Vanishing points

Pub date March 3, 2009
WriterErick Lyle
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

› a&

ESSAY/REVIEW There is a wry but hilarious scene near the very end of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 912 pages; $30), in which a French literary critic finds a German writer, Archimboldi, lodging at what the critic calls "a home for vanished writers." After checking into a room at the large estate, the elderly vanished writer wanders the grounds, meeting with the other vanished authors, residents whom Archimboldi finds friendly but increasingly eccentric. Gradually it dawns on Archimboldi that all is not as it seems. Walking back to the entrance gate, he sees, without surprise, a sign announcing that the estate is the "Mercier Clinic and Rest Home — Neurological Center." The home for vanished writers is an insane asylum.

As we enter the Obama era, with all its promise of "change," I’ve found it impossible to read 2666 without being haunted by the memory of those who vanished into the lunatic asylum of the long George W. Bush years — not just the nameless and unlucky left to rot in the Bush administration’s secret torture cells throughout the world, but also those who disappeared right here at home. For instance, a guy I worked with a couple of years ago. One day he was training me on the job, and a week or so later he was in a federal prison, labeled a "terrorist" — which in his case meant that he edited a Web site called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.

There were other ghosts, those who vanished after refusing to speak to grand juries. They were rumored to have gone over the border, or back to the land, or who knows where, their very names now superstitiously verboten to speak out loud, lest we bring the heat down on ourselves. Now that Obama is here and everybody is eager for "change," who will remember the once-bright hopes and dreams of the generation that beat the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the dawn of this decade — the hopes that would later be chased down and gassed and beaten by riot police under cover of media blackout in the streets of Miami, St. Paul, or countless other cities? Of course, there were the suicides and overdoses, and other kinds of disappearances, different but related, too: the abandoned novels, or the guitars taken to the pawnshop. Three people in my community jumped off bridges. Only one survived. The human toll of the Bush years in my life has been enormous.

Watching the celebrations in the streets of the Mission District on election night in November, I could tell all of this was soon to be trivia. I saw a virtually all-white crowd of completely wasted people take over the intersection at 19th and Valencia, shouting "Obama!" and dancing in the street. In one way, this scene was touching: the spontaneous gathering was a product of the true feelings of human hope that people have for a better world. Yet the moment already had the scripted feel of something self-conscious or mediated, like the Pepsi ad campaign it would soon become. I had a sinking realization: those of us who have spent eight years battling the post-9/11 mantra of Everything Is Different Now were now going to soon be up against a new era of, well, Everything Is Different Now.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our country are important. Just when a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is most needed to write a detailed narrative of the Bush era’s torture, spying, illegal war, and swindling, I could already see the opportunity for that kind of change slipping away into the blackout amnesia aftermaths of the street parties taking place all across the nation. The election of a president of the United States from among the ranks of the nation’s most oppressed minorities has offered the country a new triumphant storyline. We have symbolically redeemed our sins against civilian casualties and third world workers, without too much painful self-examination. I could see that Obama’s brand of change was really so seductive because it offered a chance to change the subject.

Like Ronald Reagan, elected while the U.S. was mired in recession and post-Vietnam soul-searching, Barack Obama developed campaign narratives that made the U.S. feel good about itself again. Obama guessed correctly that national morale is low partially because we don’t want to deal with the nameless guilt we feel from the atrocities Bush and company committed in our names. Accordingly, he stated during his campaign that he would not pursue criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nor has Obama questioned the preposterous idea that we can win either a War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. If you think about it, "Yes We Can" — his campaign’s appeal to good old American can-do spirit — isn’t far off in substance from Bush’s faith-based convictions about U.S. power. Both Bush’s crusade to make democracy flower in the desert of Iraq and Obama’s notion that the auto industry could save itself — and the planet! — with electric cars are fantasies that appeal to our sense of pride about being the richest and most powerful.

When a country that is owned by China and is getting its ass kicked simultaneously by ragged guerilla armies in two of the most impoverished and backward parts of the world keeps finding new ways to tell itself that it’s the richest and most powerful country, it is in deep trouble.

When political leaders and journalists seek to generate false narratives for our consumption and comfort, the difficult task of remembering the truth falls to literature.

Roberto Bolaño completed 2666 in 2003, shortly before he died, too poor to receive a liver transplant, at the age of 50. Born in Chile, Bolaño counted himself a member of "the generation who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell," and was himself something of a vanished writer. Briefly jailed during the 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popularly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Bolaño wandered in exile from Mexico City to Spain, working variously as a janitor and a dishwasher, entering obscure literary competitions advertised on the backs of magazines, while his generation was consumed by Pinochet’s secret prisons and torture cells.

Fittingly, disappearance is perhaps the main action of characters in Bolaño’s works, from the vanished fascist poet and skywriter in 1996’s Distant Star (published in English by New Directions in 2004) to the entire romantic generation of doomed Mexican poets and radicals followed across the span of decades and continents to its vanishing point in a desert of crushed hopes in 1998’s The Savage Detectives (published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007). In 2666, the terminally ill Bolaño wrote as if in an urgent race against the moment of his own departure, unwilling to leave anything out, as if he wanted to save an entire lost underworld from banishment. Taking on every genre from detective noir to the war novel to romantic comedy in an exhilarating, nearly 1,000-page race to the finish, the book is Bolaño’s epic of the disappeared.

