A warning: the novel 2666, though I suspect it of being strongly moral, describes some horrific things, like the rape and murder of children and teenagers, rapes and murders not made up but based on real-life serial cases from Mexico, and so this post contains some disturbing content.
The last few months, the first months in almost four years that I haven't been a full-time student at one university or another, have been reading months. As much as you'd like to read a novel or a book of poetry during school, mental commitments to others tasks, not to mention time commitments (though these, I find, aren't nearly as stringent), often keep the mind occupied elsewhere, distracted, if a life-time commitment to education can be called a distraction, and generally prevent simple leisure reading. In the last four months, I've reread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, read Pynchon's Against the Day, and am now approaching the end of Roberto Bolano's 2666.
2666 is a terrifying novel. It is sprawling, chaotic, probably unfinished, apocalyptic, and charged with a sort of savage sympathy. Though there are several stories here, some more or less self-contained, they intersect and bleed into each other in unpredictable and sometimes misleading ways. The one thing most of these stories share, however, is a connection - faint in some cases; horribly clear in others - to the serial rapes and murders of Ciudad Jaurez, in Mexico, called Santa Teresa in the novel. The novel's fourth part, called "The Part About the Crimes" (Bolano isn't above being unflinchingly literal), is a protracted description of the horrors inflicted upon the young victims. I didn't exactly count the number of cases described, but for about 280 pages Bolano sketches one rape and murder after another, mercifully from the perspective of the ineffectual, corrupt, and perhaps complicit detectives of Santa Teresa, so that the prose ends up feeling detached, clinical, like a police or coroner's report. And yet, as each description piles up, as the trash heap of victims grows higher and wider, threatening to choke out the sky and all breath, as the combined weight of all humanity's suffering funnels into Santa Teresa, brief glimpses of light and humanity weakly glimmer. In Bolano, there is no shining moment. Hope and sympathy are snatched from the fire, and are often burned and covered in ash, but not necessarily irredeemable.
The excerpt below follows the discovery of two girls, fifteen and thirteen, found tortured, raped, and dead in a house. Estefania Rivas, fifteen, had been hung upside down from a hook on the ceiling, raped, strangled, and shot twice in the back of the head. Herminia Noriega, thirteen, and been raped, beaten, and eventually shot in the back of the head, twice. But that's not what killed her. At some point, during the abuse, her heart had just stopped. As the medical examiner in the story says, "The poor little thing... the torture and abuse were more than she could stand. She didn't have a chance." When I read this, read it in Bolano's coolly detached prose, prose so empty of sentiment or emotion, I wanted to cry, but didn't. I'm not sure why not. It's one of those things, one of those horrors you find in this world, made more horrific not because it is fiction but because you are sure that it isn't, that even if it's made up it's still true, that sink into you, that feel like the onset of a long illness. Immediately following the description of this crime, however, Bolano perfectly shines a light onto the effect his prose has on readers, on this numbing, dulling horror.
"For many days Jaun de Dios Martines thought about the four heart attacks Herminia Noriega had suffered before she died. Sometimes he thought about it while he was eating or while he was urinating in the men's room at a coffee shop or one of the inspector's regular lunch spots, or before he went to sleep, just at the moment he turned off the light, or maybe seconds before he turned off the light, and when that happened he simply couldn't turn off the light and then he got out of bed and went over to the window and looked out at the street, an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street, and then he went into the kitchen and put water on to boil and made himself coffee, and sometimes, as he drank the hot coffee with no sugar, shitty coffee, he turned on the TV and watched late-night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, in Spanish or English or Spanglish, every last fucking word unintelligible, and then Jaun de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when he finally removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear."
Follow-up, May 3: Let me explain. I posted this because lately, for the past six or seven months, actually ever since reading A Tale of Two Cities, a novel that upset me more than I'd imagined it would, what with its descriptions of Revolutionary France's insatiable thirst for aristocratic blood, descriptions that planted a knot in my stomach that hasn't yet quite come undone even all these months after, I've been contemplating the nature of human evil, specifically the desire for human sacrifice, by which I don't mean the institutional practice, Aztecs ripping the hearts out of virgins, children thrown into open furnaces, that sort of thing, but rather I mean the fulfillment of some goal, whatever goal - political agenda, religious mania, sexual depravity, etc - at the cost of human life. This happens all the time. We just don't usually call it human sacrifice. We call it something more tolerable, like murder, war, business, postmodernity.
I can think of no crime greater than the rape and murder of a girl for simple sadistic pleasure, the transformation of another human subject into an object, or at least that's what we say it is, what all the feminists are up in arms about, female objectification. But that's wrong, I think; objectification isn't what's happening here: that's too evasive an answer. It doesn't stare this beast in the eye, but rather flinches. The real horror is that crimes like these, like the darker blood-dreams of the French Revolution or like rape or like murder, isn't that they reduce people to the play-things of unleashed human nature, but that they confront a person in all his or her subjectness, and simply deny that subject the privilege to exist. It's the dark god, the throbbing pulse of the human stain: brutal mastery of another. It is objectification, I suppose, but a very literal objectification, a process of objectification, in which a human subject is, literally, through murder, transformed into an object. Blake's dark satanic mills, always grinding.
I try to tell myself that such crimes are inhuman; I try very hard. But I know that they are all too human. Terrifyingly human. That's why I posted this. Because somehow I must deal with what I know it means to be human. Deal with it, or collapse in a heap of broken images, and finally weep.
Bolano, Roberto. 2666. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2008.