Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Another Hans Reiter, an Untersturmführer in the Waffen SS, received the King's Cross of the Iron Cross, a Third Reich commendation for extreme bravery in battle. This Reiter seems to have more in common with the Hans Reiter of 2666, though the fictional Reiter serves in the 79th Light Infantry Division, a part of the regular Heer (Army) forces operating under the command of the Wehrmacht, and not in the Waffen-SS.
Untersturmführer Hans Reiter served in the 3rd and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, distinct from the 79th Infantry both in the fact that the Panzer divisions were tank-based, while the 79th moved on foot, with supplies drawn by horses, and that the 3rd and 10th served the SS, the paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party, while the 79th operated under the command of the Wehrmacht.
German atrocities against civilians, particularly on the Eastern Front, were committed by both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, and the supreme commander of the Wehrmacht was Adolf Hitler, but along the continuum of evil, the 79th Infantry Division falls farther from the paragon of the diabolical than the 3rd "Death's Head" and 10th Panzer Divisions.
In putting the fictional Hans Reiter in the 79th Infantry, Bolaño is distancing his Reiter from both namesakes. In 2666, the fictional Hans Reiter participates in brutal combat, but does not personally engage in anything outside the normal barbarities of warfare. Of the fictional Hans Reiter's wartime actions, his murder of Leo Sammer is his first and only crime, per se, though the entirety of German military activities in World War Two might justly be considered criminal.
In fact, Leo Sammer, the work camp administrator, bears a more striking resemblance to Dr Hans Conrad Julius Reiter than does the future Benno von Archimboldi. His murder, by strangulation, while modulated with extreme ambivalence by the many strangled girls of Santa Teresa, is presented if anything as a just act, a righteous kill.
Sammer, unlike Dr Hans Conrad Julius Reiter, who by all appearances was a gleeful and unrepentant participant in the Third Reich's program of mass murder, is a picture perfect illustration of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." Sammer's lengthy confession may be the finest examination in literature of the human element in the commission of evil.
It bears remembering, however, that Arendt coined the term "banality of evil" in her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. If Eichmann's actions, in Arendt's judgement, were banal, what possible atrocity could fall outside the compass of banality?
Bolaño's treatment of World War Two in 2666, at once minutely researched and freely fictional, is deeply indebted to Arendt's controversial thinking. Her "banality of evil" created its controversy because it stripped the collective post-war ordering of events of its villains, replacing them with complex nodes of ambiguity often worthy of simpathy. In the creation of a common narrative to explain the deepest fathoms of human depravity, Nazis formed the perfect archetype, an archetype reminted with considerable deflation two decades later in the pop-schmaltz of Steven Spielberg.
Arendt's appraisal of Adolf Eichmann deprives the world of this archetype. Eichmann, while ultimately culpable of unforgivable crimes, was, in Arendt's judgement, an ordinary man, like Leo Sammer (and perhaps like Dr Hans Conrad Julius Reiter) who through a succession of decisions and societal pressures gradually came to engage in the cruelest extremes of sadism.
What are we to make of Bolaño's naming the one figure in 2666 most readily identifiable as a hero after a doctor at Buchenwald who performed fatal medical experiments on helpless prisoners and a Waffen-SS officer who participated in the annihilation of Eastern European civilization?
It seems a strange mirroring is occurring here. The fictional Reiter is named after both Dr Reiter and Untersturmführer Reiter, though he is distanced from their greater proximity to evil by being placed in the 79th Infantry, and to some degree avenges the crimes of the Holocaust by murdering Leo Sammer, a perfect totem of the "banality of evil," itself a phrase created to explain the actions of men like Dr Reiter and Untersturmführer Reiter, from whom Bolaño distances the future Archimboldi.
As much so as a figure from the stories of Borges, Bolaño's Reiter is a knot of simultaneity, ambiguity and contradiction. Like Arendt, Bolaño disrupts our habit of forming narratives, of reducing complexity to fable. What we have instead is poetry. Or realism.
[Next: Did the real Dr Hans Conrad Julius Reiter fake his death, change his name, and become a novelist in South America under the pseudonym JMG Arcimboldi, or have Bolaño fans hijacked wikipedia español?]
Monday, March 16, 2009
Also, what are we to make of the structure of The Part About the Crimes? Why did Bolaño dedicate 350 pages to enumerating each and every femicide in Santa Teresa? Isn't this, no pun intended, overkill? Wouldn't have five, or even fifteen, murder scenes have sufficed to get across the point that women and girls are being brutally murdered in Santa Teresa? Why include all of them? And why provide forensic descriptions of each, when a list of names could have saved ink and time? Why was Bolaño so motivated to make this part as lengthy and macabre as he did?
Beside the scale of The Part About the Crimes, and its central importance in what Bolaño must have known would be his magnum opus, one other feature strikes me as strange: its style. Bolaño is a writer of incredible lyricism when he wants to be, as the sections detailing the visions of Florita, the 70 year old seer show, and as the previous sections have, and as The Part About Archimboldi will demonstrate in superabundance. So why did he write the central portion of this book in such flat, clinical prose; and why break it up into a repetitious detailing of crime scenes that in their number and repetitiousness approach an almost unwieldy baroqueness: an enormous facade of the names of the dead interrupted only by minor subplots that seem to go nowhere?
