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Frank Formsache

Image taken by Frank Formsache, who manages to capture breathtaking details in beautiful scenes. See more of Frank’s photography on his flickr photostream here.

I want to document certain changes I have witnessed on site recently, starting from the discovery of the pit, to geological anomalies and later strange behaviour I have noted from the men. This is not about me, and my perceived understanding of what may or may not have been unearthed in this quarry. I have a logical  and sound mind, a man of science and physics, and the last week has raised… No. Let me start again. This is bigger than me.

Something has changed here since we found the pit. It appeared in the quarry one morning when we woke to eat breakfast. The chewing mouths fell silent and cups of coffee spilt as we witnessed a hole in the centre of our dig site, astounding in its size and depth and inexplicable being. Gathering around its circumference we had two main questions. Who, and why? Workers, supervisors and watchmen were questioned for any insight or leads but the answers were the same: nobody saw or heard anything suspicious overnight. While inquests were carried out we used the reserve drilling equipment to carry out readings on the shifted sediment and groundsoil investigations at the bottom of the pit. The water table had sunk and there were large samples of black soil, rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and manganese. We couldn’t fathom the presence of a soil typically found in the tropics. Our thoughts clouded with the false possibilities we raised. A tectonic shift or earthquake? No other sign of disruption in the surrounding hills and valleys, and no reports of any shaking from those awake. An asteroid strike? Again, no sightings of flashes or explosions, and the debris from any collision would not be neatly piled to one side of the crater. A sinkhole became the most likely scenario, and a large proportion of the men repeated surveys (having already been passed weeks prior) of the soil and its composition, for no building work could take place on unstable ground.

For the longest time I suspected a joke. It became obvious, however, that this could not have be done by our workforce. To dig a hole of this magnitude (no exact measurement was undertaken, but my trained eye would suggest a rough circle 200ft in diameter at its widest and 80ft down at its deepest; and although the pit sloped gradually to this depth, I was uneasy to walk too close to the edge) would have taken our thirty-five men days to complete. No, the notion that a rogue faction of pranksters from within our ranks was laughable.  The night following the discovery of the pit my assistant and I walked atop the excavated mound of sediment. It was all deposited on the west side of the pit, piled high and steep, and one of the officers warned against such a climb. But curiosity got the better of me, and after a gruelling ascent we reached the top. Despite the bizarre and frustrating circumstances (for this interruption I knew would delay the project, even threaten its abandonment entirely), we admired the view of the surrounding quarry. That is, until my assistant shouted as we watched one of the cranes at the edge of the pit begin to move. We could see there was no man in the cab; as crazy as it sounds it was moving of its own accord. There was no slope, and no visible force to push the crane in. In all honesty, it appeared to us it was being dragged. Helpless to act, we shouted out to get the attention of any nearby workers, but it was too late as the crane toppled over the edge into the pit below. The machine lay discarded and rigid, as if in a state of shock.

The head supervisor left without permission the next day, leaving me in charge of the men. My first objectives was to extract the fallen crane. They set to the task with discipline and efficiency, but when I attempted to stop them at five they insisted they wanted to continue into the night. I was impressed if a little confused at their dedication to the cause, and retired to my office. I was awoken at an early hour of the morning to the sound of several machines operating from what sounded like the pit. Anxious I left my bed and walked down to the hole. The men, dripping with sweat and moving in almost synthetic unison, were slaving away, entranced.

They did not listen to my commands and they would not stop working. I put up with this for another 24 hours, what else could I do? It seemed I was the only man in this quarry who still regarded sleep as essential. Even my assistant traded his administrative duties for labour, to join the men working down in the pit. They had changed. There was no lust for women or cars or money, just an insatiable need to dig. Soon my frustration got the better of me and only when I struck one man in the face did they stop their work and pay attention. So disturbed by a sense of malevolence I felt from each one of them, that I ran back to my office and barred the door firmly shut and fastened the shutters over the windows. That night a group of them tested the door handle and whispered unintelligible words through the broken glass. I kept my lamp burning throughout the night. I should give up on this pit. Some questions cannot be answered, and some answers cannot be understood.

They don’t sleep or eat anymore, I don’t think. The machines are running night and day and when they do stop, I hear earthly drums and distant wailing from down in the pit. I should probably try and force my way out of here, it’s been months and still no one has come for me. But despite the threat I like it out here. The air is heavy with salt as if we were stationed on a seaside coast. While I have not seen the men with my own eyes for a week they still leave meals and water outside the office. If they meant me harm, why would they bothered with this? The next time I sense one nearby I shall try to get its attention. Ask what they are doing down in that pit. Maybe I can help.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.

Tanzania - Mt Meru - Spooky tree

Image taken by photographer Marco Homrighausen. You can see more of Marco’s photography on his Flickr page here.

