Saturday, October 10, 2009

The part about Archimboldi

2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is difficult. It's rich with imagery and ideas, most of which feel connected but which connections are near impossible to describe meaningfully. To offer any kind of summary is like saying, Here's this stick figure I drew of the Mona Lisa. By which I mean to say that 2666 is a masterpiece, but not at all like the Mona Lisa — more like Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Or something from Archimboldo.

This fifth and final part of 2666, The Part about Archimboldi, reads like part fairy-tale, part dream, with bits of nightmare and dark myths thrown in.

I basked in the beauty of this section, but it's taken me quite some time to come to the realization that in fact I did not like Archimboldi. From the outset there is something creepy about him. I thought for a while that this impression was merely a lingering effect of all that came before, the 600 plus pages of sinister mood. But with a little distance, and upon closer examination of some sections and my reactions to them, I'm quite confident in pronouncing: I do not like Archimboldi. I do not find him sympathetic.

Is he a hero? He is the character that figures most prominently in the book. It starts with him (though he is never on stage, he is undeniably central) and ends with him (the whole last section is devoted to his biography), and there are several references to him in between. One might argue that he overcame great adversity to achieve his status as a critically acclaimed obscure author — his family circumstance, his physical oddity, an inability to communicate, war, war, war, hard times, etc.


1. I don't believe he was active at all in putting all this behind him. He simply let things happen, and he came out on the other side. (Is he a hero of inaction?)

2. His status and the merit of it are entirely questionable. Bolaño posits artist as hero throughout the novel and if he had a definitive stance on the issue it is a contradictory one. If the artist is a vessel through which the divine is manifest, or if he is naturally talented, how much can the artist take credit? The toil of mediocrity is more commendable a virtue. And I rather think Bolaño did fashion Archimboldi as a vessel.

(Note: For those who haven't been reading along, Hans Reiter takes the pen name Benno von Archimboldi, inspired by Benito Juárez and painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.)

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.

This (p 661) feeds my sense that Hans is not fully healthy, or he would flee the diseased. And if he is somewhat diseased, his words — his literary work — is worth something, or so goes the argument by Bolaño’s logic. What is this "diseased man's sense of time"? Is it time more palpable, more real, when framed by mortality? (Did the diseased Bolaño's sense of time make him a better writer?)

But Archimboldi often finds himself outside of time (p 662):

They seemed suddenly to freeze, lose all sense of time, and turn completely inward, as if they were bypassing the abyss of daily life, the abyss of people, the abyss of conversation, and decided to approach a kind of lakeside region, a late-romantic region, where the borders were clocked from dusk to dusk, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die, like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die, who understand that more time isn’t more eternity and nevertheless wish with all their souls for more time, and their wails are birds that come flying every so often across the double lakeside landscape, so calmly, like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats. Then, naturally, the three men would emerge stiff from the silence and go back to talking about inventions, women, Finnish philology, the building of highways across the Reich.

(Doesn't that just take your breath away?!)

(In the desert of boredom, this oasis of debauchery — I return to the novel's epigraph from Baudelaire. Is Archimboldi a horror? The abyss as an oasis, revelry in mortality.)

That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi's only wish was never to inhabit either. [p 800]

Then there's this whole discussion (p 664-6) about the 4th dimension and how it is expressible only through music. Which brings us to the 5th dimension and how the perspective from the 5th of the 4th would to denizens of 4 dimensions be beyond their ability to conceive let alone fathom. All of which reminds me of Flatland. And Infinite Jest, which also references Flatland, with its problem of the wraith and at what speed he exists and how he processes time or whether he is outside time.

("[F]ive pairs of eyes lacked spatiotemporal coherence" (p 782) — there should only be three pairs. Who belongs to the other eyes?)

My very favourite passage of this section (p 704), a propos of nothing, really, though it too describes an abyss of sorts:

One night, in the trenches, Reiter rose up to his full height and gazed at the stars, but his attention, inevitably, was diverted toward Sevastopol. The city in the distance was a black mass with red mouths that opened and closed. The soldiers called it the bone crusher, but that night it didn't strike Reiter as a machine but as the reincarnation of a mythological being, a living creature struggling to draw breath.