One of the great pleasures of reading Bolaño for me is that unlike most writers of his stature, we know next to nothing about Bolaño. There is no critical annotated edition of 2666 with biographical sketches and background. We don't read Bolaño through decades of Bolaño criticism. We are the first generation of Bolaño readers. I love reading a book that for me is obviously canonical in its worth that takes place so recently. I suppose it is vanity, but I find strange pleasure in reading the dates 1993 and 1996 in a book of this magnitude. That perversion aside, 2666's recentness, and the extreme paucity of coverage in the US press of the real femicides in Ciudad Juarez in the 1990s, make The Part About the Crimes particularly tricky, as it obviously is based on real events, and apparently was inspired by a book length cataloging of the victims (Huesos en el Desierto; Anagrama, 2002) put together by the Mexican reporter Sergio Gonzalez on whom the character of the Mexican reporter named Sergio Gonzalez is based. Are we meant to read The Part About the Crimes as a kind of New Journalism? Is Bolaño using the vessel of his fiction to perform a political or social function that is essentially journalistic rather than literary? Is he in essence using 2666 as a vehicle to deliver Huesos en el Desierto to a broader audience? If there is a meta-fictional quality at the heart of this book, why then did the flesh and blood Roberto Bolaño, as opposed to Arturo Belano the alleged narrator, feel so compelled as to dedicate not just the 350 pages of The Part About the Crimes, but in a sense, the whole 1119 pages of 2666 to the femicides of Ciudad Juarez? What was his motivation?
I have a few hunches about some of these questions:
1. The Style: It is only fitting to write about such a terrible thing as the
brutal rape and murder of so many innocent victims in clinical, even forensic prose. To do otherwise would be an unforgivable act of literary narcissism -- foregrounding the prose abilities of the writer when, as Robert Creeley might say, what must be said shouldn't be said. But the catalog structure? The inclusion of every case, forensic details included? I think there are at least two answers. On the one hand, I think Bolaño, a lover of detective fiction, who fancied himself as a could-have-been detective, wants to invite us to participate as detectives in both the literary case of the femicides, and the real case of what happened in Ciudad Juarez. By presenting us with so much forensic detail, we can, as amateur detectives, see blatant contradictions in the official decisions and investigative directions that have transpired in Juarez. Without any forensic or police experience, it seems obvious to me that there are numerous serial killers operating in Santa Teresa. The modi operandii seem to indicate at least three killers, or types of killers. There are the abductors of schoolgirls who tend to prey on pre- and barely-pubescent girls. There are the abductors of adult women, often 5 foot 7 with long brown hair (which immediately brings to mind the proclivities of Ted Bundy). And there are the Mexican boyfriends and husbands who murder their girlfriends and wives. There is also a marked difference in cause of death. Many of the women are strangled. Some of them are stabbed. Some are beaten to death. Without the expertise of a career FBI forensic pathologist, I would hazard a guess that it is unusual for a serial killer to vary his methods between stabbing, strangling and bludgeoning. They are very different crimes, with very different psychological applications. But again, Bolaño makes no claims at authenticity, at veracity. Nowhere in The Part About the Crimes are we shown what is real information and what is literary construct. So, as a reader, is Bolaño using 2666 to turn me into a skeptic of the official version of events? Is the central point of 2666 to drum up support among readers of literary fiction for political agitation in Ciudad Juarez? If so, why not be more forthright about it? Why not give us the real facts, or at least show us which are facts and which are inventions? How are we to know? How are we to know if we know? Again, this is partly to do with the recentness of the book. Future annotated editions may contain detailed notes elaborating the connections between the book and the world. But it seems that the occlusion of the reality of events, the journalistic meaning of the book, inside the literary world of Santa Teresa, and the fictional nature of 2666, at the very least creates an incredible delay in our ability to do anything useful about the real crimes in Ciudad Juarez. So why stir up so much useless indignation that, because it comes at least a decade after the crimes were committed, has no practical application per se? Is the answer to this that the women are already dead, that they are beyond our help? Is our indignation meant to be aroused against a kind of crime, a kind of sociological malaise? Is Bolaño trying to use the truth of all these individual crimes to make a case against Crime in the name of Truth?