In the spectral morning light silhouettes played against a canvas of grey sky. A foreign landscape of twisted trees and the heaving shapes of waking creatures emerged through the murk like ancient thespians performing under a council of cloud. The audience a thousand droplets of dew, sat on tired xerophytes and dusty shrubs, which would have glistened but the sun seemed a distant prospect up there, somewhere far beyond the veil.

With caution the ranger unzipped a section of the mosquito netting and one side of the tent flap and held the flap open. Peering out this small porthole into the fog. The air was cool and he enjoyed the breeze, a fresh relief from his stifling quarters. Through the night his sleep had been plagued with dreams and night sweats. He closed his eyes and listened to the rustling undergrowth and far away to the east wild dogs yelped. He eased himself up and stepped out the tent, scanning the ground and treading lightly so as not to disturb resting spiders or scorpions before choosing a spot on the damp ground on which to sit. With a gas stove he boiled coffee and ate a slow breakfast of dried biscuits and fruit.

To the west there was a ridge that slowly ascended to the top of the valley. It could not be seen in these conditions but the ranger knew it was sitting there idle. Time passed and while the light shifted the veil did not. He continued to stare at the void around him, a vast and consuming gloom and he saw the mist disintegrate from something whole to multiple somethings; individual shrouds that interlinked and became one, then decoupled and dispersed between each other again, then became one, then many, one, many. The mist was alive and the ranger was captivated. So vivid and wonderful were these visions that he had to check that it was ground coffee he was drinking, and not by accident ingested a cup of peyote.

From somewhere behind the tent the ranger heard footsteps and this sudden and unexpected approach panicked him to such an extent that he let out a cry and retreated back to the tent. Here he waited and waited, listening with shallow breath and shaking hands. A man of considerable knowledge and experience in the field reduced to a blinded child in a sandstorm. Because last month he had seen his dead wife drift past in similar conditions, and this is why the ranger found the mist so troubling. She would not turn around and face him but such was his fear of dread he was relieved she kept her eyes hidden. He scratched at an imagined rash on the back of his neck and exhaled in despair.

A rabid and inexplicable fear took hold of the ranger and he reached for the hunting pistol in his pack before he realised that it would be no use. There was nothing outside the tent that could hurt him. Where is my mind? He whispered and he found himself looking out into the mist once more. Like a veil the cloud descends and obscures not only the landscape but the mind, to transform both into uncertain plains. Can you spare me this fate? He softly spoke to the mist but there was no response. Sleep brought more dreams. He woke in relief, tangled in his sheets. Beside him his wife slept peacefully and he reached over to brush the hair off her face and lightly kiss her forehead. She stirred and smiled and opened one eye, and he kissed her with passion. 

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.

Once Upon A Time in Val D'Orcia...

Image taken by Italian landscape photographer Edoardo Angelucci. See more of Edoardo’s stunning work on his website, and also be sure to check out his flickr page.

Youth was a grand farmhouse on a hill, surrounded by fields of long grass and crops that spread for miles around in every direction, under the clearest blue skies and a strong sun that drove dozy cats into the shade and kept stone walls warm deep into the night. It was the air, pure, clear and yet thick with a fragrance that lingered on your person where ever you went. It was distant relatives, or were they friends of the family, who cooked for large crowds around the kitchen table, shouting and laughing and at peace with one another and with the land they shared.

A squat man stood labouring in the soil, his sweat dripping onto the very earth he was cultivating, and on approach he stopped and leant on his hoe, to listen closer.
Where can I find the podere capriccio?
He considered the question for a long time. A long time. Then he raised his right arm, a sun-burnt arm with thick black hairs, and listed it lazily from north to north-east.
Thankyou.
The squat man turned back to his work and did not look up again.

Memories had been formed around the farmhouse but of the surrounding area nothing was certain. These eyes have changed with responsibility and the irreversible damage of age. As vivid greens were now dull browns and once lush and fertile fields were barren and forgotten. Sand coloured dust tracks were gone and in their place printed tyre treads in the mud. Faraway pylons stood defiant and tremendous in scale, their lines powering the little specs of light in the valley. Would it still exist? The building, but more specifically the feelings it once evoked. If not for him then for some other family, a generation of descendents linked not by blood but by land.

On the horizon the distant shape of the farmhouse grew and it became clear the place had long been abandoned. Approaching slow in a void silent, interrupted now and again by the sound of the wind passing through broken windows and creaks from disjointed frames. Inside the layout was as it had been but the atmosphere was not. The air thick with dust, musty and warm. Brown wilted ivy and vines crawled over walls and overturned furniture, and paintings and picture frames lay where they had fallen. It was impossible to tell how many people, and who, had lived in this house after he. To recall its past appearance caused nausea and vertigo, and the walls seemed to pulsate gently. Memories that had never been defined by time felt old and devalued now. Nostalgia replaced by loneliness. Leaving the house and walking out into the dry fields under sporadic shadows of dead and dying trees, downed tools lay rusting in the soil.

