Thursday, February 27, 2014

2666: The Part About Fate

If the transition from the first part of 2666 to the second raised an eyebrow in abandoning the chief figures of the first part, but lowered it in concentrating the geographical and topical focus more tightly to its ostensible core subject – the murders of hundreds of women in northern Mexico - then the third part initially seems, even given the many branching diversions of 2666, a surprising departure from the direction in which the novel has been heading. First the title – The Part About Fate - lops off the reader’s expectations when Fate is soon found to be not a broad philosophical concept (or rather, not just a broad philosophical concept), but a character’s nickname - an ironic one too, perhaps, since Fate is one of the few characters thus far in 2666 to exercise will with any degree of boldness and conviction. Then there is the situation: Oscar Fate - a.k.a. Quincy Williams - seems far removed from the novel’s previous elements, way off in Chester Himes territory (the nickname could form a nice triumvirate with Himes’ Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones): an African-American reporter for a small Harlem newspaper, bereft of his mother, in pain, and haunted by “ghosts.” One tenuous connection to the previous section is the first name Fate shares with Oscar Amalfitano, as well as distinct echoes of Amalfitano’s similar sense of being at the end of his rope. Fate is on his way to Detroit to interview a former Black Panther, Barry Seaman, modeled with a high degree of resemblance on Bobby Seale (though the section on Seaman is brief, it features one of the tours de force in Bolaño’s writing in 2666, a sermon that Seaman, having renounced violence, delivers at a local church).

Some 30 pages into The Part About Fate, though, the murders in Santa Teresa, intrude again in a peculiar, virus-like manner, via a TV news story that plays while Fate is sleeping, dreaming of an interview he’d once undertaken with a Black communist who’d ended the interview by giving him a copy of a book about the slave trade, which Fate, upon waking, purchases at a Detroit bookshop. For the third time in as many parts of 2666, Bolaño takes his principal characters and moves them, as though fated, pulled by the gravity of a black hole, into the vortex of Santa Teresa: Fate’s editor asks if he’ll go there to cover a boxing match. Even before Fate has crossed the border, he’s again touched by the murders: in a restaurant south of Tucson he overhears a conversation between a young man and a white-haired man (who’ll appear later in 2666 as the American criminologist and mystery writer Albert Kessler) regarding “careful” versus “sloppy” killers, with part of the dialogue elided by a diesel engine but, audible, an assurance that while establishing a pattern of behavior is harder with a sloppy killer, given “the means and the time, you can do anything.” The conversation becomes another of Bolaño’s unreal monologues (2666 is full of them), an all but impossible discourse hung upon the situation of a conversation (just as elsewhere Bolaño hangs such discourses on dreams, on books, or the rambling thoughts of the half-crazed). In this case, Kessler opines that in the 19th century, “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words,” that words “served [the] purpose” of closing eyes to “madness and cruelty,” and were “mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation.” As an example, he references the slave trade, the anonymous deaths of “twenty percent of the merchandise on each ship” going unnoticed in contrast to, say, a plantation owner who goes mad and kills his neighbor and wife, resulting in a frenzy of media attention. Here the TV report and Fate’s dream converge, as the reference has obvious relevance to the murders of Santa Teresa, unfolding on the periphery of the world’s attention, when paid any attention at all. The story of Fate also converges with the novel’s previous parts. And who better, perhaps, than an African-American man, might understand the kind of impunity that, as the reader will soon see in The Part About the Crimes, meets the multiplying horrors of the murders in Santa Teresa?

The very tangential nature of the murders awakens something in Fate when he arrives in Santa Teresa. A louche local reporter, Chucho Flores, notes that, “Every so often the numbers go up and it’s new again and the reporters talk about it. People talk about it too, and the story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and every body forgets about it and goes back to work.”  Fate, though, repulsed by such fatalism, finds the murders a far more worthy story than the absurd boxing mismatch he’s been sent to cover. His interest is spurred by two women: Guadalupe Roncal, a reporter from Mexico City assigned to the story who seeks Fate’s help, and Rosa Amalfitano, who reappears in a different perspective, seen in The Part About Fate not so much as the daughter who frets about her fretting father, but as a young girl out on the town. Fate finds her compellingly attractive, recognizing that she’s out of place amid bad elements like Chucho Flores, and he takes a bold, decisive action that ensures her safety, perhaps at the expense of his own.

