Thursday, January 1, 2009

Reading and resolutions in 2009

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Sitting in front of my fire at home, I have been slowly progressing through Roberto Bolano's lengthy masterwork, 2666, a novel which was first published in 2003 and has only recently been translated into English. It's so long that the paperback version is published in a boxed set of three, but the book is actually divided into five sections, which contain similar plot threads but which Bolano originally intended to publish as five separate novels. I read the first three sections quickly - the story of five academics and a journalist who find themselves, for various reasons, in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, near the Mexico-Arizona border - but I have been stuck in the fourth section for over a week, reading several pages and then putting the book down.

This is because Santa Teresa, the city which becomes the novel's center of gravity, is a thinly veiled copy of Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Mexico-Texas border, where since 1993, hundreds of women have disappeared. Sometimes their bodies reappear, horribly violated, in the desert, but there is no pattern to their deaths, and the Juarez police seem unable (or unwilling) to find the killer, or killers. The fourth part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes", is a 300-page account of the deaths, told in an eerie, journalistic style. The effect is intense and brutal - imagine being bludgeoned with hundreds of death reports like this one, interspersed with stories of the police's half-hearted attempts to stop the crimes:

"In the middle of November the body of another dead woman was discovered in the Podesta ravine. She had multiple fractures of the skull, with loss of brain matter. Some marks on the body indicated that she had put up a struggle. She was found with her pants down around her knees, by which it was assumed that she'd been raped, although after a vaginal swab was taken this hypothesis was discarded. Five days later the dead woman was identified. She was Luisa Cardona Pardo, thirty-four, from the state of Sinaloa, where she had worked as a prostitute from the age of seventeen. She had been living in Santa Teresa for four years and she was employed at the EMSA maquiladora."

The brilliance and brutality of Bolano's story comes from these deadpan descriptions, which are reminiscent of books like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian in their unending violence. I hated Blood Meridian, but I am forcing myself through this section of 2666 not just because I think that Bolano is a better writer than McCarthy, but because this violence is horrifyingly real. Santa Teresa is an ugly, dirty city, and the senselessness of the murders is reflected in the fragmentation of Bolano's prose. All of the characters seem lost and hollow; they are faced with an evil which is beyond their control or comprehension. The vastness and horror of the Juarez murders is captured in this void, which Bolano isn't making up - he got most of his source material from lengthy conversations with Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, a journalist who extensively researched the Juarez murders, and wrote about it in his book, Huesos en el desierto. Both were fascinated and appalled by the ease with which brutality becomes mundane. The Juarez crimes no longer make the headlines in Mexico, and the women can't be avenged, because they are part of a greater system which makes violence ordinary, and life - especially women's lives - cheap.

"A malevolent person, like a serial killer, can unleash a kind of sweeping effect," Gonzalez Rodriguez says. This "normalization of barbarism," he argues, is the most serious problem facing Mexico and Latin America today, and can have effects which rival a totalitarian dictatorship. But the effects of this normalization can be seen worldwide. It's the beginning of a new year, and I want to finish this book because I want to remind myself that this kind of violence exists, all around me, even if it doesn't directly penetrate my life. Evil, in Bolano's novel, is endless and all-encompassing, but we need books like 2666 to give us nightmares, to make us walk through the cemetaries of the deserts around Juarez. Santa Teresa, Bolano suggests, is made a corrupt and empty place by its proximity to the United States, and by our unceasing exploitation of thousands of third-world cities. We need to listen to this book, and try to understand how we have contributed to a present in which evil is the norm, and women's lives are worth nothing.

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