There was still something beautiful to be gained in the isolation, something beautiful hidden in the desolate ruins, and slowly some of the colour began to seep back into the world, but still it felt hollow.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.

Posts have been running a little dry recently as I’ve been away; Sark Folk Festival last weekend, and the weekend prior to that, Glastonbury. My recovery has been slow and difficult, and while there was much fun to be had, I just don’t feel human anymore.

mud

Glastonbury 2016 was a lot tougher than previous years (I blame the mud)

But the reason for this post is not an opportunity to complain about the “Great British Summer”. A couple of months ago I entered a small writing contest, hosted by author Curtis Bausse, who challenged writers to submit a short piece based on the following passage from his book The Cats);

A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.

More information on the contest can be found on Curtis’s site here. I chose a rather dark take on the passage, detailing a rainy night in a diner for the central character as he returns to the hometown that brought him so much pain, for the funeral of his estranged father. (Note, I haven’t actually read the book of which the extract is taken from.)

I did not win, but a group of us – around 20 – impressed Curtis, and guest judge Atthys Gage, enough to suggest bringing our selected stories together to create an anthology.

The title is to be decided (it will be cat themed due to the subject matter), and several rounds of proof-reading are currently underway, but I don’t think the finished anthology is too far off. There will be no profit gained for each participant (anything earned from the project will be going to charity), but that was never the point. It’s been flattering to be selected and involved, and so beneficial to be working and learning from like-minded people. It’s a small-scale project but I hope to learn a lot from the experience.

Once more is known, perhaps a release date and title, I will post another update, and of course will announce when it is done and available to purchase. Like I said, it’s not a huge deal but this will be the first time a piece of my work has been ‘published’ in anything other than this blog, so personally, I’m really excited going forwards.

2666 part5

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about archimboldi

The Part about Archimboldi is the final chapter of 2666 and follows the life of Hans Reiter, who from humble beginnings in Prussia goes on to fight in the Second World War, before turning to writing and transforming into the elusive Benno von Archimboldi. The very same, Nobel Prize nominated Archimboldi that the academics from The Part about the Critics travelled to Santa Teresa in the hope of finding.

Once again Bolaño delivers the unexpected. After The Part about the Crimes the reader may have expected to continue in Santa Teresa, perhaps getting closer to the reason behind the violence, or to the identity of the perpetrators. But no, and now, having read the chapter and had time to reflect, I am completely fine with that. At first I was disappointed that the final chapter we have for 2666 focuses solely on the life of Hans Reiter. While there are some fascinating and beautiful pieces of Bolaño prose, it does not initially address (at least, not directly) the events in Santa Teresa. But is that a problem? Given the sprawling nature of 2666, would it have been naive to expect answers to the questions; what is the truth behind the killings? what is wrong in Santa Teresa? who is responsible? Perhaps these questions are too narrow, too focused. Are these the questions Bolaño really wants us to ask?

Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers.

Some stories don’t need answers, or can’t be answered. Some problems can’t be solved. In fact I’m sure I wasn’t alone in a sense of relief and peace of the beginnings of the life of Hans Reiter; a far cry from the horror and bleakness that the previous chapter had inflicted. Sure, there are some dark and ominous overtones that are present throughout each part of 2666.

But the introduction to Hans Reiter is an almost pleasant change of pace after the bludgeoning Part about the Crimes. The Part about Archimboldi reads like a fairy-tale (or perhaps a more accurate term I’ve seen used for this part, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale of German origins). We are introduced to the strange child of a one-legged man and a one-eyed woman, taller than boys twice his age and obsessed with seaweed, feeling more at ease underwater than on land. As time passes Bolaño fills Reiter’s life with a plethora of strange and fascinating characters and relationships (some indirect).

Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone. Hans Reiter was an exception. He feared neither the healthy nor the diseased. He never got bored. He was always eager to help and he greatly valued the notion — so vague, so malleable, so warped — of friendship. The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man’s sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then, too, then, too, then, too.

A friendship with the son of a lord, whose manor is full of collected paintings of dead women. The readings of the journal of a Soviet writer, Ansky, and in turn, Ansky’s friendship with Soviet science-fiction writer, Ivanov. The intense, sexually charged, terminally-ill Ingeborg, the love of Reiter’s life. Mr. Bubis, the owner of a publishing house and Archimboldi’s editor (once Reiter turns to writing after several disturbing and haunting experiences at war). The Baroness Von Zumpe (later Mrs. Bubis), with whom Archimboldi shares a relationship once Ingeborg passes, and whom continues to support and publish Archimboldi when Bubis dies (his prolific and expansive body of work eventually gains him a nomination for a Nobel Prize, and of course a critical following).

