Sunday, November 15, 2009

Because, as You Know, Time Is Unreal

This is something funny I say lately when people ask me to be philosophical, even if it’s after 8.00 in the evening or I’ve had my second pint or equivalent wine or liquor. That’s the subject of an essay I read a couple of weeks ago by John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, which was incredibly controversial at the time, because no one could deal with the idea that time wasn’t real. He wrote that we can never identify time itself, only the relative succession of events in order. Once I realized that was the point of his essay, I understood that it wasn’t controversial at all anymore, and that he only anticipated the conceptual leap of special relativity physics, just without the math. When I use that phrase at a party, I usually follow it up with, “But that doesn’t matter anyway.”

The reason I bring it up is that I started reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 again just after I got back from Edinburgh. The story had stuck with my memory, involuntarily popping up in my consciousness ever since I read it last winter, and no novel had done that to me before. I’ve been able to see a lot more of the interconnections and callbacks among the different parts now that I hadn’t noticed the first time, which has made it a much more rich reading experience. But just now, I was thinking about why the parts are arranged out of chronological order as they are in the book, and I came to an idea that makes an incredible amount of sense. Whether it was Bolaño’s or not doesn’t matter, but it’s a fascinating idea.

The Chronological Order of 2666
One: 1998-late 2003
Two: 1980-2000
Three: early 2003
Four: 1993-1997
Five: 1920-2003

I never really understood why a writer would arrange their work out of chronological order (unless it was actually a time-travel story, in which case the concept becomes kind of laughable, or at least it should) before I wrote A Small Man’s Town, which is told out of chronological order. You could say that I organized the events of my book not in chronological order, but in emotional order. My book is organized in a series of arcs in which my characters mature emotionally. Some of them move more chronologically than others because those characters don’t have as many setbacks in developing their maturity. I found that kind of structure to be more significant than a simple order of events from 2001-10, because none of the events in that book are really all that significant. So that’s why I never adhered strongly to chronology.

Just before I started writing this, I had this idea about why Bolaño didn’t adhere to chronology. 2666 is a novel about the abyss, a maelstrom of violence and death bubbling underneath the surface of the ordinary life we think is so secure, but that when we least expect it can swallow us whole (or chomp us up in pieces) and spit us back out days, months, years later reduced to a bloody pulp. This is not an uplifting Mitch Albom style story where everything is alright because we love each other. The problem with the abyss is that it’s a void, it’s so terrifying that it’s unspeakable. So all we can do is approach as close as we can without falling in.

And that’s what the order of the five parts of 2666 do. The protagonists of each part, as you progress from part one to part five, become better able to approach, perceive, and understand the abyss. The four literary critics of part one- Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Liz Norton, and Piero Morini - are sheltered, cultured western Europeans of the 1990s and 2000s. They understand it only through art, particularly the literature of Benno von Archimboldi (whose work we never actually read or have described in any detail), and perceive it only through their incomprehensible dreams.

Oscar Amalfitano, the protagonist of part two, is a philosophy professor in Santa Teresa, the ficionalized Juarez where the killings of hundreds of women takes place. He perceives the abyss through his estranged wife’s madness and death from AIDS, and the voices he hears as he edges into madness himself. Oscar Fate, the American journalist visiting Santa Teresa by accident to cover a mediocre boxing match for his magazine, meets up with some low-level gangsters in the city, one of whom is dating Amalfitano’s daughter Rosa. He sees the violent criminal culture that renders the murder of hundreds of women so ordinary, and understands it well enough to know that he and Rosa are both in way over their heads.

The fourth part is about the killings themselves, or at least the first few hundred of them, and the investigations that the police, narcotrafficers, and gangs get involved in. This part puts us in the thick of the massacre itself, with only one young cop, Lalo Cura, standing out among a large ensemble cast this time, as the only one who believes that the police can solve the crimes, and actually working towards this himself.

And part five tells the life story of Benno von Archimboldi: how a young German boy who loves to swim gets enlisted in the Nazi army, fights on the Eastern Front, is shot in the neck, recuperates in the reclaimed cavern of a long dead Jewish sci-fi writer whose works inspire him to begin his own literary career, plucking his pen name from random thoughts at the time, falling in love with a slightly mad girl after whose death he wanders Europe as an itinerant even as his books becomes increasingly famous, while he himself embraces life for its impermanence, instability, and finitude, and all the small moments of joy that come throughout it if you’re ready to receive them, until one day he hears from his sister, an ordinary woman with a son who moved to America to start a business and found himself roped into this terrible matter of these murders in Santa Teresa. So Archimboldi flies to Mexico to help.

I think it’s intriguing that the character of Prof Amalfitano turns up in the most parts. I think, and this is entirely unfounded speculation, that if the rumours that a sixth part of 2666 exists or was planned or prepared, it would feature Amalfitano finally succumbing to complete insanity. It would perhaps involve Archimboldi as well, and perhaps an older Lalo Cura, though I cannot say if he would be jaded by then or just as determined to stop the killings even if he understands them as deeply as my reading suggests.

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