What is it I want you to do? asked the congresswoman. I want you to write about this, keep writing about this. I’ve read your articles. They’re good, but too often you pull your punches. I want you to strike hard, strike human flesh, unassailable flesh, not shadows. I want you to go to Santa Teresa and sniff around. I want you to sink in your teeth. At first I didn’t know much about Santa Teresa. I had some general ideas, like anybody, but I think it was after my fourth visit that I began to understand the city and the desert. Now I can’t get them out of my head. I know everybody’s names, or almost everybody’s. […] Out of patriotism, ultimately, because no matter whom it disturbs (myself first of all), I’m a Mexican. And also a Mexican congresswoman. We’ll fight it out amongst ourselves, as always, or we’ll go down together. (page 631)
After the Spanish Civil War, author Jorge Semprún wrote several novels and memoirs about his life during the war. One of these works was a short story in which he published the names of all the barbers who died during the Spanish Civil War. The reasoning is simple: who else will remember them collectively? (I can not find the original story, so if you know it, please let me know!)
In Part IV: The Part about the Crimes, Bolaño does something very similar. The majority of this section, about as long as the previous three parts combined, was dedicated to naming and describing the deaths of all the women killed in Santa Teresa. The resulting effect is something disturbing: we are at once inundated with information about these killings, making them painfully real to the reader, but we are also numbed to their presence because it is a constant.
I think for the first time in the entirety of this novel, Bolaño’s purpose or purposes is finally something we can almost see. Aside from being an interesting story, I believe that it is a commentary. A commentary on what is actually happening in Mexico, not in Santa Teresa but it Ciudad Juárez, and a commentary on Mexican and Latinoamericano identity. Bolaño is not Mexican (he is Chilean), but continuously parallels the problems of Mexico to those of Latin American. They are distinctly “Latin American” problems, he says.
I am reminded of one movie in particular, called La muralla verde, or The Green Wall. Released in 1970, the story is of a man who decides to leave city life and colonize the jungles of Perú. Much of the movie is him waiting in government offices to get approval to finally move out of the city. When he finally moves to the jungle, tragedy strikes. While the movie is based on true events, it also acts as a commentary of the relentless red tape that can be so damaging in Latin American governments. The people who should be looking out for you, the government, only make situations worse. And to make it all worse, nature isn’t really looking out for us either.
Despondent, she went back to her house, to the other neighbor woman and the girls, and fora while the four of them experienced what it was like to be in purgatory, a long, helpless wait, a wait that begins and ends in neglect, a very Latin American experience, as it happened, and all too familiar, something that once you thought about it you realized you experienced daily, minus the despair, minus the shadow of death sweeping over the neighborhood like a flock of vultures and casting its pall, upsetting all routines, leaving everything overturned. (528)
For a while he seemed to consider my proposal, or rather search for the right words for what he had to say. Then he said he didn’t want to see me waste my money or my time. Do you mean you think Kelly is dead? I shouted. More or less, he said without losing his composure in the slightest. What do you mean, more or less? I shouted. For fuck’s sake, you’re either dead or you’re not! In Mexico a person can be more or less dead, he answered very seriously. I stared at him, wanting to hit him. What a cold, detached man he was. No, I said, almost hissing, no one can be more or less dead, in Mexico or anywhere else in the world. Stop talking like a tour guide. […] I’m sick of Mexicans who talk and act as if this is all Pedro Páramo. (624)
I was also reminded of Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude quite a bit while I was reading this part. I have mentioned one essay in particular on this blog in the past – “The Sons of La Malinche.” I’d like to recap this essay again because I think it is very relevant: it discusses the origins of Mexico and, essentially, the two mothers of Mexico. One is La Malinche, Hernan Cortes’s indigenous mistress who arguably destroyed her own people by translating for the colonizers (though some would argue she saved them), and the Virgin of Guadalupe. La Malinche is la Chingada, or the raped mother who did not ask for the burden she is given. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the sacred mother, who was at first a weapon of the church to force the Mexican indigenous population under their rule, but became a strong symbol of Mexico and what it means to be Mexican. From “The Sons of La Malinche” by Octavio Paz:
Who is the Chingada.? Above all, she is the Mother. Not a Mother of flesh
and blood but a mythical figure. The Chingada is one of the Mexican represen-
tations of Maternity, like La Llorona or the “long-suffering Mexican mother”
we celebrate on the tenth of May. The Chingada is the mother who has suf-
fered–metaphorically or actually–the corrosive and defaming action im-
plicit in the verb that gives her her name. …
In Mexico the word [chingar] has innumerable meanings. It is a magical word: a change of tone, a change of inflection, is enough to change its meaning. It has as many shadings as it has intonations, as many meanings as it has emotions. One may be a chingón, a gran chingón (in business, in politics, in crime or with women), or a chingaquedito (silent, deceptive, fashioning plots in the shadows, advancing cautiously and then striking with a club), or a chingon-cito. But in this plurality of meanings the ultimate meaning always contains the idea of aggression, whether it is the simple act of molesting, pricking or censuring, or the violent act of wounding or killing. The verb denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force. It also means to injure, to lacerate, to violate–bodies, souls, objects — and to destroy. When something breaks, we say: “Se chingó.” When someone behaves rashly, in defiance of the rules, we say: “Hizo una chingadera.”