Yes, there are frequently stories within anecdotes within spiralling narratives that allow Reiter/Archimboldi/Bolaño to speak in depth on literary circles, publishing, history and politics in particular during and after the Second World War, what role if any can art and literature play in tolerating this inherently evil world. In tones satircal and philisophical. It’s difficult to tell which is which at times. And are there moments when it is all overblown, it can be too much, where we start to wonder if Bolaño is showing off? Maybe. But few and far between. In all honesty Bolaño’s prose often leaves me with a big grin.

Reiter said the first thing that came into his head.
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi.”
The old man looked him in the eye and said don’t play games with me, what’s your real name?
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi, sir,” said Reiter, “and if you think I’m joking I’d better go.”
For a few seconds both were silent. The old man’s eyes were dark brown, although in the dim light of his study they looked black. Archimboldi’s eyes were blue and to the old man they looked like the eyes of a young poet, tired, strained, reddened, but young and in a certain sense pure, although it had been a long time since the old man stopped believing in purity.
“This country,” he said to Reiter, who that afternoon, perhaps, became Archimboldi, “has tried to topple any number of countries into the abyss in the name of purity and will. As far as I’m concerned, you understand, purity and will are utter tripe. Thanks to purity and will we’ve all, every one of us, hear me you, become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same. Now we sob and moan and say we didn’t know! we had no idea! it was the Nazis! we never would have done such a thing! We know how to whimper. We know how to drum up sympathy. We don’t care whether we’re mocked so long as they pity us and forgive us. They’ll be plenty of time for us to embark on a long holiday of forgetting. Do you understand me?”

But going back to those loose ends; towards the end of The Part about Archimboldi, and the conclusion of 2666, Benno von Archimboldi is an old man in his eighties, and his sister Lotte calls on him for help. For Lotte’s son, and Archimboldi’s nephew, is none other than Klaus Haas, the German living in Santa Teresa whom has been accused of the rape and murder of several women. And it’s here I remind myself of an earlier confrontation between Haas and his cellmate, a rancher.

Don’t cover your head, he said aloud and in a booming voice, you’re still going to die. And who’s going to kill me you gringo son of a bitch? You? Not me, motherfucker, said Haas, a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he’s going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. . .A little while later, however, Haas, called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.

Foreshadowing in the form of a gangly and tall Reiter, a man who fought in the war, killed and murdered, a man who is capable of incredible violence.

“It’s me,” said Archimboldi, “your brother.”
That night they talked until dawn. Lotte talked about Klaus’s dreams, the dreams in which he saw a giant who would rescue him from prison, although you, she said to Archimboldi, don’t look like a giant anymore.
“I never was a giant,” said Archimboldi as he paced Lotte’s living room and dining room and stopped next to a shelf that held more than a dozen of his books.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Lotte after a long silence. “I don’t have the strength. I don’t understand anything and the little I do frightens me. Nothing makes sense,” said Lotte.

In part one Archimboldi was almost mythical. His story builds him into a figure of unearthly power, and yet here we are at the end of the book, with an eighty year old man. A brilliant writer yes, but what kind of a man is he? What kind of a life has he lead? And what will he be able to do in Santa Teresa (which he does at the end of the novel, confirming his presence in the country in part one), that the rest of the world can not? Is he going to free his nephew? Or does he hold a much larger role to play, in the stopping of the crimes?

“Look, the sun is coming up. Would you like some tea, coffee, a glass of water?”
Archimboldi sat down and stretched his legs. The bones cracked.
“Will you take care of it all?”
“A beer,” he said.
“I don’t have a beer,” said Lotte. “Will you take care of it all?”

…Soon afterward he left the park and the next morning he was on his way to Mexico.

I expect the obliqueness of a piece of work like 2666 will not appeal to all and The Part about Archimboldi is no different in its certainty to divide readers. Some may expect a novel that hits nearly 900 pages to deliver a little more in terms of definitive answers. In a piece of work this diverse I don’t believe answers are necessary, nor would they add to the novel in any meaningful way. Truthfully they would change the very essence of the story Bolaño is trying to tell. It’s taken the best part of six months since finishing the novel to fully absorb this novel, and even then I feel the surface has barely been scratched, and nor am I under any illusion that justice has been done. 2666 showcases Bolaño’s obscenely gifted imagination, remarkable grasp of language, and a willingness to create a piece of literature that is not bound by accord or expectation, but instead will have the power to challenge and induce debate for decades to come. In other words, 2666 is a masterpiece.

miami

The backstreet behind our apartment in Miami, FL, taken in March earlier this year.

Earlier eyes stared out from barely-lit rooms, through blinds or from behind twitching curtains. Now a much later hour and a much darker night. Apologetic streetlights remain pulsating while the city breaths carcinogenic air down the cluttered way-bys. The alleyways separate the blocks like vital capillaries providing access for parking and garbage disposal and fire escapes. She walks past a group of homeless; all but two are passed out. The conscious talking in delirious and tragic tones, eyes small and black. A door is open and she walks up the stairs to his apartment, where a rat-like man escapes as she squeezes through and inside. It is dark and smells of sweat and bleach. He is on the sofa; there are others but he is speaking, no one else.

