By sheer coincidence, of which I have the luxury, I stumbled upon a bloggers' discussion, cohosted by Steph and Tony Investigate and Kiss a Cloud. I don't know who these people are, but they seem to love books, and have interesting ideas about this one in particular, and that's all good. I'll be checking in there as I progress to see what others make of this book.
I posted an excerpt and some comments a few days ago. Below are some of my thoughts, still relatively fresh, having completed part 1.
The name is easily confused with Archimboldo, to Pelletier's outrage and horror we learn on the first page. His paintings are, in my opinion, grotesque, but inviting scrutiny.
By his early mention, Bolaño invites the reference. This book is having an effect similar to that of the paintings: surreal and weird, faintly beautiful, not what it appears to be.
— "Pelletier was more intimately acquainted than Espinoza with Mnemosyne, mountain goddess and mother of the nine muses."
— "...Espinoza and Pelletier believed themselves to be (and in their perverse way, were) incarnations of Ulysses, and that both thought of Morini as Eurolychus..."
— Pritchard to Pelletier, regarding Norton, "'Beware of the Medusa.'"
There are allusions here. Yeah, I have no idea.
Edwin Johns, the (fictional) artist who cut off his hand to use it in a self-portrait, relates an argument about coincidence.
"And as far as coincidence is concerned, it's never a question of believing in it or not. The whole world is a coincidence. I had a friend who told me I was wrong to think that way. My friend said the world isn't a coincidence for someone traveling by rail, even if the train should cross foreign lands, places the traveler will never see again in his life. And it isn't a coincidence for the person who gets up at six in the morning, exhausted, to go to work; for the person who has no choice but to get up and pile more suffering on the suffering he's already accumulated. Suffering is accumulated, said my friend, that's a fact, and the greater the suffering, the smaller the coincidence." [ed: Just trying to wrap my head around this... No coincidence because there's an enforced(?) structure, whether the natural structure of geography and physics, or the social/economic structure of scheduled workdays. The more order there is, the less chance for chance. But how is this suffering, exactly, apart from being at the mercy of all this order?]
"As if coincidence were a luxury?" asked Morini.
[. . .]
"Coincidence isn't a luxury, it's the flip side of fate, and something else besides," said Johns.
"What else?" asked Morini.
"Something my friend couldn't grasp, for a reason that's simple and easy to understand. My friend (if I may still call him that) [ed: Who's Johns's friend anyway?] believed in humanity, and so he also believed in order, in the order of painting and the order of words, since words are what we paint with. [ed: Wait a second. Being a painter, Johns actually paints with paint (and body parts). Is his friend a painter? or a writer? Is Johns simply being metaphorical here or is there possibly something more to it?] He believed in redemption. Deep down he may even have believed in progress. Coincidence, on the other hand, is total freedom, our natural destiny. Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don't know what they are. Coincidence, if you'll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In the hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion. The communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us."
Coincidence, then, is evidence of a God who doesn't care, who has no interest. (How is this different from there being no God at all?) But it's just a simile. Why invoke the simile if it's only to negate the vehicle?
The story of Edwin Johns fascinates me. Could this personage and his claim to fame be based on a real artist?
Art is an act of self-negation. Johns certainly negated his painting hand. (Also: the only true representation of a thing is the thing itself.) Archimboldi is so negated as to possibly not exist at all.
Once in Mexico, Amalfitano explains to the critics the relationship between Mexican intellectuals with power. There follows a long and rambling yet beautiful passage, ultimately senseless, so Amalfitano admits, in which the shadows of the writers have slipped away, and this negates the worth of the intellectuals and their authority, or transmutes the intellectuals into something else entirely (reckless gods, or beautiful monsters, but pathetic all). (And here, when the intellectuals retire for the night, comes my favourite sentence: "The moon is fat and the night air is so pure it seems edible.")
The violence is jarring. My jaw dropped at an early instance, when the little gaucho is looking at the lady with the eyes of a bird of prey, and here there is an image so startlingly horrific (which I will not repeat here), and then it's gone, wrapped up, uncomfortably but dismissively, as if there is nothing threatening about this "clumsy young butcher."
Then there's the taxi incident. The cabbie wasn't entirely innocent, but surely he didn't deserve all that was brought down upon him. Pelletier and Espinoza have acted "out of character," but I think that's part of the point — we never know, often don't even suspect, what we're capable of, particularly if pushed or provoked, till it happens.
One of the critics commented that the cab driver, in calling the streets a labyrinth, had unconsciously quoted Borges ("I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London)"). Is that where the violence sprouts from? The cabbie feels he's being called an idiot, so he calls their woman a whore. Are they defending her honour, or their own authority as critics? Or does it stem from something else entirely?
There is more violence to come, I know. The above episodes really came out of the blue, with my primary response in both cases being, "What the hell just happened?" Presumably, subsequent episodes will follow in this pattern?
Are creepy. And very realistically dream-like.
Morini really interests me because he's more an observer than a participant in all the events of part 1.
His fascination with Johns seems unhealthy. I'm not sure what it's founded in. Purely academic — philosophical — curiosity? Upon first hearing the story of Johns, "The urge to weep — or else, faint — persisted, but he restrained it."
I think it's this quality that saves Morini. Restraint.
Morini is all about critical detachment.
As a contender for Norton's affections, he detaches himself, and from his outsider's position he wins her.
Similarly, his interest in Archimboldi never consumes him to the point of dropping his real life to chase some crazy tale to Mexico. His interest remains professional and reasonable. He does, however, enable the others' obsession with Archimboldi, bringing word of his sighting to them. (Coincidence? Did he foresee how the others would react? Part of me want to believe that Morini is Archimboldi, but I don't think I can make this hypothesis fit the facts.)
Maybe Morini represents the reading audience: a bit perverse, voyeuristic, but reasonably so and with restraint (the one quality all the other characters seem to lack).
This is a lot of me having no idea, and raising (or repeating) more questions than I dare answer. But greatly enjoying the ride.