The idea of breaking, of ripping open, appears in a great many of these expressions. The word has sexual connotations but it is not a synonym for the sexual act: one may chingar a woman without actually possessing her. And when it does allude to the sexual act, violation or deception gives it a particular shading. The man who commits it never does so with the consent of the chingada. Chingar, then, is to do violence to another. The verb is masculine, active, cruel: it stings, wounds, gashes, stains. And it provokes a bitter, resentful satisfaction.
The person who suffers this action is passive, inert and open, in contrast to the active, aggressive and closed person who inflicts it. The chingón is the macho, the male; he rips open the chingada, the female, who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior world. The relationship between them is violent, and it is determined by the cynical power of the first and the impotence of the second. The idea of violence rules darkly over all the meanings of the word, and the dialectic of the “closed” and the “open” thus fulfills itself with an almost ferocious precision.
I have to wonder what Paz would think about the new Mexico that Bolaño is writing about.
I could write a treatise on the secret sources of Mexican sentimentalism. What twisted people we are. How simple we seem, or pretend to be in front of others, and how twisted we are deep down. How paltry we are and how spectacularly we contort ourselves before our own eyes and the eyes of others, we Mexicans. And all for what? To hide what? To make people believe what? (596)
This brings me back to the discussion I began, but never quite finished, about Part III. Why was the violence/sexism/homophobia etc. that much more insulting or painful in Part III versus the other sections, Part IV (easily the most violent) included? It has to do with purpose and balance. In the other sections, I found that while the instances and episodes that I objected to were difficult to read, they were still necessary. For example, in The Part About the Critics, the two male critics beat up a taxi driver for no reason. This was necessary for both the characterization of the critics and to begin building the atmosphere of an overly sexualized and violent society. This balance was extremely well-done in the first section, I believe. The biggest problem I have with the third section is that it did not do anything that the other sections didn’t already do (set the mood) and I’m still not sure how Fate is connected with the rest of the story. I’m hoping the final section will shed some light on this for me, but as of right now, I’m still standing by what I said about the third section, though I would like to give it a closer read.
Finally, I want to discuss Florita, the psychic. I loved the parts of the novel that were devoted to her story and I would have loved to see more. I think she acted as an interesting character because we see the crimes in much the same way she does:
And then she said: I’m talking about visions that would take away the breath of the bravest of brave men. In dreams I see the crimes and it’s as if a television set has exploded and I keep seeing, in the little shards of screen scattered around my bedroom, horrible scenes, endless tears. […] And finally she said: I’m talking about the women brutally murdered in Santa Teresa, I’m talking about the girls and the mothers of families and the workers from all walks of life who turn up dead each day in neighborhoods and on the edges of that industrious city in the northern part of our state. I’m talking about Santa Teresa. I’m talking about Santa Teresa. (459)
I also just loved her story. She’s such a unique character.
[…] Her husband got into the habit of bringing back [books] each time he returned from his buying and selling trips to neighboring towns, books he purchased sometimes by the pound [….] Sometimes she read… any kind of reading that providence placed within her reach, and she learned something each time, sometimes very little, but something was left behind, like a gold nugget in a trash heap, or, to refine the metaphor, said Florita, like a doll lost and found in a heap of somebody else’s trash. Anyway, she wasn’t an educated person, at least she didn’t have what you might call a classical education, for which she apologized, but she wasn’t ashamed of being what she was, because what God takes away the Virgin restores, and when that’s the way it is, it’s impossible not to be at peace with the world. (431)
Inside that book with a yellow cover everything was expressed so clearly that sometimes Florita Almada thought the author must have been a friend of Benito Juárez and that Benito Juárez had confided all his childhood experiences in the man’s ear. If such a thing were possible. If it were possible to convey what one feels when night falls and the stars come out and one is alone in the vastness, and life’s truths (night truths) begin to march past one by one, somehow swooning or as if the person out in the open were swooning or as if a strange sickness were circulating in the blood unnoticed. What are you doing, moon, up in the sky? asks the little shepherd in the poem. What are you doing, tell me, silent moon? Aren’t you tired of plying the eternal byways? The shepherd’s life is your life. He rises at first light and moves his flock across the field. Then, weary, he rests at evening and hopes for nothing more. […] You, eternal solitary wanderer, you who are so pensive, it may be you understand this life on earth, what our suffering and sighing is, what this death is, this last paling of the face, and leaving Earth behind, abandoning all familiar, loving company. (432)
Her sections of the novel were truly beautiful. I think I wanted Bolaño to explore her character more, but he did not. What does it mean to have a clairvoyant character (who is accurately describing events that do happen) in a novel that is so hyperrealistic?
Overall I think I understood this section more. I realized, more completely, just what it is that Bolaño is trying to do and I’m hoping that the last section brings everything and everyone together, hopefully in such a way that redeems part III in my mind. While I found Part IV to be painful and extremely difficult to read, I found it necessary. It is a necessary commentary on the murders that are happening not only in fictional Santa Teresa but also in the real-world Ciudad Juárez.