There are dead bodies decomposing in beds and bathtubs. Of course. The undersoil beneath the city is rotting and has been for a long time. We sit and wait while it slowly starts to taint the surface. You can smell it now, the dead waste that looks like broken dreams and concerns of crime and unemployment but the issues run deeper than that. All of that stuff is like overflowing trashcans. Unsightly yes but nothing to worry about. But those trashcans are being filled with trash from beneath the surface, and it’s growing quicker than this city can clear it.

It was clear he was high. His fevered speech quick, his movement erratic. Impossible to discern if he was preaching to her or delivering some unhinged soliloquy.

It’s not all bad. Don’t want to scare you, of course. But you need to know the depth of the situation. It runs far deeper than superficial problems on the TV, the radio, the papers, the internet! Oh, the internet. I won’t go into the internet, but you know all about that anyway. So yeah. It’s bad, but don’t lose hope. Don’t panic. It’s been building for a long time, all of this. You just got to think to yourself, for yourself. What am I doing today, and what will I do tomorrow. Remember what you said each day – does it correlate with what you said yesterday? If it doesn’t you should get flat out drunk. Flush the doubt out of your system and start again. You should also ask: why am I here? And also: do I feel safe? That one can be sort of objective, you know, do I feel safe in my job, do I feel safe on the streets, what is safety…how can you feel safety if you’ve never been safe? You know the sort of thing I’m getting at. Of course. Is it warm in here? Fuck it’s warm in here. And he stood up and strode over to the window, throwing it open then closing the curtains. Muting the weak glow from the street below.

When she left his apartment the next morning she heard the laughter of children from a school across the way. The streets were crowded and her straw-like hair covered her bruised face nicely. Opposite her bus stop was a convenience store where cars stopped to open their trunks to women carrying bags of groceries. She watched them come and go, fill up and move on. Her bus was late but it was a beautiful morning and she stood there, warmed in the sun and she didn’t mind the wait.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

2666 part4

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about the crimes

Between reading 2666 for the first time (I finished the book in January 16) and revisiting each part months later, it has become clear to me that this book is one of the most challenging, multi-layered, indescribable pieces of literature I’ve experienced. In the three parts that proceed The Part about the Crimes (The Critics, Amalfitano, Fate), going back to these characters and narratives has been a hugely rewarding experience. There is so much more to gain, things I have missed, subtleties recognised. Crimes has been a little more difficult to revisit. Given the chapter focuses, in detail, on the titular crimes that are taking place in Santa Teresa – the murders of hundreds of women – it is harrowing and brutal in a way the previous chapters were not. They disturbed, or rather, they unsettled the reader with untold dread and unseen violence. Now they are unavoidable, the crimes, they are here. They are catalogued explicitly and in depth, and Bolaño’s delivery behind this technique is something that has caused a lot of debate.

Santa Teresa is Bolaño’s fictional portrayal of the northern Mexican city Ciudad Juarez. The events of 2666 are somewhat based on reality; a reality where hundreds of women have being violently killed since 1993 (from what I gather, the overall murder rate in the city, and the percentage of which are female victims, has declined steadily since 2010). The chapter marks a change in content and tone as Bolaño systematically delivers the murders of 112 woman in Santa Teresa between 1993 to 1997.

…January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.

Bolaño shocks the reader with the repetition of the discovered bodies, which read like police reports: forensic, detailed, frequently explicit. They feel detached and indifferent and seems to mirror the frightening lack of action being taken in Santa Teresa to combat the murders. It’s an incredibly difficult chapter to read. Hundreds of women (and many young girls) are found in various states of decay, having been shot or stabbed or strangled and their bodies discarded in Santa Teresa or the surrounding desert. Often raped. Sometimes tortured.

A week after the discovery of the corpse of the thirteen-year-old girl on the outskirts of El Obelisco, the body of a girl about sixteen was found in the Cananea highway. The dead girl was a little under five foot four and slightly built, and she had long black hair. She had been stabbed only once, in the abdomen, a stab so deep that the blade had literally pierced her through. But her death, according to the medical examiner, was caused by strangulation and a fracture of the hyoid bone. The victim, according to the police, was probably a hitchhiker who had been raped on her way to Santa Teresa. All attempts to identify her were in vain and the case was closed.

There are few patterns to the killings. The victims are female – generally, they are young, and often have long dark hair (but, as someone says, that fits the profile for many women in Santa Teresa), and many of the victims work in low-income jobs at the numerous maquiladoras across the city. But establishing motives and culprits is more difficult. Most, but not all, are raped, vaginally and anally. Most are strangled, but some are stabbed. Some of the killings exhibit common traits, many do not. The killings do not make sense, no matter how hard the police or the reader tries to link them – an effort which might go some way to making some sort of sense, and therefore an explanation, from the crimes. Some of the murders are by husbands or boyfriends, results of domestic violence, but the vast majority are carried out by unknown killers and remain unsolved. What is clear is the life of women here in Santa Teresa is cheap and violence is nothing out of the ordinary.

