This essay was originally featured in the accompanying booklet to Francisco Goldman and Natasha Wimmer's December 4, 2008 discussion of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, held at the Idlewild bookstore in New York City. Natasha Wimmer's essay can be found here—Editors
The first Roberto Bolaño novel I read was Estrella Distante. It was Aura's copy and we were at the beach in Mazunte, and I read it pretty much in one sitting, with a few breaks to go in the water. She was a huge Bolaño fan. Bolaño had died about six months before. We'd started going out shortly after, and I remember that she'd told me that the day he died, all the bars of the Condesa had been filled with people crying, but what she really meant was that she'd been crying with her friend Senén, who'd studied literature with her at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and who was now a bartender. He tended bar in the same place, come to think of it, that Bolaño's friend and somewhat kindred spirit, Horacio Castellanos Moya, always drank at. Senén, like Aura, always wanted to talk about literature, novels especially. I drank there too and was friends with both young Senén and not-so-young Horacio, who'd also become good friends with each other, long before I met Aura. Horacio, especially when he was drunk, used to stand at the bar telling the most scarifying stories about the war in Salvador; I remember one about a very gross but darkly hilarious game that guerrillas played with a corpse. Senén and Horacio often spoke about Bolaño and his books too.
But, apart from a few short stories, I didn't get around to reading him until that day at Mazunte. That's the same beach where, four years later, Aura broke her neck in the waves; she died twenty-four hours later in the DF. It's already harder for me to write these words than I'd thought it was going to be. During our honeymoon, in the summer of 2005, at another Mexican beach, I read 2666. Now Bolaño and his writing are all mixed up in my mind and emotions with death, and Aura, her death, and I guess they always will be.
Bolaño was more than this to us: he wrote about the worlds we'd lived in. For Aura, that was the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (especially, of course, in the opening section of Detectives Salvajes, and all of Amuleto) and the splendid-ludicrous, inexhaustible, gritty Mexico City of youth, and of the romance of literature, of the middle-class intelligentsia, especially of Aura's parents' generation, who were young during the long era of Latin American revolutionary fervor, violence and disillusionment. "Violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the fifties and were about twenty years old at the time of Salvador Allende's death," says the narrator of Bolaño's story "Mauricio (èThe Eye') Silva." For me, twenty years older than Aura, a little younger than her parents, that violence and disillusionment was my experience too; not the fervor of Chile and Argentina in the sixties and seventies, but the revolutionary era's depressing second act, the even more brutal and often psychotic wars of Central America in the 1980s, which pretty much consumed my own twenties and early thirties.
Bolaño drew from reality in his fiction, and from his own life, yet his fiction is not really realist. His fiction pointed away from reality, and certainly away from mundane political or moral interpretations of reality, towards something else—poetry, open-endedness, a kind of philosophical and tragicomic shock; his fiction always opens "new paths," as Bolaño said of Borges's writing. And it is partly this mysterious, radical quality, sometimes even a quality of epic parable (someone in 2666, Amalfitano maybe, says something along the lines of "if you could solve the mystery of the murders of women in Santa Teresa, you'd decipher the meaning of evil in our time") that makes his writing seem more kin to the spirit of Borges and even Kafka than to other Latin American writers he also admired, such as Lezama, Onetti, Cortazar, or Bioy.
Aura wrote an essay about Bolaño and Borges that she published in Words Without Borders, and it opened like this:
During their lifetimes, Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño struggled against vanity and all things pretentious, aspirational, ordinary, and obliging. They are peculiar cases in literature, ones that the literary machine itself seems to reject. They were not bestsellers. During a substantial part of their lives, they existed either under the shadow of public rejection, or in the clandestinity of aesthetic infringement. The relationship they sustained with "their time" and the writers of their time was complex and peppered with barbs. Certainly, what they understood as literature had little to do with the desire to appease any aesthetics (social, moral, political, philosophical) other than their own. Their relationship with literature was almost sacred. They believed in little else and were consecrated to her alone, as if literature were (perhaps because it is) a matter of life and death.