Though The Part About Amalfitano led the reader to the edge of the red abyss of the murders, and Bolaño might have proceeded directly to The Part About the Crimes, The Part About Fate adds considerable context to the heavy, menacing atmosphere of Santa Teresa. The oppressive machismo culture of northern Mexico is explored and underscored through dismissive comments about women and homosexuals, by the celebration of violence in the boxing match, by a passive lack of concern regarding the murders in Santa Teresa, by the facility and sometimes outright hostility with which men treat women, as bluntly evident when Fate witnesses the brutal beating of a woman in a bar, accompanied by mocking derision, the obliviousness by some of Rosa’s companions, and an invisible arm that restrains him from taking action – at least temporarily.


In the previous two parts of 2666, a conceptual art piece has figured significantly in the narrative. Another, a “secret” film by Mexican director Roberto Rodriguez that may or may not be a snuff film, figures prominently in The Part About Fate, ending with the camera zooming in on a mirror, recalling Liz Norton’s mirror dream from the critics’ first night in Santa Teresa. Perhaps more potent, though, is a crude mural painted inside the oddly fortress-like, ominous house (with its strange, ominous bathroom – there are a lot of bathroom scenes in 2666) where Fate ends up the night of the boxing match, and where his act of defiance, a burst of violence intended to remove Rosa Amalfitano from danger, is unleashed. On a wall in the house is a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an image ubiquitous in Mexico; she’s already appeared in a similar mural seen by the critics in a Santa Teresa restaurant in The Part About the Critics and as part of a tattoo on a young man’s back earlier in The Part About Fate. But Fate notices something odd about the Virgin’s face here: one eye appears to be closed, defaced, a powerful suggestion of both the violence against women and of the diminished capacity of this religious icon to serve as a protectrice, or even witness, to Santa Teresa’s crimes, and of the cruel irony of such a figure being fetishized in the same house in which, we’re led to believe, such crimes may have taken place.

One of the key motifs in 2666 – seeing – has become even more pronounced in The Part About Fate (an entire thesis might be built on Bolaño’s use of sight, half-sight, blindness, dream visions, clairvoyance, and images in mirrors). If in the first part of 2666 the four critics represented a kind of blindness to the atrocity, and in the second part Amalfitano’s response was a kind of refuge in desperation that nonetheless kept an eye open to what was happening, then one might say The Part About Fate presents another response: active resistance, with both eyes open, to the crimes that will spill across the pages of the next part of 2666.


  1. The 'seeing/blind eye' motif is a good one, Scott. The literariness of it is like a subtle strategy to advance a political statement or critique, and yet the message doesn't feel imposed on the reader like a slogan. Given the contents of part 4, it's like the reader is challenged or taunted to see and confront with two wide open eyes what is happening in the shadows.

    1. Over at the Novel Readings blog, there's a great post about writers confronting genocide and a line from journalist Philip Gourevitch that seemed relevant to 2666:

      “I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it.”

      I don't know that I'd say Bolaño is taunting the reader, but almost certainly, through the motif of seeing, he is challenging the reader to resist that inability to look, that resistance to looking. And in 2666, it's sometimes the characters who have a kind of second sight who see better than those right in the thick of the crimes.

  2. Nice post, Scott. One of the things you mention here that's been on my mind of late is that the bits with Kessler from "The Part About Fate," so well described in your post, present him in such a better light than the ones from "The Part About the Crimes," where he sometimes seem almost a source of ridicule for being the serial killer expert who comes from such a manicured safe white community. Not that the Mexican cops who travel with him (or who tail him) come off any better, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the apparent loss of respect for the character between the two parts? Also, very interesting point about Fate's African-American status maybe making him a more logical choice to understand the impunity he witnesses in Santa Teresa rather than a non-African American. It sure would be nice to ask Bolaño if that factored into his decision about the character at all.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I actually didn't remark a difference in the way Kessler appears in the two parts; he's aloof, theoretical, a paid consultant. I didn't even see him as so much ridiculous as just an ineffectual prop in a show that the local police put on to mask their complicity (the figure on whom he's based comes off pretty poorly in Teresa Rodriguez's book).

      It would be nice to ask Roberto Bolaño a few questions! I really have no idea how significant his choice was to use an African-American character, but I think he clearly wants to point to slavery as an example of the horrors, like the Juarez killings, that unfold in the shadows and view a class of human beings as expendable. Then too, recent events in the U.S. have me primed to think of the kind of impunity with which crimes against Blacks here can be treated.