On November 16 the body of another woman was found on the back lot of the Kusai maquiladora, in Colonia San Bartolomé. According to the initial examination, the victim was between eighteen and twenty-two and the cause of death, according to the forensic report, was asphyxiation due to strangulation. She was completely naked and her clothes were found five yards away, hidden in the bushes. Actually, not all of her clothes were found, just a pair of black leggings and red panties. Two days later, she was identified by her parents as Rosario Marquina, nineteen, who disappeared on November 12 while she was out dancing at Salon Montana on Avenida Carranza, not far from Colonia Veracruz, where they lived. It just so happened that both the victim and her parents worked at the Kusai maquiladora. According to the medical examiners the victim was raped several times before she died.

Throughout the 300+ pages of the chapter the reports continued to have a profound effect on me. I would have imagined the repetition of the reports would start to lose their effect somewhat, but they do not. Perhaps the shock wears off – perhaps a sense of numbness to the reports of rape and murder – but that blunt trauma is replaced by an equally unpleasant anger and frustration at the inevitability of it all. Questions begin to be raised. When did this start? Is there a pattern? Who is responsible? What is being done to prevent this? Is the world watching? Does it even care? But one thing is certain; the murders continue to plague the city.

In The Part about the Crimes, the central characters are the crimes and the dead victims themselves. Bolaño intersects several narratives, following an ensemble cast that support and contextualise the chapter rather than drive it. Juan de Dios Martínez is one of the many police detectives in the city tasked with investigating the femicide as well as a serial church desecrator, and is romantically involved with the director of an insane asylum. Florita Almada, a seer and psychic who makes an appearance on local television to speak of the crimes. Harry Magaña, a US sheriff who arrives in Santa Teresa after a woman from his town becomes one of the victims, and becomes overwhelmed himself by the darkness.

Arguably the most intriguing subplot in Crimes revolves around Klaus Haas, the tall German inmate we were introduced to at the end of The Part about Fate. Haas becomes a suspect when a girl who once visited his computer store is murdered, and despite a lack of evidence is incarcerated in the Santa Teresa prison. The media celebrate and many believe that Haas had been involved in many more of the deaths, yet despite Haas being locked up, the crimes continue like before. Haas is a fascinating character, one that could be analysed in more depth, as so much is left open and unconfirmed by Bolaño. We don’t know whether Haas was involved in any of the murders – I suspect not – but he is clearly ‘different’. He thrives in the prison, making allegiances, obtaining cell phones and organising press conferences for himself. He is unsettling, resourceful, mysterious; for me, Klaus Haas is the character that most embodies what 2666 is all about.

While Haas does some awful things while in prison, I don’t believe he can be called an antagonist. I don’t believe there is an antagonist personified, which makes the crimes all the more hard to take – there is no one for the reader to hate, to detest, to pin the blame on. Let the catharsis of hate absolve them of the pain. The sense of injustice and inevitability is exhausting. On the whole, the lack police force appear corrupt and rotten to the core. Former bodyguard turned policeman, young Lalo Cura’s professionalism, honesty and dedication to the job is mocked by his peers. Fellow officers who reel off sexist jokes, gang rape incarcerated prostitutes, and are incapable of halting the never-ending string of death.

Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.

 

The Part about the Crimes is the dark, horrifying heart of 2666, the epicentre of all that has been whispered of, alluded to, seen through disturbing visions and vidid nightmares, overheard on the streets and seen in violent patches. Frightening but absolutely necessary, for without the crimes there is no book. Despite that it reveals next to nothing of the possible culprits, nor their motives. What can we understand of Bolaño’s cryptic and mystical personal view on the world? Is there anything positive we can extrapolate from such a view, when the book is concerned almost entirely by violence and death? After reading Crimes it’s hard to be optimistic.

 

chichen itza

A photo I took on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico, earlier this year.

Distant drums shake the ancient earth and a faint chorus of chanting grows stronger in the heat.  A pained father in a stained fabric loincloth watches on, his arms arranged in prayer to some deity in honour of which the ballgame below is being played. Several young men with plaited hair or shaved heads and decorative paint on their dark skins run on the dirt below, sweating bodies glistening. At this distance and under the haze of the midday sun they take on the forms of upright ocelots, chasing the sphere from one end of the court to the other. All the while they yell and screech, to themselves, to one another, to what lies above, but their shouts are swallowed by the noise of a thousand spectators who watch on with fevered intensity. Clapping and shouting and hooting their lips moist with spittle, the crowd like myxomatosed hares. Without any perceptible change in the atmosphere the game is over. Ceremonies start and finish. Sand and soil is stained with blood and down white limestone steps streams of sacrificed crimson escapes to become one with the soil. To feed the worms, the underworld below appeased. The sky is red and shadows grow stronger, emancipated from the trees and temples. The crowd disperses into the evening, drained from the passions of the day. The endless cycles of victories and defeats. Civilisations built and broken and rebuilt and reborn.

