Reading “2666″: The Part About the Crimes

Kevin Nguyen explores the literary purpose behind Bolaño’s brutal depictions of murder.

“The Part About the Crimes” is widely lauded as the centerpiece of 2666. In a review of the book for The New York Times , Jonathan Lethem praised 2666‘s fourth section for its unliterary aspirations (he also makes a pretty apt comparison to Haruki Murakmi’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicles).

“If the word ‘unflinching’ didn’t exist I’d invent it to describe these nearly 300 pages,” he wrote. “Yet [author Roberto] Bolaño never completely abandons those reserves of lyricism and irony that make the sequence as transporting as it is grueling.”

Bolaño describes, with vicious detail, the unsolved murders of Ciudad Juárez (thinly veiled as Santa Teresa). The novel’s grueling 300-page fourth section comprises 2666‘s most ambitious, challenging, and successful moments.

Though the murders of Juárez have gained some attention in Western media, the city is still considered by many metrics of development to be a success. In 2008, Foreign Direct Investment magazine, owned by the Financial Times, named Juárez the “City of the Future.” Over the past ten years, the average annual growth of its industry has been an impressive 5.3%. It’s the place where output and efficiency are the highest. Even though workers are aware of the dangers of the city — not just from homicides, but frequent drug cartel-related violence — the relatively high maquiladora wages encourage a steady flow of women across Mexico to move north to Juárez.

The situation of the city, both prosperous and menacing, sustains a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Though most of the 400 cases remain unsolved, the current leading theory is that the murders are committed by a number of different people. The consistent negligence of the police to investigate the crimes successfully has nurtured an environment where rape and murder go unpunished. The woman of Juárez have no choice but to endure. From the perspective of postmodern development, it’s a zone of social abandonment. In a literary sense, it’s a place devoid of moral consequence.

So what point does Bolaño want to make here? Just to bring attention to Juárez among fiction readers? Perhaps, but I believe his pursuit is more demanding.

Adam Kaufman wrote an article comparing 2666 to The Wire — HBO’s sociopolitical crime drama set in Baltimore. It’s an inexact parallel, but the ways that Bolaño and the show’s creator David Simon establish their locales as zones of abandonment speak to the strengths of both. According to Simon, The Wire is an untraditional Greek tragedy:

The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason.

But The Wire is all about examining the motives behind “postmodern institutions.” The show’s story lines are carefully interconnected to illustrate the convoluted ties between Baltimore’s social, political, and economic factors, rather than chalking it down to simple cause-and-effect relationships. Simon is also able to make certain fictive leaps that a documentarian couldn’t. It’s one of the reasons why The Wire works so well.

Still, both Simon and Bolaño defy tragic convention in the sense that most of their “lightning bolts” are not ethical repercussions. Tragic heroes traditionally meet an inevitable yet foreseen end, always at the hand of their own shortcomings. The victims of Juárez are killed for no moral purpose, and even in Bolaño’s literary construction of Santa Teresa, the same emptiness pervades each of their deaths. They are victims of real-life Olympian powers — globalization, poverty, foreign investment, corrupt police, and so on.

Some have criticized “The Part About the Crimes” for the way it fetishizes each murder to the point of perversion. The graphic, violent nature of each description is unsettling, yet after 300 pages, it becomes desensitizing. Bolaño repeats the phrase “vaginally and anally raped,” mimicking the language of the police report with discomforting formality. Murder becomes tedious, to those who live in Juárez, the “fictitious” Santa Teresa, and surprisingly, to the reader.

It’s this self-awareness that makes 2666 a postmodern tragedy, and it’s how Bolaño ties “The Part About the Crimes” to the rest of the novel. The academics of the first section, Amalfitano in the second, and journalist Oscar Fate of the third are all drawn to the violence of Santa Teresa. But when we’re actually confronted with the murders, Bolaño doesn’t grant us the literary meaning of each death. We just see the evil of it.

Sociology and political science classes often teach globalization as a force with trade-offs. While foreign manufacturing demands exploitation of its labor, it’s more efficient and less expensive to produce goods abroad, and the workers themselves earn higher wages than they would otherwise. But this justification imbues an ethical rationale behind the motives.

In Santa Teresa, Bolaño gives us a more one-sided picture, where the maquiladoras sustain a realm of violence. 2666 frees itself early on from literary conventions — narrative, structure, theme, and as we discussed, moralizing. Juárez may be a real place on Earth where genuine evil exists, and in the grandest sense of irony (literary irony, mind you), the only way we can even begin to believe it is through fiction.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.