the femicidios were young and suffered violent deaths that included rape and torture.  Few of the murders were solved.  Those who could fled the violence (an estimated 700,000 people leaving the area in the late 1990s-early 2000s) while those who couldn’t continued to work in the maquiladora factories created to supply U.S. companies with cheap production based almost entirely on the miserly wages paid to the Mexican workers—mainly women—who have flocked to the border for work.  The violence has ebbed and flowed, but it nonetheless continues to the present day and has spawned movements and organized reactions.

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The truth and grace, 3: The Unknown

Consolation. Macha Chmakoff.

This is the third of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Amalfitano

In the novel 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s character Amalfitano thinks about a drug store he used to go to in Barcelona.  For convenience’s sake he would go in the middle of the night, and he always found the pharmacist reading in his chair.  The pharmacist’s selections troubled Amalfitano.

“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartelby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.  What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano.  Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” 

To Amalfitano, this was a kind of cultural laziness at best, at worst a cultural sclerosis leading one day (and perhaps soon) to the death of culture (as he knew it).  Nothing will ever be learned about the world if we choose only the easy things, turning our heads away from those moments when, as Bolaño/Amalfitano continues, “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Trying to understand the world requires some effort and the willingness to get dirty doing so.  To read the perfect works of the masters—indeed to rely on anything we might call “perfect”—is a graceless pleasure, for grace lurks in the shadows and cracks of the world, there for the taker, but only taken by the one who can see it.

The unknown is an essential, core element of grace.  Maybe it is where grace comes from, or perhaps it is the conveyor of grace, the medium through which grace passes into the light of day to touch someone’s life.  To recognize grace is to surrender control (or pride, hubris, arrogance—call it what you will), and in the surrender a new kind of freedom is born.  It is the freedom to make something of what we are given.

Taleb

Nassim Nicolas Taleb is a statistician, philosopher, and financial trader who has made it his life’s work to understand random events. It all began when civil war erupted in Lebanon in the 1970s and Taleb, whose family included two deputy prime ministers and a supreme court justice, became swept into the conflict.  The adults said the war would last only a few days, but it stretched to 17 years, and with each turn of events the adults came up with new reasons for it.

“Later, upon replaying the wartime events in my memory as I formulated my ideas on the perception of random events, I developed the governing impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.”

The random is cousin to the unknown, and Taleb’s business is harnessing knowledge about randomness in order to help people make decisions that protect their investments.  His methodology separates randomness into two kinds:  the known-unknowns (more or less predictable, manageable patterns of financial fluctuation), and the unknown-unknowns (big, system-altering shocks like the stock market crash of 1987, the attacks of 9-11, or the economic collapse of 2008).  These unknown-unknowns Taleb calls “Black Swans.”  These are things quite out of the ordinary that do, in fact, occur from time to time.  Over his professional life, Taleb has made a modest fortune by dealing with risk and randomness in this way, both for himself and others.

Still, looking back at a quarter century of his work, he is troubled by his findings.

“Is the world unfair?  I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness.  The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature.  The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside.  Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more random than they were the previous day.  It is becoming unbearable.  I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting.”

Taleb, it seems, has caught Roquentin’s malaise.  Yet like Roquentin, Taleb finds ways to cope, and at the end of the book, he provides a list of 10 principles that might minimize the effects of Black Swans and help us deal with them when they do happen. The last principle is the clincher and the most important:  “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.”  That is to say, whatever we might do to hedge again the worst events (encompassed in the first 9 principles), we should be ready to pick up the pieces after disaster strikes, be it a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, and rebuild with what is left, in whatever condition we find it.

It’s a good list, but it was incomplete in some deeper way that could challenge the Black Swans on their own, definitive, inevitable terms that take no prisoners and offer no excuses.  To do this required a trip back to his home town of Amioun, Lebanon.  There, Taleb went to the cemetery and visited the graves of his father and other loved ones.  With him, he carried the works of Seneca in the original Latin, bearing in mind an adage originally attributed to Cicero that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

“I wanted to prepare myself for where I will go next.  This is my plan B.  I kept looking at the position of my own grave.  A Black Swan cannot so easily destroy a man who has an idea of his final destination.” 

Grace

The Black Swans that Taleb writes about are mostly negative, harmful events.  For St. Paul, grace was a Black Swan of a different sort, life-altering, inexplicable, yet beautiful and redeeming.  For Ruby Turpin, recognizing grace in her life was the Black Swan that snuck up on her when Mary Grace threw a book at her and called her out for what she was.

For those who can recognize grace—whether in their own lives or in the operaton of the universe as a whole—grace becomes an expected part of life while remaining a Black Swan nonetheless, for they have no way of explaining their ability to recognize grace or why it was even visited upon them in the first place.  There may not be a “reason for everything,” a reason that might console us, take away the unfairness of life, or explain why one person deserves something while others don’t.  Truth be told, we really don’t need reasons for everything.

Be humble.  Accept grace and build a good life because of it.  Never count on it to last, but take it while it is given.  Seek no reasons for grace, but live with it and share it with others freely, openly, with no reason for sharing it but that it is good.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Consolation, and it depicts a person in the arms of another.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

Direct quotations:  Roberto Bolaño, 2666, trans. Natasha Wimmer (Picador, 2008 [orig. Spanish version 2004]), p. 227.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (Random House:  2007), p. 10 (replaying wartime events), p. 215 (Is the world unfair?), and p. 375 (cemetery).

There is much more I could write on grace, and I may at some point soon.  The twists and turns of grace in the history of the Reformation are instructive as a lesson in counter-intuitive consequences.  Some of the reformers who sought to return to a simple Pauline church of grace and community wound up creating new order of oppression—Calvin comes to mind most prominently here.  It’s a return to a fundamental question of the meaning of human will.  For the Calvinists (and some extent all Protestants, from Luther forward), faith and salvation by grace alone—sola fidewas a doctrine that freed ordinary people from the scrutiny of the Church.  In the Catholic doctrine, salvation through good works simply placed too much power in the hands of the church to rule on the affairs of ordinary people and political powers alike.  Sola fide took the Church out of the picture, but almost as quickly the Protestants began to create political and other alliances that arrogated to their churches great powers that were used to enforce a new orthodoxy just as brutal (if not moreso) than the Catholic orthodoxy it replaced.  This is, however, a discussion for another day.

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