Weeks before Roberto Bolaño’s death, an interviewer asked him how he envisioned hell. His response: “Cuidad Juarez.” At the center of his 2666 – quite literally, as it occupies roughly the second third of the book – The Part About the Crimes is the semi-fictionalized account of a real atrocity in and around this Mexican border city: the savage murders of hundreds of women, many subjected to brutal sexual abuse and torture, suggesting a serial, even systemic factor in the killings. The murders, tracked since 1993, certainly began well before the “first” case aroused suspicion that a serial killer or killers might be at work. At the time Bolaño’s novel appeared in 2004, the toll stood at somewhere around 280 victims, with few of the cases solved. Since then, murders of women have continued at a stunning rate, albeit with fewer of the serial-type killings described in 2666. Three hundred and four women were murdered in Cuidad Juarez in 2012 alone, most of the killings attributed by authorities to domestic violence, other altercations, involvement of drug cartels, or what the police consider isolated acts, a technical division that diminishes and obscures the magnitude and pervasiveness of the gender-driven violence Bolaño addresses.
Bolaño has seeded the first three parts of 2666 both with scattered violence and amplifying allusions to the particular crimes of Juarez. The increasingly powerful gravity that has drawn the novel’s principal characters into Santa Teresa now engulfs the reader in the city’s atmosphere of horror and impunity. Bolaño sets The Part About the Crimes not in Cuidad Juarez (which makes a cameo appearance in the novel), nor in the real Sonoran city of Santa Teresa further south, but in a fictional Santa Teresa, its name surely meant to evoke that self-mutilating, mystical, canonized nun. Perhaps it’s intended as well to stress the significance of the border, by borrowing the name of the U.S. town just northwest of Juarez, where the Santa Teresa border crossing is rapidly growing into a significant commercial trade corridor. Bolaño nearly always applies such torque to reality, twisting it into new yet still fully recognizable forms. Thus, while his forensic, sterile descriptions of the victims in The Part About the Crimes depart in names and details from the actual killings, this manipulation subtracts nothing from their impact. Forming a catalog that punctuates and interrupts the narrative for its 300 pages, these descriptions have a cumulative, concussive effect. Bolaño’s intermingling of factual details also seems to bring the magnitude of the crimes closer and to complement and extend existing journalistic accounts, such as Teresa Rodriguez’s The Daughters of Juarez, which, though it appeared after 2666, can be read in striking parallel with The Part About the Crimes (Rodriguez’s searing portrayal of an apathetic, complicit judicial authority in the state of Chihuahua is enraging enough for one to want to see the region’s entire, poisonous police apparatus encased in a Chernobyl-like concrete sarcophagus).
Bolaño’s explorations of the factors that could permit such horrors to continue for years with impunity range deeply and widely across a wretched physical and spiritual landscape that consumes its most vulnerable members. In place of an attempt to divine the psychopathology of the killer or killers is a far-reaching exploration of the multiple, “global” convergent elements that have allowed such atrocity to happen: the sharp economic and social disparities that exist along the border; the exponential growth in the number of foreign-owned maquiladoras; the exploding sprawl resulting from impoverished persons from the south pouring in to seek work; an enormous pool of cheap labor, including a significant contingent of young women and under-aged girls; the calculated, profiteering indifference of factory managers and distant factory owners, primarily from the U.S.; the almost complete absence of infrastructure such as paved roads, lighting and public transportation; the dominance of drug cartels operating with impunity; the corruption and complicity of local and state police and of the federal government; efforts by civic boosters to downplay the crimes and by the powerful to impede investigation; the shockingly pervasive manifestations of machismo and misogyny. Over it all a suffocating, paralytic inertia presses down relentlessly, enervating the possibility of action. Oscar Amalfitano’s geometrical attempts in the second part of the novel to link seemingly randomly generated names of writers and philosophers now seem a kind of psychological simulacrum of the effort to make sense of these victims, randomly discarded across the desert wastes in an elusive, impenetrable order. The city’s tepid response to the murders rises and falls according to their frequency, as if they were no more than a nuisance brought by the wind.
The imagination of a Dante or Bosch might have been used for painting this portrait of hell; instead, and all the more devastating for it, Bolaño remains, in his unembellished treatment of the victims, steady, factual and understated. His use of understatement is especially acidic: police who decide “to go along with the official story;” “samples sent to Hermosillo…lost, whether on the way there or on the way back it wasn’t clear;” victims “sent to swell the supply of corpses for medical school students at the University of Santa Teresa;” bodies “tossed without further ado into the public grave.” A maddening catalog of abysmal failures parallels the abysmal catalog of victims: “The case remained unsolved,,,the case was soon closed… the case was quietly closed…filed as unsolved …soon shelved…soon neglected and forgotten…the unidentified girl remained unclaimed, as if she had come to Santa Teresa alone and lived there invisibly until the murderer or murderers took notice of her and killed her.”
