Thursday, June 4, 2009

2666: The Part About Amalfitano

I understand you. . . I mean, if I'm right, I think I understand you. You're like me and I'm like you. The atmosphere around us is stifling. We pretend there's nothing wrong, but there is. What's wrong? We're being fucking stifled. You let off steam your own way. I beat the shit out of people who or let them beat the shit out of me.

I am reading Roberto Bolaño's heavy brick of a masterpiece (translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer) at a considerably faster rate than one book per month, as outlined in Claire and Steph's challenge. (Actually, though I've been calling it a challenge, it's really more of a read-along.) A scant two days after my post on "The Part About the Critics," I started and completed "The Part About Amalfitano." Once again, I do not see how this section could function as a stand-alone novella, as Bolaño himself had initially intended to publish one 2666 book a year as a miniseries. Following his untimely death, his heirs, on the advice of a literary critic, decided to put everything together as one mega-novel that some have argued is too overwhelming to read all at once (hence, Claire and Steph's idea). It has certainly been a dark, dense story so far, and I can see how it might become suffocating. But I just can't put it down! Although participants in the read-along are encouraged to go at their own pace, I didn't want to hurry too much so I attempted to take a break with Joanna Scott's Follow Me, which, in terms of tone and content, couldn't be further away from 2666.

That lasted about a day. The disparity between the two nearly turned me into one of Poe's masochistic narrators, like the overwrought proto-emo in "Ligeia" who copes with the loss of his beloved by marrying her polar opposite just to be daily tormented by the contrast.

Okay, that was a bit much. Maybe I should resume my break from Bolaño's vivid and psychologically intense prose! Or maybe not. Hasn't subjective experience been a major component of art and literature since the Modernist movement over a century ago? The notion of a Faustian link between art and madness dates back even further, to the Greek tales of Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), patron god of theater and ecstatic abandon. (Unbalanced beauty is also a distinctive aspect of Poe's work.) Euripedes's great tragedy The Bacchae, more than anything else I've read, is a true synthesis of revelry and horror that must be truly frightening to see performed. My freshman year of college, I attended a school production of its twentieth-century postmodernist update, A Mouthful of Birds. It was both deeply disturbing and highly provocative in its meditations on society and gender politics. One scene that has never left my mind is that of the priest who literally lap dances people to death. (Seriously, that play is something else.) Happiness in insanity - the thought of something or someone you love driving you to the brink - that is the main concept I find myself reflecting on as I progress through 2666.

In "The Part About the Critics," the protagonists' obsession with the reclusive writer Archimboldi has shaped their entire professional lives and now sends them to run-down city in a desert (Santa Theresa, based on the real-life Ciudad Juárez) on the other side of the world. There was also a subplot about a famous English painter, now confined to the nuthouse, who cut off his own hand and included the severed member in his great masterwork. In "The Part About Amalfitano," mental illness and the need for release are even more prominent. This time, we have a Spanish poet in the insane asylum, although the real focus is Amalfitano, a Chilean-born professor whom we met as a supporting character in the previous book. After his wife leaves him for a life of freedom on the road in Europe and a chance at love with the crazy poet, Amalfitano moves himself and daughter Rosa to Santa Theresa, where he finds himself having conversations with a voice no one else hears and unconsciously drawing esoteric diagrams with the names of philosophers. He becomes weirdly fixated on an obscure self-published book he finds in his belongings that he doesn't remember ever purchasing, a little volume that claims Bernardo O'Higgins, Chile's George Washington, was an Araucanian-trained telepath who was also taught how to read messages in the movement of tree branches. And lastly, there's Marco Antonio Guerra, the son of one of Amalfitano's colleagues, who finds solace only in "fucking apocalyptic mayhem" at "bars you can't even imagine." (Guerra, of course, is Spanish for "war.")

Whoa.

While mental and emotional unrest lurked beneath the surface of "The Part About the Critics," now, in "The Part About Amalfitano," things are overt. Pelletier and Espinoza's near-spontaneous beat-down of an obnoxious cab driver was a singular event that left them guilt-ridden; here, the presence of young Guerra foreshadows violence on a larger and more shocking scale. Something is building here. I have deliberately avoided reading anything about 2666, except posts by other challenge participants, for fear of encountering spoilers. But I still see destruction and madness starting to overtake creation and the intellect. Amalfitano's mind, the source of his joy in learning and livelihood in academia, has twisted into a parody of itself, hallucinating and seeking knowledge in a disorganized work of fringe scholarship. It is like Heart of Darkness: a journey deep into the human psyche, but without the corresponding physical journey (we already arrived, via plane, in Santa Theresa in the last book).

Hmmm. Where is Señor Bolaño going to take us next?

A side note on art/id: Edgar Allan Poe actually disputed the Romantic image of the artist/writer as some kind of mystic whose creations arise from an altered mental state. Here is "The Philosophy of Composition."

7 comments:

Richard said...

I thought Bolaño did a great job at making madness almost rational here. I mean, you can almost relate to both Lola's and Amalfitano's traumas on one level while being totally psyched out (pardon the expression) by the specific manifestations of their illnesses at the same time. I agree that the Guerra kid is a totally fascinating character--as most unpredictable sorts are outside of real life. Looking forward to your update on part 3!

E. L. Fay said...

I think madness always seems rational to the person who is mad. A schizophrenic who goes around with a metal bowl on his head may look like the loon that he is, but as far as he is concerned, aliens are trying to control his thoughts via radio waves so of course he needs something to block them!

Steph said...

Great insights, E.L. Even though I seem to be in the minority in terms of my enjoyment of Part Two compared to Part One, I am definitely with you on the whole "this doesn't really work as a stand-alone read".

Like you, I'm interested to see what role madness will play throughout the rest of the book. It seems to be tied to obsession... perhaps Bolaño feels that obsession can drive us all to madness (or is it the reverse?)...

Emily said...

I'm with you! I didn't want to put it down. It's funny that you mention "Ligeia"; I was just working on a sock pattern (I do knitwear design), and I was thinking of naming it after that story. What are the odds of it coming to mind twice in two days?

Anyway, on the madness/art front, it's interesting that along with the institutionalized artists (Johns in the first book, the poet of the second), the people outside the institutions, who aren't really artists in the traditional sense, are portrayed as at least as mad if not more so. So one could think of 2666 as critiquing that idea of "the artist is a disturbed visionary" by simply claiming that EVERYONE is insane. :-) A clever out.

I look forward to reading everyone's thoughts on Book 3!

claire said...

Whoops, did I just lose my comment? I don't remember what I typed, lol.

Leslie said...

I love what you brought up about madness and art. There are a lot of great references here that I don't know a lot about and will have to check out. Thanks!

You're a great writer, I love reading your posts :)

E. L. Fay said...

Steph: There have been times when I was none too fond of a book everyone else loved. There is a Danish novel called The Exception that's been widely acclaimed as a terrifying look into the human psyche and vital document to the understanding of human nature. It was one of the most annoying, unintentionally hilarious books I've ever read.

Emily: You're right! Great point! But I guess it could be said that artists are maybe better at articulating madness than most people.

Claire: Yep. I never got it. Hopefully you'll remember what you wrote!

Leslie: Thanks!

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