Archive

Tag Archives: books

Annihilation is the first part of American author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, focusing on the mysterious region known as Area X. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any science-fiction, reviews had been mostly positive and the book was released in 2014 (it occurred to me recently that I haven’t actually read that many books from the 21st century).

annihilation

The trilogy focuses on a dystopian future in the location known as Area X, a quarantine zone cut off from the rest of the continent. Within is a wild and thriving ecosystem filled with scientific anomalies, unusual wildlife and unexplainable, almost supernatural, events. Little is known of what caused this catastrophic change in the environment, but the government has been sending expeditions to the area to document and record their findings. Each expedition has ended in disaster; one group ended up shooting each other to pieces, another came back with aggressive forms of cancer and died, another all committed suicide. The narrative focuses on the twelfth expedition, an all female group consisting of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist. It is from the biologist that the perspective of the story is told.

It really is a fascinating premise. VanderMeer does well to create a scenario where a chunk of the world is now unchartered, due to circumstances not explained to the reader (at least, not yet), eliciting wonder and tension and unknowing. And Area X is a bizarre world. There are a few science-fiction cliches to be found, but generally I found the concept to be original and was key to drawing me towards the book in the first place.

But unfortunately I was disappointed. VanderMeer can clearly write – his descriptions of the events transpiring in Area X are creepy and suspenseful for the most part. My biggest gripe was that the protagonist, or point of view, was never particularly interesting. She is not even underdeveloped – there is a lot (maybe too much) that is spelled out to us about her as a person, about her past, the links between Area X and her husband (who was part of the previous expedition and eventually returned a changed man). Nothing about the biologist gripped me to read on. As I was reading I considered other narrative styles that may have worked better. Perhaps switching between members of the team, focusing on their increasing paranoia towards each other, but ultimately the angle VanderMeer went for could have worked so much better if the protagonist was a little more compelling.

I have absolutely no problem with the open ending, the scores of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of Area X; it is a trilogy after all, and some aspects are all the more intriguing the less we know of them. Overall, my desire to uncover the mysteries of Area X was undermined by a bland and meandering cast. Some highlights for sure, but I don’t think Annihilation did enough to make me want to continue with the Southern Reach Trilogy – not any time soon at least.

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.

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.

fear and loathing

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was written by Hunter S. Thompson, originally for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, but was published as a book in ‘72. The novel was received a somewhat mild reception upon release but has since achieved cult status, for two main reasons; Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ style of writing, and the commentary of the extravagant but ultimately doomed, drug culture of the 60s. One of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, was a big fan of the book, recognising it as one of the great, modern novels and a classic of our time.

The story is narrated by journalist Raoul Duke, and his attorney, the heavyset Samoan Dr. Gonzo (The plot is loosely based on real trips taken by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney and friend Oscar Zeta Acosta; as such, we can safely assume that Thompson is Raoul Duke and Acosta is the Samoan attorney) as they travel to Las Vegas for Duke to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. In the trunk of their car sits a stash of illegal substances, including but not limited to: cocaine, mescaline, LSD, ether, marijuana. And a lot of rum too.

As a member of the press Duke and his attorney are able to stumble with relative ease, via hotel bars and motel rooms, from the desert heat of the Mint 400 to a police conference for the war on drugs (the audacity of attending is not lost on Duke), but due to the volume and variety of drugs they ingest, are often in some mental distress. Vomiting, damage to property, confrontations and distorted, twisted visions of their environments are present and described with vivid and hilarious detail.

But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.

They drive from place to place in a hallucinatory, surreal haze and the pair represent a counter-culture from the commercialism and consumerism that is rife in America. Las Vegas centralises this mainstream American culture, and the duo try their damnedest to stretch and scratch at the glossed and shiny facade of American insincerity, their private and internal commentary both twisted and painfully honest.

IMG_20160529_174257689

The book is illustrated by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, often depicting the protagonists (and their surroundings) as monstrous and grotesque. ‘The plastic torn away…’

“The wave” has become known as a speech synonymous with Thompson’s work. The book had served largely as a wacky and hilarious, over-the-top road trip for me, but when I read ‘the wave’ I found it both beautiful and tragic. The shared feeling of achievement and hope for the future, the depression and sadness to find it quashed before it could begin.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Lost Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Fear and Loathing also introduced the literary world to gonzo journalism and was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson himself. From what I’ve read, the gonzo style is generally narrated in the first person, the narrator often a journalist or similar, and is filled with observations, experiences and emotions (rather than facts) and usually incorporates humour, sarcasm and profanity. Throughout the book potentially serious events are interspersed with humour and it can be tough to identify between the fact and the fiction.

