The Eventfulness of Roberto Bolaño

Seven years after his death, it is possible, without much risk of exaggeration, to talk about a Roberto Bolaño industry. The writer’s estate is represented by Andrew Wylie, New York’s most influential agent, the market breathlessly awaits a spate of posthumous publications, and The Savage Detectives and 2666 have attained a status that lets us talk about Bolaño in the same breath as Joyce, Kafka and Borges. Amid the clamour, even a sceptical reader can’t avoid concluding that Bolaño’s work has revived a sense of the novel as an urgent cultural form, at a time when readers of English-language fiction might have been forgiven for thinking that the genre had ceased to matter much. It is difficult to underscore just how ‘eventful’ all of this has been. The novel is first and foremost a form of entertainment, a leisure activity that has little tangible relationship to what goes on in other aspects of our lives. We might be moved, outraged or excited by a particular work of fiction, but it barely seems possible to imagine a novel that could change the way we envision the world or the way we live in it. What we have lost, and what Bolaño’s work seems to have rediscovered, is the sense that literary texts can shape, rather then merely reflect, the consciousness of the culture in which they circulate.

In 2666, posthumously published in 2004 and translated into English in 2008, this process is as politically profound as it is unsettling. This massive novel – universally hailed as an ‘event’ in its own right – is global in orientation. Its settings include London, Paris, Madrid, New York, Detroit, Berlin, Moscow and Mexico City, and its organisation into five loosely related sections is in keeping with this lack of a single national orientation or geographical focus. And yet, at the centre of the novel, like a vortex or a black hole that pulls everything else towards it, is the border between Mexico and the United States, and a thinly fictionalised version of the largest city on it, Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua. Between the 1965 inception of Mexico’s Border Industrialisation Program and the 1994 ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Juárez became a major industrial centre and a key destination for migrant labour. Since 1993 it has also been the site of unprecedented levels of serial killing, predominantly of young working-class women and young women of colour, many of whom were, as Alicia Schmidt Camacho puts it, ‘recent migrants to the border city from urban and rural communities in Mexico’s interior’.1 Critics and activists use the term feminicidio (or femicidio), instead of a word like ‘homicide’, to describe these crimes. If ‘homicide’ implies something that can be understood and accommodated by a purely judicial process, the term feminicidio insists that the killings need to be discussed in terms of a broader set of causes beyond the particular motives and pathologies of individual killers. Like the word ‘genocide’, it insists that the violence is systemic, not random. For Schmidt Camacho, the ‘denationalised’ character of the border zone is central to an understanding of the violence that occurs there. Rapid industrialisation, market deregulation, abusive labour practices, social dislocation, and a corresponding disintegration of civic space and authority have contributed to a situation in which national sovereignty and attendant rights are being displaced. They are being replaced by both licit and illicit forms of cross-border traffic: export-driven manufacturing, the drug trade, prostitution, sex tourism and people smuggling, all of which prey upon a population of ‘disposable’ people with tenuous access to legal protection and security. The murder and violation of vulnerable working-class women, Schmidt Camacho argues, is an extreme consequence of global economies turning these women into commodities.

The first part of 2666 gives little of this away. It focuses on four European academics who move between various centres of learning and higher education as part of a German literature conference circuit and who develop a shared obsession with a reclusive German novelist. When they hear that the writer has headed to the Mexican side of the Mexican–US border, they leave the privilege of the Western European metropolis for Mexico City and then Santa Teresa (a fictionalised version of Juárez). In Santa Teresa, the Europeans begin to confront their redundancy in the face of a malevolence that is as impalpable as it is overwhelming. On the approach to Santa Teresa the city looks like ‘an enormous camp of gypsies or refugees ready to pick up and move at the slightest prompting’.2 A drive around the city seems to take the Europeans to a ‘parallel place where they couldn’t make their presence felt’ (p. 112), a place that ‘would have swallowed Heidegger in a single gulp if Heidegger had had the bad luck to be born on the Mexican–US border’ (p. 114).

Bolaño evokes the socio-economic divisions of the city in a way that juxtaposes visions of a superficial, middle-class affluence to the overwhelmingly degraded ambience of industrial waste spaces. Against unpaved streets, ‘houses made out of scrap’, giant garbage dumps, and neighbourhoods ‘that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind’ (p. 129), the signifiers of an aspirational society drifting over the border (shopping centres, tourist hotels and the tinsel trappings of the US) seem either hollow or permeated by violence. Always in the background are the ‘silhouettes of industrial warehouses’ and ‘the horizon of the maquiladoras’ (p. 129) that mark the border zone as a space shaped by transnational capitalism. The apocalyptic connotations here are dramatically highlighted when reality ‘seemed to tear like paper scenery’ to reveal a ‘smoking landscape, as if someone, an angel maybe, was tending hundreds of barbecue pits for a crowd of invisible beings’ (p. 135). For the European literary intellectual, the industrial city is a vision of the end of time, yet one that offers no hope of redemption.