1,450 years pass and still the sun burns hot and people gather in the ball court. Less bloodshed, on these soils at least, but admiration and passion from travellers across the continent and beyond the seas. A culture lost but not forgotten. The architecture is outstanding and the acoustics are incredible. A handclap propels itself off the weathered surfaces. Noise refracting through these spaces as it always has done but unable to replicate past events. The visceral history and a wholeness that can only be imagined. Still images preserved on electronic devices, to be shared. Locals of mayan descent sell their goods; carved trinkets and wooden ornaments that imitate the catcalls of jaguars which scare the tourists.  

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.

CNV00075

I took this using a disposable last summer at a folk festival in Sark, Channel Islands.

From the dirt track past fields of livestock they came in droves, wearing denim shorts and vintage shirts and straw hats. Some wearing less. Sore heads and bloodshot eyes in abundance, they shuffled their feet like condemned around a prison yard, but morale remained high on the approach. Over the hedgerows the white canvas tent tops stood tall. Weakened sunlight forced through cirrus clouds almost cosmic in their distance and it would be warm but for a gentle ocean breeze that brought the scent of brine and the calls of seagulls.

Across the fields the enchanting sounds of revelry and laughter. Jangling stringed instruments came muffled from within tents. Bunting and face painted children. Stalls with decorative shells and sheepswool jumpers and local jams and chutneys. Smoke from the hot plates of food vendors offering fresh fish and lobster, burgers and fries. Scents that stimulated goodwill. Mere distractions. Within a large tent the crowd sought an elongated bar staffed by thin black figures. Still pressed ciders and warm ales fizzed continuous from well worn brass pumps, the source of a benign frenzy whereby punters battled for the attention of the bar staff for a drink. Two or three, to lift spirits. Vitality restored, and stepping away from the bar revealed the view of a hundred heads, nodding in approval of the folk music for which they all were here and which after several days all sounded the same. A merged soundscape of local groups and acts from the mainland and beyond took to the stage with determined enthusiasm. Faces strained but smiling. 

The afternoon sped by, in and out of a tent now rife with the sweet smell of perspiration. The crowd smoking cigarettes and splashing beer from plastic cups onto the once green soil. Rhythmic dancing inconsistent with everything. Applause and whistles. Screams and shouts. Broken vocals fragmented down a microphone. The evening brought a blood red sunset and later a light but continuous rain that drove the saints away.

Joyous confusion when another band took to the stage after the last scheduled performance, but concerns were voiced when these latecomers were themselves usurped at an even later hour by another band looking tired and drunk. Now past midnight and still the crowd swelled, not yet ready to concede the evening over, not while music remained to carry them into the morning hours. The bar staff however were unwilling to carry on their shifts, nor the security staff, and rightly so, for this had not been agreed in their contracts and they were tired. And so from within the crowd bottles of foul smelling spirits began to appear and smokers crept in from the night into the warmth of the crowd with their lit cigarettes like amber warning lights in thick fog. Some climbed over the unattended bar to serve others and themselves. The temptation of dancing on the stage, with another apparition of a band taking over almost seamlessly from the last, proved too much to resist and they joined now, barely visible up on stage in the dim lamplight except when a stray strobe caught the face of a drunken reveller, fevered with eyes closed as if experiencing celestial interference from above. Old men partially concealed by smoke, swaying and leering like wraiths. The muddy path to the portacabin toilets was shameful, with lights, swarmed by insects, illuminating the vague and inebriated forms of the damned.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

2666 part3

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about fate

While The Critics and Amalfitano skirted around the topic of the ongoing femicide taking place in Santa Teresa, in Fate it is, in the very least, acknowledged. But initially the  unsettling foreshadowing that we have become attuned to so far continue in this chapter. The Part About Fate begins far from the Mexican border city and doesn’t deal with Fate in a philosophical term; rather it refers to the nickname of the central protagonist for part three. Quincy Williams is a thirty year old African American journalist for Harlem based magazine Black Dawn, mourning the recent death of his mother, and haunted by internal ‘ghosts’. Known by his colleagues (and referred throughout part three by Bolaño) as Oscar Fate, we are given the picture of a man, much like Oscar Amalfitano, clearly not in a great state of mind – albeit for different reasons. An inner turmoil and pain seems to have set upon him.

Where did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get away? How do I take control? And the questions kept coming: Was getting away really what he wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind?