The periphery of 2666 teems with Bolaño’s archetypal lost and doomed, a host of minor characters including a former Black Panther leader turned barbecue cook, various Russian writers purged by Stalin during World War II, a Spanish poet living out his days in an asylum, and an acclaimed British painter who cuts off his own hand. There are the usual obscure literary critics and lost novelists, and we even briefly meet an elderly African American man who calls himself "the last Communist in Brooklyn." This last communist could speak for all of Bolaño’s lost and departed when he explains why he presses on: "Someone has to keep the cell alive."

The book’s action, however, centers upon the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa during the late 1990s, events based on real-life unsolved killings in Juarez, Mexico. The majority of the women murdered in Juarez were workers at the new factories along the border with the United States, the unregulated maquiladoras that have sprung up in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the book’s longest section, "The Part about the Crimes," we learn the names, one by one, of 111 of these murdered women. In terse, police-blotter language, Bolaño describes the crime scenes — the girls’ clothing, their disappearances, and the police investigators’ attempts to construct the last hours of their lives. Their bodies are discovered slashed, stabbed, bound, gagged, and always raped, in ditches, landfills, alleys, or along the side of the highway. Seen from these vantage points, Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is a disjointed place, seemingly patched together from snatches of barely remembered nightmares. Shantytowns and illegal toxic dumps spring up everywhere in "the shadow of the horizon of the maquiladoras." It is a city that is "endless," "growing by the second," a new type of urban zone in a Latin America that has become a laboratory for free trade policy experiments. It is a city made unmappable by globalization.

Bolaño clearly intends the reader to see the disappearances as the inevitable byproduct of the cheapness of life in the maquiladora economy, yet the killings also eerily evoke the disappearances in fascist 1970s Chile and Argentina. These murders are an open secret, virtually ignored by the media. Residents almost superstitiously refer to them only as "the crimes." The Santa Teresa police respond to the killings with a staggering indifference and ineptitude that might suggest complicity. The maquiladoras are ominous, hulking windowless buildings often in the center of town, not unlike the torture cells once hidden in plain sight in Buenos Aires (Bolaño even names one of them EMSA, an obvious play on Argentina’s most notorious concentration camp, ESMA), and many of the women’s bodies are discovered in an illegal garbage dump called El Chile. 2666 suggests that the unrestrained capitalism of the free-trade era is the ideological descendent of the 1970s South America state repression from which Bolaño fled, and that the killings in Santa Teresa are in part a recreation of the Pinochet-era disappearances.

While the scenes Bolaño describes are grisly, his language is clinical, the cold camera eye of the lone detective gathering evidence. The collective impact of story after story starts to accrue into its own profoundly moral force. By giving name and face to hundreds of disappeared women, Bolaño suggests that literature is a political response, a way to make wrongs right by bearing witness. While it would certainly be a mistake to read 2666 strictly as a political tract, Bolaño explicitly ties writing to justice in a rambling digression about the African slave trade. A Mexican investigator of the killings points out that it was not recorded into history if a slave ship’s human cargo perished on the way to Virginia, but that it would be huge news in colonial America if there was even a single killing in white society: "What happened to (the whites) was legible, you could say. It could be written." For Bolaño, the search for justice is partially about who can be seen in print.

At a literary conference in Seville six months before his death, Bolaño joked that his literary stock might rise posthumously. Sure enough, Bolaño the man has, ironically, vanished after his untimely death, lost in the fog of fame in the English-speaking world. Mainstream critics call his work "labyrinthine" — perhaps English-language critics’ stock adjective for Latin American writers — in a rush to "discover" a new Borges. Bolaño was a high-school dropout who bragged of discovering literature by shoplifting books. He claimed to be a former heroin addict who hung out with the FMLN in El Salvador. His genius deserves comparison to the great Borges, but it’s safe to say that, unlike Borges, a literary lapdog of Argentina’s generals, Bolaño would never have addressed the military leaders of the fascist Argentine coup as "gentlemen." Bolaño wrote without a net, over the abyss of atrocity into which his generation vanished. He did so in an effort to make a literature that recorded for all time where the bodies were buried. As a female reporter in 2666 says, "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

The dangers of believing false narratives should be evident by now. In the wake of our current financial collapse, it is now widely understood that the U.S.’s sense of itself as the richest and most powerful nation in the world has been kept artificially afloat in the recent past by the import of cheap goods and credit from China. These cheap goods are manufactured under labor and environmental conditions much like those of Bolaño’s maquiladoras — conditions we tell ourselves we would never allow here at home, yet which are vital to our economic survival. Dealings with China have, instead, spread repressive tactics in reverse back to corporations from the United States, such as when Google memorably agreed to remove all reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from its Google China site.

There is a crucial difference between hope and self-delusion. In its dogged search for uncomfortable truth, 2666 creates a hard-won hope that is different from the way in which that word manifests on the campaign trail. It respects the hope that truth matters, that staring it down can provide the shock of self-awareness that makes real change possible.

In the meantime, there is the hope of literature itself. In 2666, Bolaño devotes a scene to one of his disappeared characters, a Spanish poet who lives out his days in an insane asylum in the countryside. The poet’s doctor — who in a classically deadpan Bolaño twist tells us he is also the poet’s biographer — reflects on the asylum the poet has vanished into. "Someday we will all finally leave (the asylum) and this noble institution will stand abandoned," he says. "But in the meantime, it is my duty to collect information, dates, names. To confirm stories." *

Erick Lyle is the author of On The Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of The City, out now on Soft Skull Press.