This view is one the novel goes on to qualify, yet without ever obviating Santa Teresa’s apocalyptic character. In the third section of the novel, Bolaño contextualises the city of slums and maquiladoras in term of broader histories of oppression that define the Americas. In this part of the novel we follow the Harlem-based, African-American journalist Quincey Williams (aka Oscar Fate) as he interviews an ex-Black Panther turned cookbook author (a fictionalised Bobby Seale) in Detroit, and then travels to Santa Teresa to cover a light-heavyweight bout. Once there he gets the idea of writing an exposé on the city: ‘A sketch of the industrial landscape in the Third World’ (p. 294), as he puts it. This trajectory, out of the ruins of industrial America and the dispersed remnants of a defeated Left to the border zone, enables Bolaño to construct analogies between capitalism’s historically different subject populations without losing a sense of the specificity of each. These analogies emerge through references to Hugh Thomas’ book The Slave Trade, which Fate reads en route to Mexico. Moving from this text within the text to the overarching narrative frame of the section, from the Atlantic slave trade to the non-spaces of the American south-west, we get a sense of the underlying violence that defines capitalist time and space.

When Fate ends up in a diner on the American side of the border, a famous criminologist expounds upon the forms of violence and criminality that remain historically illegible. Why were the victims of the slave trade or of the Paris Commune largely ignored in a society that could celebrate the victim of a single, sensationalised act of homicide? ‘The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible.’ Shortly afterwards, the criminologist, commenting on the crimes in Santa Teresa, makes the contemporary relevance of this diatribe clear: ‘everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the Christians in the Roman circus’ (p. 267). The idea of a population, caught on one side of a border, banished from ‘society’ and thus subject to a lethal violence exercised with apparent impunity, raises one of the novel’s most pressing questions: under what circumstances, and through what structures of victimisation and neglect, does a population become disposable – or killable?

In his wide-ranging discussion of contemporary ‘necropolitics’ – the ‘subjugation of life to the power of death’3 – Achille Mbembe explores this question primarily in terms of the history and legacy of colonialism. While his account of the necropolitical clearly owes much to Giorgio Agamben’s work on bare life (the life that can be killed with impunity), he also develops it in relationship to African states that ‘can no longer claim a monopoly on violence and the means of coercion within their territories’, have ceded that conventional form of sovereignty to a range of organisations and forces – Mbembe calls them ‘war machines’ – that have emerged out of the postcolonial state’s failure ‘to build the economic underpinnings of political authority and order’. These war machines, he goes onto say, often ‘have direct connections with transnational networks’.4 The result is territories in which populations can be treated as an expendable source of labour (military, industrial or sexual), a situation tantamount to slavery, which for Mbembe is the original form of necropolitics: the slave, ‘kept alive but in a state of injury’, is ‘treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and instrument of production’.5

Juárez has become a site of necropolitical violence in the way that Mbembe suggests. As Melissa Wright argues, young women enter the border zone as industrial labourers under the assumption of their disposability. With a regular turnover in the factory labour force essential to the efficiency of the maquiladora, the female factory worker is treated as a permanently unskilled entity whose efficiency declines as an inevitable result of the tension between her physical, sexual and emotional needs and the time-work discipline of the factory. This situation generates, and is legitimised by, what Wright calls the myth of disposability in which ‘the Mexican woman personifies waste-in-the-making, as the material of her body gains shape through discourses that explain how she is untrainable, unskilled, and always a temporary worker’.6 Where the disposability of the female worker is taken for granted by industry and government, the actual murder, rape and mutilation of women seems to literalise a logic integral to the industrial practices of the border zone.7 Highlighting Juárez’s longstanding role as a sex tourism destination for North Americans, Schmidt Camacho extends Wright’s argument to draw a wide range of connections between local prostitution, global sex traffic and human smuggling:

The dual economy of the sex trade and the maquiladoras produced a popular discourse that conflates women’s sale of their labour with the sale of their bodies for sex … The moral discourse linking obreras and prostitutes both masks the state’s interest in sexualising female labour and legitimates subaltern women’s exclusion from the protected sphere of citizenship.8

While the subject of cosmopolitanism – mobile, affluent and at home with possessive individualism, autonomous culture and the market – might be enabled by the cultural and commercial consequences of transnationalism, it is clear that the liberalisation of labour markets along the Mexican–US border has also helped to create a population of disposable people whose lives are being systematically devalued and constantly threatened.

This disposable population and the forces that threaten it haunt Bolaño’s novel. Even when 2666 is focused on cosmopolitan intellectuals and tends to read a bit like a campus thriller, it is permeated by a sense of menace. Something immense and unrepresentable is always looming on its margins.