Before Fate is thrown into the malevolent vortex of Santa Teresa, he tends to his dead mother’s house then travels to Detroit for an interview with Barry Seaman, former member of the Black Panthers. Fate is present for a speech Seaman gives to a small local church, addressing five subjects (DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, USEFULNESS). The speech is fantastic – I couldn’t pick a preferred quote but Bolaño flexes his muscles to deliver poignant and humorous anecdotes and absurd monologues, as he does throughout 2666. And while you begin to wonder what all this has to do with events down in Mexico, a report of an American missing in Santa Teresa plays on Fate’s hotel television while he sleeps.

After he has finished interviewing Seaman Fate receives a call from his editor: the magazine’s sports editor has died suddenly, and an opportunity arises to travel down to Mexico, to the border town of Santa Teresa, to cover a boxing match. Despite having no expertise or knowledge, Fate agrees to cover the match, admitting to himself that some time away from New York would probably do him some good. En route he stops at a diner in Tucson, and overhears the following conversation.

“And what’s your unofficial opinion about what’s going on there?”
“I have several opinions, Edward, and I’d prefer that none of them be published without my consent.”
The young man covered his face with his hands and said:
“Professor Kessler, my lips are sealed.”
“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”

Albert Kessler will reappear in The Part About The Crimes, but his forthright views on Santa Teresa are ominous. So already Fate, who has yet to reach Santa Teresa, has been subconsciously touched by the news of the murders. Then, upon crossing the border Fate’s presence as a member of the press is assumed to be for something very different to sport.

The customs officer asked for his passport and Fate handed it to him. With the passport was his press ID. The customs officer asked if he was coming to write about the killings.
“No,” said Fate, “I’m going to cover the fight on Saturday.”
“What fight?” asked the customs officer.
“Count Pickett, the light heavyweight from New York.”
“Never heard of him,” said the officer.

Once in Santa Teresa, Fate is soon disillusioned by the task at hand, an inane and unimportant bout of fighting. He meets several contacts at the hotel: sports writers, trainers, sparring partners. In a local reporter, Guadalupe Roncal, Fate receives a brief insider report on the crimes. Her colleague (predecessor) who was previously working on the case “was killed, of course. He got in too deep and they killed him”. Another local reporter Chucho Flores takes Fate out with his friends Charly Cruz, Rosa Méndez, and eventually he is introduced a beautiful young woman called Rosa Amalfitano- the daughter of Oscar Amalfitano, the Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa whom by now we are familiar. It becomes clear that Fate is attracted to Rosa – he sees a goodness in her, in contrast to the detached malice he can sense in her friends Chucho and Charly amongst others.

Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, and they seemed unreal, faces glimpsed in a dream.
“This place is like hell,” he said to Rosa Amalfitano.
“You’re right,” she said, looking at him sympathetically, “but the food isn’t bad.”

After the (anti-climatic) fight is over, the gang take Fate out to a series of clubs and cafes where they get food and proceed to get very drunk. Increased pace and an erratic narrator leads to a breathless and tense climax to part three. We know Fate is drunk and we know the people around him have questionable morals. Location to location we read descriptions of dark corridors and surreal paints and defaced religious statues, all adding to the ever-building dread. Subtle observations of places and people that could mean everything or nothing. And while the reader wants Fate to get out of there, we don’t want Rosa to be left behind either. He acts impulsively, boldly, to ensure her safety. The final passages are chopped into disarray, an indication of Fate’s state of mind, or the inability to process what happened on his last night in Santa Teresa. And to end, a giant, singing German prisoner, the prime suspect in the murders.

The Part About Fate gives us our best indication yet on the status quo in Santa Teresa, possibly in an attempt to make the crimes taking place in part four easier to comprehend. Violence is celebrated, a brutality towards woman, and a tendency to look away from the horrors at hand could not be encapsulated better than this scene Fate witnesses in a club.

Fate thought about Spain. He was going to ask her what part of Spain she was from when he saw a man hit a woman in a corner of the room. The first blow made the woman’s head snap violently and the second blow knocked her down. Without thinking, Fate tried to move toward them, but someone grabbed his arm. When he turned to see who it was, no one was there. In the opposite corner of the club the man who had hit the woman stepped next to where she was huddled on the ground and kicked her in the stomach. A few feet away from him he saw Rosa Méndez smiling happily.

The Part About Fate is less speculative than the previous parts of 2666. Something more akin to a defined narrative (for Bolaño) is present which makes this chapter more accessible. At times it reads like a crime noir or thriller with its changes of pace, but there is still plenty to chew on here. And in Oscar Fate we are given a conflicted, fascinating character and, I’d also say, one of the most likeable characters in the book. When he consciously becomes aware of the scale of the murders, he acknowledges them. He wants to investigate, and write a story for his paper. In Fate we encounter a character that takes an active interest in the problem strangling the city, rather than someone with their head stuck firmly in the Sonoran sand, like Amalfitano*.

*Although, perhaps this is due to a higher understanding Amalfitano, and the rest of the inhabitants of Santa Teresa, have – a fear, or knowing, that the crimes are like the seasons; they will keep coming, and they can’t be stopped.