Wednesday, September 30, 2009

2666: The Part About Archimboldi

"I steal into their dreams . . . I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I'm in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their most unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all of this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion."

I wonder if any of my fellow 2666-ers have read a German-language novel by Jakov Lind, written in the early 1960s, called Landscape in Concrete. Lind was an Austrian-born Jew who survived World War II by hiding his identity and working as a personal courier for the German Institute for Metallurgical Research of the Imperial Air Ministry of Traffic. He then spent several years in Israel, eventually settled in Britain, and worked various odd jobs throughout his lifetime. Beyond that, we have very little information about Lind. He is known by three different names in the records of several long-dead regimes.

Landscape in Concrete is a dark comedy and picaresque concerning the misadventures of Gauthier Bachman, a big, dumb German soldier who wants only to obey and whose willful obedience leads him to behave in ways contrary to his nature. What constitutes a criminal act depends entirely on context. ("Herr Bachman, do I look like a monster? Does a monster look like me? . . . I'm a human being myself, and, as the poet said, nothing human is alien to me.") Words and meaning are confused and jumbled, a demonstration of the cognitive dissonance inherent to the act of war. Bachman craves something solid and concrete that he can believe in, wholly and without reservation because its truth would be so undeniable. He wants the riotous variegation of nature and society bombed over and smoothed into soothing shades of gray and neverending flatness.

I wonder if Roberto Bolaño ever read Lind. "The Part About Archimboldi," the final book of Bolaño's masterwork 2666, reminded me very much of Landscape in Concrete, down to Archimboldi's friend Mickey Bittner, who launches into a vivid description of a battlefield bombing that turns Normandy into a wasteland more reminscent of the moon:
When the bombers have finished pounding the designated piece of earth, not a single bird can be heard. In fact, not even in the neighboring areas where no bomb has fallen, to either side of the devastated divisions, does a single bird cry.

Then the enemy troops appear. For them, too, there is horror in forging into that steel-gray territory, smoking and pocked with craters. Every so often there rises up from the fiercely churned earth a German soldier with the eyes of a madman.
I saw Benno von Archimboldi, real name Hans Reiter (as established in "The Part About the Critics"), as a kind of foil for Bachman. Bachman tried to run away, from the moral confusion of the Third Reich to an obliterated landscape (internal and external) where nothing existed anymore. ("I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.")

Archimboldi, by contrast, eventually makes his way straight into the heart of darkness, Santa Theresa, that epicenter of every theme present in 2666: creativity, madness, liberation, social justice, death, drugs, sexuality, obsession, violence, and all of humanity's tangled messiness. But even before then, Archimboldi is established as someone innately tied to the natural human landscape. Everything he is as a novelist arose from his experiences as a German soldier in World War II and its aftermath. He did not attempt to deflect, like Bachman, what he learned of war and human nature. Archimboldi, longtime lover of the sea (a common theme in his books), is a sponge: he absorbs the papers of Ansky, the events he witnessed, the places he went, and the myriad people he became acquainted with, from Ingeborg and her Aztec stories to a haunted German war criminal. Archimboldi is a recluse, but he is also the sum of his lifetime, which he has translated into prose with the power to drive respected academics to search for him in a violent city on the other side of the world.

Bachman erred in his desire for a form of non-sentience: a bland, gray, unnatural death. I think the totalitarian mind can be seen as a simplified variation of the normal human mind - incapable of dealing with the complexity that comes full human cognition. (The term "fundamentalist," for example, refers to a religious fanatic who boils their faith down to bare, basic fundamentals.) All is either black or white; you are with us or you are against us. Bachman tried to shut down because he just couldn't sort things into two concrete categories. It goes without saying that great literature can never come out of such a mindset. Archimboldi, on the other hand, is the greatest presence in 2666 outside of that of Santa Theresa and the murders. He is a part of the enivronment, a part of the literary experience. Bolaño never tells us what Archimboldi wrote about, but I think it's quite clear what Archimboldi's sources are. Wallace Stevens once said that "death is the mother of beauty," which I've always seen as an expression of the artist's ability to transform horror into a dark but beautiful creative work (like 2666). Bachman is a dead end.

Am I making any sense or am I just rambling? I'll be adding more shortly (in another post). I'm still sorting this book out.


Emily said...

I'm still parsing the relationship between violence and creativity in 2666 as well - and then, the relationship between making art - which seems much more tied to the experience of violence for Bolaño, what with Archimboldi's soldiering days, the British visual artist of Part 1 who cuts off his own hand, and the mad poet of Part 2 - versus consuming art, which seems much more unambiguously nourishing (Barry Seaman's speech, etc.). I thought that dichotomy was so interesting. Because of course, in order for people to be able to read, somebody must be writing. And if writing is allied with violence, the reading life is tied to that as well. Which isn't so bad if it's Archimboldi, who seems just to process his experiences of violence into art, but if it's somebody cutting off their own hand, that's more problematic.

I look forward to your following posts!

Richard said...

While I'm with you that Santa Teresa is a heart of darkness, E.L. Fay, part of what made this chapter so devastating for me was the discovery that Archimboldi experienced another heart of darkness long before traveling to Mexico. In fact, I sometimes wondered whether he himself brought the darkness with him! I found this section to be lyrical and traumatic in more or less equal measure, and that carpet-bombing passage you highlight definitely attests to the powerful presentation of the latter. Anyway, will be back for part 2 in a little while!

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