I think this leads to the second part of the answer to why Bolaño included every victim, and the details, even if they were fictualized. Bolaño's youth was characterized by the violence of Pinochet's coup in Chile. Even if, as some reports indicate, Bolaño wasn't taken prisoner after a coup, even if he didn't miraculously escape a probable death sentence, the Pinochet coup, and the repressive military regimes of Latin America in the 60s and 70s, have a deep resonance throughout Bolaño's work. The 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City has an important role in The Savage Detectives. Auxilio Lacouture, the central character of the massacre passages of TSD is the narrator of Amulet. Distant Star, By Night in Chile, and Nazi Literature in the Americas are all meditations on Chilean and Latin American fascism. In Chile, as in Argentina, the primary feature of the fascist dictatorships of the 70s and 80s was the disappearing of people. Decades after the return of democracy, the militaries of both countries have yet to provide a full list of the mostly innocent victims they kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered. Discarding their bodies in mass graves, burning or dynamiting their corpses, or tossing them from planes into the sea, the dictatorships not only perpetuated unspeakable violence on their citizenry, but did so clandestinely, and though they most likely still possess detailed internal reports of what was done to whom by whom, those reports have never been released to the public, so that, in effect, the families and friends of the victims have never known officially whether or not their loved ones were dead. This erasure of fate and identity was calculated not only to hide the crimes of the fascist regimes but also to leave the wounds open, so that the citizenry could never heal, never properly mourn, and, in effect, never move beyond the years of the dictatorship. One of the methods the families and friends of the victims, along with their supporters, have employed to combat what is essentially psychological warfare is their obsessive recording and institutionalized remembering of the missing. Compiling information has become one of the principal weapons to fight back against the psychological element of the dictatorships. In Argentina, each March 24, tens of thousands of citizens commemorate the anniversary of the coup that began the Argentine dictatorship by descending on the capital city's central square where the names of the missing -- thousands of them -- are called out in a roll call. It is an act of obsessive compulsion of almost staggering decadence, and were it not for the innately human, deeply moral agenda of this act, it would be down right silly. But the enormity and severity of the violence gives the almost rococo nature of the demonstration a strange kind of beauty. None will be forgotten. A similar act involves pictures. The families and friends of the missing carry an enormous banner on their shoulders as they march down the long avenue to the central plaza. The banner, maybe six feet wide and several blocks long, bears a simple black and white photograph of each of the missing. It performs the same function as the roll call, and has the same aesthetic tendency towards obsessive compulsive overkill. Were it a compilation of all the athletes who had suffered sprains due to inadequate footwear in schools, say, the banner, like the roll call, would be despicably decadent, overwhelming its content with its own hyper-abundant form. But because each photograph is presumably of a precocious teenager who spoke out against increases in bus fares, or an architecture student who had a personal feud with brutalism, or a car mechanic who lent his car to the wife of a militant, etc all of whom met a fairly consistent fate of kidnap, torture and death, the display becomes hauntingly beautiful. The content of the banner, like the roll call, is of such permanent and human import that the banner drapes lightly across its own meaning like a funeral shroud. The baroque becomes elegant. It may seem strange to talk about political murder in aesthetic terms, but I think that is inherent to writing, although, in the case of Bolaño, there is a very skeptical vigilance as to the moral character and agenda of aesthetics. Bolaño's fascists are often as not brilliant artists. And his artists are often as not the kind of anti-artists that make The Savage Detectives so fun to read.
In the case of the desaparecidos of Chile and Argentina, who were drawn largely from Bolaño's generation, his schoolmates and peers, we are dealing with real people whose identities are known, but whose fates are unknown. In the case of the Ciudad Juarez murders, as with the Santa Teresa murders, the victims are not erased. They are left publicly dead, unspeakably injured, their often naked bodies often brutally disfigured. Yet a strange kind of disappearance affects them too. Consider the sheriff from Arizona, Harry Morgaña, who disappears just as he is cracking open the mystery of the murders. Presumably he is killed by the three men who ambush him, yet we hear nothing of him again. His body simply vanishes, never to be found. Clearly his killers, who presumably are killing at least some of the women in Santa Teresa, know how to get rid of a body. Why then do they not bother to hide the women they kill? Why is the American tourist left stabbed to death along the border fence, when the American sheriff is painstakingly hidden? Because the dead women in Santa Teresa, as in Ciudad Juarez, don't matter. Because their deaths arouse nothing, apart from the grief of their families. There is no public outcry for years. Not among the management or owners of the factories where they work, not among the police department that allegedly exists to protect them, not among the neighborhoods where the victims scratch out their meager existences, not among the journalists who allegedly report the state of affairs, not among the democratically elected officials who allegedly represent them. The victims have already had their identities erased, prior to their murders. They are essentially invisible, disappeared already by the socio-economic (in 2666, as in real life, the murders in Santa Teresa and Ciudad Juarez began at the same time NAFTA went into effect) and socio-politico and plain old social forces that define Santa Teresa. The real crime of Ciudad Juarez and Santa Teresa is not that hundreds of women and children were raped, tortured and violently murdered. The real crime is that nobody seemed to notice, let alone care. In this sense, what I take to be Bolaño's mimicking of the obsessive roll call and banner used in Argentina to remember the dead is used to remember the living, to remind us not that these women died, but that these people, these identities, once existed, toiled and were extinguished, and none of us paid any attention. I think this is part of the larger meaning of 2666. It is not a detective novel the conclusion of which is finding out that so and so did such and such, but an indictment of a world that conspired to create a place like Santa Teresa, 1993. We as part of that world are implicated in that conspiracy. I think this is why the novel jumps from Santa Teresa 1997 to eastern Germany 1920 at the end of The Part About the Crimes. Bolaño is not writing a murder mystery, he is writing a moral mystery about the human proclivity to engage in evil.
[Next: Did Bolaño name Benno von Archimboldi né Hans Reiter after a doctor of death at Buchenwald?]