Why is young Reiter's speech garbled (p 646)? Does the tourist simply not understand the local dialect? Or is there a communication problem?

(Was Reiter struggling to draw breath? He twice almost drowns. He swims, is at home in the water — breath would be a struggle. Is Reiter, then a mythological being? Or does he picture himself as one? Is he condemned like Sisyphus, only to the abyss of daily life, keeping Thanatos in chains, so men might live free of the anxiety of time (p 821)? Reiter recreates himself as Archimboldi, who become a myth.)

Later in Ansky's farmhouse, when he recognizes himself in the mural (who could've painted it? why would Reiter figure in it?), Reiter remembers "that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice" (724), having been shot in the throat.

What about Ansky's seaweedlike extraterrestrial (p 719)? (Is this Reiter? Did he appear in the past, by means beyond our current understanding of the physical world, and inspire this character? Or is he retroactively inserting himself into the text, as any reader might relate to a character?) The conversation he has with the boy is often unintelligible.

Ansky's characters also seem to travel through space and time in a manner that defies physics.

(There are many examples of "supernatural" communication throughout all the parts of the novel. Telepathy in various forms, dreams, a seer, communication via the whisper of leaves, a book on a clothesline airing its contents. All these ideas floating around in the ether (some of them evil) — they have to settle somewhere.)

What is culture, the Germans debate (p 683). General Entrescu claims it is life, that art "couldn't hold a candle to the dream of a single illiterate Romanian peasant." He knows this because he knows his men:

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

How does he do it? Is this why his men crucify him? Is he a demon or a saviour?

Reiter argues that "Sammer was just a civil servant of no consequence" (p 776). Then why did he kill him? (Is this the act of a hero?) Or else he is lying.

After much thinking about the concept of semblance, as Ansky had put it forward, Reiter concludes (p 741) that "Only Ansky's wandering isn't semblance, he thought, only Ansky at fourteen isn't semblance. Ansky lived his whole life in rabid immaturity because the revolution, the one true revolution, is also immature."

I think we're meant to see Reiter as immature also, emotionally immature, or emotionally distanced, or un-self-aware.

He remembered that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice. He also remembered that in those days he had ceaselessly read and reread Ansky's notebook, memorizing each word, and feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky. And he accepted the guilt and happiness and some nights he even weighed them against each other and the net result of his unorthodox reckoning was happiness, but a different kind of happiness, a heartrending happiness that for Reiter wasn't happiness but simply Reiter. [p 742]

I am certain (how can I be certain?) that Reiter/Archimboldi plagiarizes Ansky. He memorized his notebook we’re reminded (p 796), and Ingeborg notes the speed with which he writes. His authenticity is called into question. It is kinder perhaps to say he gives Ansky’s notebook a voice. But does he do so with any motivation other than to defeat boredom?

In Ansky's view, Archimboldo's painting technique was happiness personified (p 734), even though he produced a couple what could be described as horror paintings.

There are several Archimboldo-esque descriptions throughout the novel, starting with those of seaweed and culminating in this, recognizing a family resemblance (p 866):

One night Lotte saw shadows listening to the radio. One of the shadows was her father. Another shadow was her mother. Other shadows had eyes and noses and mouth that she didn't recognize. Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes.

I keep thinking of Archimboldo paintings, and the seaweed image, as something organic, but not fully sentient.

When Lotte reads parts of Archimboldi's The King of the Forest to him, why does Klaus's expression change (p 888)? What does he recognize? Klaus who demonstrated some affinity with the Flora's book. It was Flora who was reminded of the shepherd boy Benito Juárez (p 431), before he was a great man and Archimboldi borrowed his name (p 809). Facing boredom head-on was an act of bravery and Benito Juárez had done it (p 433). Had Archimboldi done so? By taking up writing?

There's so much more to say. But I don't know what else to say.

Excerpt (part 1): Separate and interminable suburbs.
Part 1: The part about the critics.
Part 2: The part about Amalfitano.
Excerpt (part 3): A walk on the beach.
Parts 3 and 4: The parts about Fate and about the crimes and a vast introductory digression in which I compare and contrast 2666 and Infinite Jest.

Consult the list of other readers who've posted thoughts on this book.
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