The broad scale of Bolaño’s literary treatment of the murders allows a depth of imagination, of immersion in the hell of Cuidad Juarez, that no journalistic account could likely accomplish, and the fragmentary aspects of Bolaño’s narrative, its breaks and jumps, disconnections and discontinuities, seem to echo the frustrating lack of resolution in the actual crimes. Woven into the body count, Bolaño offers multiple narrative threads that deeply contextualize the crimes, and not only the sadistic, serial killings (these given even less attention by authorities than are given to a madman desecrating churches), but also the “ordinary” violence inflicted upon women by husbands, boyfriends, strangers and others. A large cast of characters, major and minor, demonstrate varying degrees of culpability, acquiescence and confrontation with regard to the crimes. The desperateness of the situation is illustrated by Bolano’s choosing, as among the most clear-eyed of these characters, the clairvoyant Florita Almada, whose television appearances, disrupted in Santa Teresa by the fog of poor transmission, plead with the city to wake up: “I’m talking about the girls and the mothers of families and the workers from all works of life who turn up dead each day in the neighborhoods and on the edges of that industrious city in the northern part of our state. I’m talking about Santa Teresa. I’m talking about Santa Teresa.” And though Bolaño’s portrayals of the police may be unflattering, they are not one-dimensional. Amid the corrupt, dull-witted, and vicious officers, he offers glimpses (though depressingly few) of humanity in several others, most notably Juan de Dios Martínez, whose relationship with Elvira Campos, director of a psychiatric institute in Santa Teresa, at least involves grappling with the killings and who is one of the few officers to display any kind of emotional reaction to them (each time stifled, at once a poignant display of his humanity and an indictment of a macho culture that discourages such emotional openness in men). The young detective and former drug-boss bodyguard, Lalo Cura, whose hard life choices illustrate the fluid connections between the cartels and the police (a “lunacy” underscored by his very name), develops, through study, a degree of professionalism mocked by colleagues whose utter carelessness with evidence repeatedly impedes investigation of the crimes. A consultant from the United States, Albert Kessler, brought in primarily for public relations purposes, disappears in Santa Teresa, as does a violent American counterpart, Harry Magana, a sheriff from Arizona pursuing leads on his own. Others take a more strong, compulsive interest in the killings of the women, including an American journalist, Mary-Sue Bravo; a reporter from Mexico City, Sergio Gonzàlez (modeled transparently after Bolaño’s friend Sergio Gonzàlez-Rodriguez, who has published widely about the Juarez murders); and a determined PRI congresswoman, Azucena Esquivel Plata, who seeks Gonzàlez’s help in keeping the crimes in the public eye by urging him to “hit hard” in writing about them (in perhaps a nod to Bolaño’s approach in addressing the Juarez crimes, the character Gonzàlez, also a novelist, notes that “books aren’t censored or read here, but the press is another story”). Esquivel Plata’s determination is both professional and personal; the latter gets detailed in a lengthy anecdote concerning a vanished friend from childhood now likely mired in high-class prostitution and organization of private parties for wealthy clients and cartel bosses that may involve the sexual exploitation of young girls. But Esquivel Plata’s motivations go beyond the particular to encompass rage at the entire culture of misogyny, impunity and collusion.
But for those readers who’ve been frustrated by the discontinuities of the earlier parts of 2666, perhaps the most intriguing character in The Part About the Crimes is Klaus Haas, the tall German first introduced at the end of The Part About Fate. Haas, established in Santa Teresa after leaving the United States, is suspected in the murder of one of the girls, imprisoned and expediently blamed for the most of the murders. In another example of torque, Bolaño borrows details about Haas from the case of Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, a tall, fair-skinned Egyptian scientist wanted for rape charges in the U.S. Sharif had been arrested in Juarez and used as a scapegoat for the murders even as bodies to continued to pile up while he languished in prison, from which it was suggested he was somehow continuing to direct the crimes, resulting in other suspects, mainly young gang members, being rounded up indiscriminately and subjected to torture (Teresa Rodriguez quotes a prosecutor describing Sharif, in what might have been a line from Bolaño himself, as “the intellectual author of the crimes”). In Haas, who appears to fit the tenuous description the critics carried when they pursued rumors of Benno von Archimboldi to Santa Teresa, Bolaño brings together the two key questions of the novel thus far: Who is responsible for the crimes? And who is the writer Benno von Archimboldi? To these questions he poses another: Is Klaus Haas both Benno von Archimboldi and the person responsible for these killings? Bolaño thus places the reader in the wondering position of the critics, dividing the reader’s attention uneasily between the successive, punishing body count and the mystery of Archimboldi.
The Part About the Crimes concludes without resolution of these questions; in the final lines, there is only laughter in the dark. But through this fictional treatment, Bolaño powerfully brings to the forefront the hellish actuality of Juarez; describes the intricate confluence of local and global forces that ignore the crimes and deny the victims justice; and, reveals, via the terrible panorama that has developed throughout 2666 to emerge in plain view in The Part About the Crimes, not only the deep pervasiveness of violence, but the myriad ways it is especially directed against women.
In The Part About Fate, Oscar Fate recalls someone – the journalist Guadalupe Roncal, or perhaps Rosa Amalfitano – stating that “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” With a jolt, Fate realizes or imagines that it was neither woman, but the incarcerated Klaus Haas, “the giant fucking albino,” who supplied the comment. And so, standing at the edge of the abyss, one turns, as though hoping for deliverance via a possible answer to the other mystery of 2666, from The Part About the Crimes to The Part About Archimboldi.