Aura and her UNAM friends, especially, were possessive about Bolaño: he was their writer. Her friend Jorge Volpi got to know Bolaño, and he told him once, thinking especially of Aura, about his passionate young readers in Mexico City, and Bolaño laughed ruefully and said, "That's all I need, to become a cult writer at the UNAM." When Bolaño began to become the whole world's writer; when he was becoming—let's accept it, he did, regardless of how wonderful that was—New York literary fashion's writer-of-the-moment, it was as if something was being torn away from Aura. It was sort of cute, watching her bewilderment. She even tried to pretend, for a while, that she no longer really liked Bolaño, but of course that wasn't true, and one of the last things she published was a review of Amulet, along with Aira's How I became a Nun, for the Boston Review.
For several months after Aura's death I couldn't read fiction, but then, when finally I could, pretty much the first thing I really yearned to read were the passages about Archimboldi's lover Ingeborg's death in the last book of 2666, "The Part about Archimboldi." Like I've said, I read the novel on our week-long honeymoon on the Pacific. I nearly finished it; I tore through it, astounded and enthralled, and I am usually a slow reader (by comparison, Detectives Salvajes took me about a month). Aura had brought two novels with her, Humboldt's Gift, and Madame Bovary in French, and she finished them pretty quickly. I suppose this makes it sound as if all we did on our honeymoon is read, which isn't really true, though so what if it was? It was a kind of eco-resort, there was lots of time… to visit the baby turtle hatchery, and paddle canoes in the lagoon, and there was no electricity, so you really had to read by day. At night in the lamp-lit restaurant we drank margaritas and played Scrabble, and she always won. She finished her two novels pretty quickly and after that, every time I put 2666 down to go in the water or to the bathroom, I'd come back and find her reading it, and I'd say "Give that back to me," and she'd plead, "Oh please, just let me finish this chapter!"
During the months I wasn't reading fiction—I plunged into the canon of grief books, and read poetry—I kept thinking back to the scene of Ingeborg's death in 2666, and though my memory of the scene wasn't really inaccurate, I imagined it taking up many more pages than it actually does, and imagined its imagery as more explicitly mystical, much less casually revealed, than it is. I recalled it as if it were a Rilke poem. Of course 2666 is one of the most Thanatos-haunted novels of all time (and also, I really think, one of the greatest, period). The Spanish novelist and critic Eduardo Lago described it in a review as a book written in a race against death, in which you can feel death cheering the writer on. It's a great book of grief, of multiple griefs, at times encyclopedic, and one of the lives the writer is grieving— the one life that contains all the book's blazing lives—is his own, because he knew he was dying, and that this was his last book, and apparently he knew that it was going to kill him, and on nearly every page of the book we see him taking death-defying narrative risks.
The psychoanalyst Darien Leader asks, of literature, theater, cinema, and other arts,1 "Could their very existence be linked to the human necessity to mourn?… they have created something èout of chaos and destruction'…and help bring out the universal nature of what the mourner feels."
Ingeborg knows she is going to die. This is the scene that had expanded so vividly in my memory, and that, when I was finally ready to read fiction again, I knew I had to reread, over and over again. On a wintry night, coughing blood, Ingeborg vanishes from her cabin in the mountains, headed into the ravines where she and her rustic host once successfully hid his wife's murdered corpse. Finally Archimboldi finds her:
Ingeborg's face was cold as ice. He kissed her cheeks until she slipped from his embrace…The sky was full of stars, many more than could be seen at night in Kempten, and many, many more than it was possible to see on the clearest night in Cologne. It's a very pretty sky, darling, said Archimboldi, then he tried to take her hand and drag her back to the village but Ingeborg clung to a tree branch, as if they were playing, and wouldn't go.
"Do you realize where we are, Hans?" she asked, laughing with a laugh that sounded to Archimboldi like a cascade of ice.
She tells him, "We're in a place surrounded by the past. All these stars…" and she draws his attention to the stars:
All this light is dead," said Ingeborg. "All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It's the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn't exist, life on Earth didn't exist, even Earth didn't exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It's the past, we're surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can't do anything to stop it."
After Ingeborg dies Archimboldi drops from sight for a very long time.
Bolaño liked to say, and write, that the novel could contain every kind of poem. The scene of Ingeborg and the stars is—along with Henry King's "Exequy on his Wife"—the grief poem I reread the most. I think I'll just leave it at that.
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