The long fourth section of the novel, ‘The Part about the Crimes’, brings the reader face to face with this malevolence. This section explores the violence of Santa Teresa. As the novel immerses itself in the necropolitical space of the border zone, it clearly shifts from narrative frames premised on conventional notions of character and event to an apocalyptic register that overwhelms the familiar conventions of fiction. As Bolaño obsessively recounts the murders of young Mexican women, character and plot seem virtually redundant. Over hundreds of pages the text conveys schematic forensic accounts of crime scenes – including repetitive details of sexual violation and mutilation – without offering any narrative framework capable of containing or making sense of the violence. Judicial process and police procedure, like the conventions of the detective fiction they inform, are impotent and meaningless. All of the characters who appear in this section – policemen, private investigators, criminologists, corrupt officials, journalists, lawyers, drug lords, gang members, prison inmates – seem adrift in a world that is as sadistic as it is formless. The effect is disorienting, and it clearly partakes of a sort of anti-aesthetic impulse that interrupts the scene of reading itself, creating a disquiet at its centre that makes all notions of literature as a refuge, as a source of solace or as a mode of entertainment impossible to maintain. In a novel that otherwise focuses on the lives of academics and writers, and their tenuous attempts to make meaning out of the chaos of history, Juárez embodies a reality against which Western fantasies of literary form disintegrate into the stuff of nightmares.

But this is only one side of the story that Bolaño’s fiction presents. If his work explores the ways in which literature falters before the abyss of history, it also offers literature itself as a way of forming alternative, resistant modes of social being. The textual origin of 2666’s otherwise cryptic title gives us a sense of how this works. In Bolaño’s novel Amulet, which expands upon one of the sections of his earlier novel The Savage Detectives, the narrator Auxilio Lacouture describes the Avenida Guerrero in Mexico City as ‘more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else’.9 What makes sense of this image is the novel’s focus on state violence. That Mexico City is constantly presented as a site of impending catastrophe, a city about to be swallowed by dust clouds or to be reduced to ruins, is intimately bound up with the events of 1968 (the military occupation of the UNAM campus and the subsequent Tlatelolco massacre) and more remotely of 1973 (the Pinochet coup in Chile). Both dates concentrate a broader sense of catastrophe, but Amulet is really a lament for the lives and hopes lost to the specific historical processes they mark.

From this perspective, the year 2666 is the point at which the utopian potential of Amulet – a potential that hinges on the friendships forged in the literary underground of Mexico City around the two pivotal dates of the novel – is irrevocably lost to the horror of history. While Bolaño continually evokes a bohemian world of poets and exiles in order to register its loss in circumstances of violence and alienation, it is just as clear that a degree of dislocation is also integral to its initial creation. This paradox creates one of the central tensions to emerge from his work: while the denationalised subject is always a potential victim, it also opens up the possibility of a network that, while not necessarily directly political, at least offers a counterpoint to the violence of history. What we find here is something like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of ‘the multitude’, which they describe as ‘the living alternative that grows within empire’.10 It is hard not to read Bolaño’s evocation of informal, subcultural literary publics in these terms when, in the largely autobiographical piece ‘Dance Card’, he seems to do so himself: ‘I think of the poets who died under torture, who died of AIDS, or overdosed, all those who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell. I think of their works, which may, perhaps, show the Left a way out of the pit of shame and futility’.11

The temporality of the communal impulse in Bolaño’s work is always ambiguous: it is at once already lost and thus an object of melancholic longing, and yet it is still somehow immanent to the processes that have destroyed it, as if it is waiting to be born again. The eventfulness of Bolaño’s work has a lot to do with this tempestuous phantom, this spectre stalking the dislocated, denationalised experience of global capitalism. Reading his prose, it is hard not to be gripped by the possibility that literature itself might be the resting place of these ambiguous revenants: the space where the victims of globalisation are remembered and from which new modes of affiliation and consciousness indebted to them might be imagined.

1 Alicia Schmidt Camacho, ‘Ciudadana X: Gender Violence and the Denationalization of Women’s Rights in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’, Centennial Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2005, p. 259.
2 Roberto Bolaño, 2666, Natasha Wimmer (trans.), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008, p. 111. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
3 Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, Libby Meintjes (trans.), Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, p. 39.
4 ibid., p. 33.
5 ibid., pp. 21–2.
6 Melissa Wright, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 2006, p. 73.
7 ibid., p. 87.
8 Schmidt Camacho, op. cit., pp. 265–6.
9 Bolaño, Amulet, Chris Andrews (trans.), New Directions, New York, 2007, p. 86.
10 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War And Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin, New York, 2004, p. xiii.
11 Bolaño, Last Evenings of Earth, Chris Andrews (trans.), New Directions, New York, 2006, p. 218.

Andrew McCann

Andrew McCann is a novelist and Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth University.

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