An over-the-top, outrageous book. The absurd insanity will disgust and entertain but there is a surprisingly touching and profound commentary of a generation of broken (American) dreams and the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s.

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.

of mice and men 2

Not every book listed as a piece of great literature or heralded as one of the ‘classics’ is going to appeal to you as a reader. But there is a reason texts such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet are often chosen for school curriculums. They have something valuable to teach – something that these particular authors have done well. Allegory, characteristics, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) themes and meanings, commentaries on periods or cultures. And from my perspective books such as Of Mice and Men can educate you on writing; even if they aren’t, in a narrative sense, your cup of tea.

Of Mice and Men will never be one of my favourites books. I’ll remember it fondly as it sits on the shelf but I can’t get excited about it. But for a book that barely hits the 100 page mark, John Steinbeck does a lot right and I appreciate that.

of mice and men

I appreciate how Steinbeck creates dialogue that is natural and flows. Spoken throughout in heavy Californian US dialect yet each character has their own tone, and the words they use have weight. I’ve read that Of Mice and Men was originally written as a play, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the small number of ‘scenes’ throughout the book and the rather wooden and descriptive introductions to them, which read a lot like stage directions.

The friendship and responsibility George feels for Lennie, even though their past (and reasons for companionship) are never covered in depth. They don’t need to be, because Steinbeck’s tale is set in the Great Depression, and the consequential struggles many faced to make something of their lives (a theme common throughout Steinbeck’s work), and in George’s case in particular, the fear of loneliness. He admits that Lennie is a nuisance, and deep down knows he is a danger to himself and others. There is a stigma against mental illness in this time, and there is a fantastic chapter in which one of the farm workers convinces an elderly ranch-hand to let him mercifully shoot his old, stinking, worthless dog. It’s a clear metaphor for the relationship between George and Lennie, and it makes for a surprisingly sad and uncomfortable scene.

I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.

Of Mice and Men reinforces the fact that a book does not need to be lengthy to be compelling, emotional and hard-hitting.

2666 part2

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 amalfitano template

Óscar Amalfitano is a Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa. Also, he is an expert on Benno von Archimboldi, and acted as a guide to the critics when they came to Mexico in Part 1. They did not think much of him at first…

The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place…Espinoza and Pelletier saw him as a failed man, failed above all because he had lived and taught in Europe, who tried to protect himself with a veneer of toughness but whose innate gentleness gave him away in the act. But Norton’s impression was of a sad man whose life was ebbing swiftly away and who would rather do anything than serve them as guide to Santa Teresa.

But it was clear to them all that the Chilean professor was distant, not entirely functioning and present in his own mind. Something is affecting Amalfitano; inner turmoil, the effect of Santa Teresa, stress, a cry for help. Help.

“Amalfitano was here today,” said Pelletier.
In his opinion, the Chilean professor’s nerves were shot. Pelletier had invited him to take a dip in the pool. Since he didn’t have bathing trunks Pelletier had picked up a pair for him at the reception desk. Everything seemed to be going fine. But when Amalfitano got in the pool, he froze, as if he’d suddenly seen the devil. Then he sank. Before he went under, Pelletier remembered, he covered his mouth with both hands. In any case, he made no attempt to swim. Fortunately, Pelletier was there and it was easy to dive down and bring him back up to the surface. Then they each had a whiskey, and Amalfitano explained that it had been a long time since he swam.

And in Part 2 it becomes obvious that Amalfitano appears to be losing his mind. Madness is contagious. This line is uttered not once but twice in this chapter, and whether or not Amalfitano is crazy, or is going crazy, is certainly up for debate – but Amalfitano is at least aware enough to realise this fact for himself, as he struggles to cope in the spiralling hell of Mexican desert that is Santa Teresa.

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.

Amalfitano moved to Santa Teresa from Barcelona with his daughter Rosa, of whom he alone has raised since she was two. Her mother, and Amalfitano’s (ex?)wife Lola, walked out a long time ago, and Lola’s travels and letters to Amalfitano form the first half of Part 2. Already a healthy dose of ‘unhinged’ characters have appeared in 2666, and Lola certainly fits the bill. She has an obsession with a young poet whom she believes she can cure of his homosexuality. She seems to seek madness. We read of Lola’s bizarre relationship with the poet, with a truck driver named Larrazabal, her journey across Europe to cemeteries and insane asylums – although it’s worth mentioning that at all times I was sceptical of Lola’s exploits for she does not strike one as a reliable narrator. Lola’s quest and adoration for the poet is not without similarities to the critic’s search for Archimboldi in Part 1. Eventually Lola returns to Amalfitano and Rosa, but not for long – even more distant and somewhat clairvoyant, she leaves again and Amalfitano does not hear from her again, but he strongly suspects she is dead.

One afternoon while sorting through boxes of books Amalfitano discovers the Testamento geométrico, by Rafael Dieste, a book detailing complex geometry – ‘a subject that meant next to nothing to Amalfitano’. And he cannot remember for the life of him where he got this book, why he would have brought it back from Barcelona, and rather than let it go he allows the mystery to consume him.

At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste’s book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?

Unable to let go of this small perplexity Amalfitano becomes obsessed with Dieste’s book, and decides to hang it from the clothesline in his back garden, ‘leaving a geometry book hanging exposed to the elements to see if it learns something about real life’, transforming it into a Duchamp-inspired ‘readymade’. This is referenced neatly in Part 1 as the critics take an interest in the book one afternoon when having lunch at Amalfitano’s house.

Amalfitano watched them from the window, biting his lip, although the look on his face (just then at least) wasn’t of desperation or importance but of deep, boundless sadness.
When the critics showed the first sign of turning around, Amalfitano retreated, returning rapidly to the kitchen, where he pretended to be intent on making lunch.

And so the book transcends into something much more than a book. Subconsciously he draws triangles, he lists the names of philosophers and formulas. Supply+demand+magic. Perhaps hope that, left, to nature, the book can become, something more, a compass that can steer him out of troubled waters amid blood and mortal wounds and stench, something thus far his mind has been able to do. Like Amalfitano, the book is now rootless.

Amalfitano’s madness could all too easily be related on the deaths of the young women in Santa Teresa, yet the crimes are never explicitly spoken or thought about by Amalfitano. Strange, considering he has a young daughter who frequently goes out late into this city. If Amalfitano’s descent into madness is caused by the worry for his daughter’s safety in such a violent and dangerous place, then why does his response seem to be inaction? Is Amalfitano’s inaction his way of rationalising the things that are occurring in Santa Teresa, happening all around him? And soon a voice begins to speak to him (never a good sign). The voice(s) Amalfitano hears, portrayed to be his father’s, or possibly grandfather’s, asks him a series of questions that he can’t answer. Why are you here? What are you doing here? Are you a homosexual?

And you’ve also thought about your daughter, said the voice, and about the murders committed daily in this city, and about Baudelaire’s faggoty (I’m sorry) clouds, but you haven’t thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand. That isn’t true, said Amalfitano, I have thought about it, I have. If you had thought about it, said the voice, you’d be dancing to the tune of a different piper. And Amalfitano was silent and he felt the silence was a kind of eugenics. He looked at his watch. It was four in the morning.

Because unlike Amalfitano, the voice does speak of the murders in Santa Teresa. Which made me think that when the voice considers them, perhaps this is the only way Amalfitano can confront the fear he has been trying to suppress. Is it Amalfitano’s subconscious? Perhaps berating himself for not taking Rosa and himself the hell away from Santa Teresa? The voice could have a point – why, when Amalfitano has a 17 year old daughter, who goes out and stays out late like young girls do, does he not take action, in a city where such heinous and unstoppable crimes are being carried out? Or does he feel like there is no escape? That the problems lie not just in Santa Teresa?

The son of the University of Santa Teresa’s Dean Guerra, Marco Antonio Guerra spends some time with Amalfitano towards the end of Part 2, and together the critics suspect the two of being gay, but later decidethe bond between the Chilean professor and the dean’s son was more socratic than homosexual, and this is some way put their minds at ease, since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano’. Young Marco Antonio is full of youthful and privileged arrogance but displays menacing aggression and perversely admits to Amalfitano of purposely getting into fights at bars against homophobes, whom he seems to try and bait, to elicit combat. Violence is everywhere in this city. I did like this quote that he tells Amalfitano very close to the end of Part 2, however.

“I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry – and let me be clear, only some of it – is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”

I can’t help but feel this is a playful jab at literature, and maybe even self-reference. Because to me, Bolaño’s prose is poetry. It ebbs and flows. The Part About Amalfitano is so wonderfully intrinsic compared to Part 1, and despite the ongoing themes of darkness and insanity and violence, it remains remarkably calm for the most part. On first read it may seem meandering and inconsequential, but subsequent visits reveal so much more. I regard Amalfitano as a man almost at peace with his descent into madness. As if it has caught him in its tendrils and hope is lost. But perhaps there is a way he can save his daughter Rosa, more of whom we will see in Part 3.