Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

A Destination for Furniture

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “4: The Part About the Crimes”:

Two weeks later, in May 1994, Monica Duran Reyes was kidnapped on her way out of the Diego Rivera School in Colonia Lomas del Toro. She was twelve years old and she was a little scatterbrained but a good student. It was her first year of secondary school. Both her mother and father worked at Maderas de Mexico, a maquiladora that built colonial- and rustic-style furniture that was exported to the United States and Canada. (412)

It perhaps sounds awful to say this, but it’s really in Part 4 that 2666 gets going; this is the longest section of the novel (almost 300 pages on its own) and it is mainly a catalogue of the grisly murders of women.

And yet Bolano constructs his narrative so artfully that it comes to seem much more than a mere catalogue. The fact that the girl is a little scatterbrained, the mention of where her mother and father work – he uses this technique throughout the section to humanize the victims, just as Homer does in the Iliad, when he mentions some little detail about the life or home of a warrior just as he is killed, to add context and pathos and remind us that every death removes a unique personality and set of experiences from the world.

Here’s one somewhat lengthy but characteristic example from the Loeb translation by Murray, revised by Wyatt:

For the son of Telamon darted through the throng and struck him from close at hand through the helmet with cheekpieces of bronze; and the helmet with horsehair crest was split about the spearpoint, struck by the great spear and the stout hand; and the brain all mingled with blood spurted out from the wound along the socket of the spear. There then his strength was loosed, and from his hands he let fall the foot of great-hearted Patroclus to lie on the ground, and close by he himself fell forward on the corpse, far from deep-soiled Larisa; nor did he pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing, and brief was the span of his life, since he was laid low by the spear of great-hearted Aias. (XVII.293-303)

(On the off-chance that anyone knows Greek, you can read the original, courtesy of the Perseus Project.)

The idea that the warrior did not live long enough to “pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing” addresses a sense of loss that is so universal it could be transferred to the paragraph from Bolano without markedly altering its tone.

In the fourth part of 2666, then, Bolano is consciously imitating and updating the “catalogue” aspect of ancient epic, making this part of his novel a catalogue of the ways women can be violated and murdered in the same way Homer’s battle books are catalogues of the ways men can kill other men with swords and spears. It’s probably an illusion, but in reading the Iliad one sometimes feels that no two warriors die in exactly the same way; likewise, in 2666, every death is unique, and uniquely horrifying:

When she was found, two days later, her body showed unmistakeable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced that her feet had also been tied. (392)

When the body reached the medical examiner, he discovered, in astonishment, that under the hot pants the woman still had on white underpants with little bows on the sides. He also noted that she had been anally and vaginally raped, and that the cause of death was massive craniocerebral trauma, although she had been stabbed twice too, once in the chest and once in the back, wounds that had caused her to lose blood but weren’t necessarily fatal. Her face, as the truck drivers had observed, was unrecognizable. (400)

Four days later, the mutilated corpse of Beatriz Concepción Roldán appeared by the side of the Santa Teresa-Cananea highway. The casue of death was a gash that sliced her open from navel to chest, presumably inflicted with a big machete or knife. (494)

Compare these with the following examples, all taken from Book 20 of the Iliad, when Achilles returns to battle and goes on what would nowadays be called a killing spree (“aristeia” to the scholars). Links to the relevant Greek passage on the Perseus Project appear after the line numbers for those who want to seek them out:

… and over him [Iphition] Demeleon, Antenor’s son, a mighty warder off of battle, did Achilles strike in the temple through the helmet with cheek pieces of bronze. And the bronze helmet stopped not the spear, but through it sped the spear point and broke apart the bone; and all his brain was scattered about within…. (XX.395-400; Greek)

… he [Tros] sought to clasp Achilles’ knees with his hands, eager to beg him; but he struck him on the liver with his sword, and the liver slipped out, and the dark blood welling out from it filled his chest; and darkness enfolded his eyes as his breath failed. (XX.468-472; Greek)

Then, at the point where the sinews of the elbow join, there he pierced Deucalion through the arm with spear point of bronze; and he awaited his coming with arm weighed down, looking upon death before him; but Achilles, striking him with the sword on his neck, hurled afar his head and with it his helmet; and the marrow spurted out from the spine, and the corpse lay stretched on the ground. (XX.478-83; Greek)

That’s probably enough of that, but you get the idea: Homer pays minute attention to the way specific parts of the body interact with weapons, such as the sinews of the elbow with the spear point in the last example. Bolano pays just this kind of attention to the details of the victims in the fourth part of 2666, and that attention, which is simultaneously both tender and gruesome, is part of what lends this section of the novel its overwhelming power.

But to return to Canada: our nation features here as a distant, safe country where people have the luxury of relaxing on colonial-style furniture, never giving a thought to the horrifying details of life in the distant place where it is made.

I’m no furniture expert, but here’s a definition of Colonial Style and an illustrated guide to recognizing it. (There’s even an app!) Genuine Colonial furniture was made from 1700-1780; the furniture being made in Mexico is an imitation of this style, for contemporary Canadians who want to sit around their living rooms on chairs with flared arms and cushioned upholstery and rest their tea cups on refined, elegant tables with animal-paw feet.

There seems to be an irony buried here: Canada, a former colony, has a taste for Colonial-style furniture. No doubt this is the tail end of colonialism: the experience of being colonized leads to a unique insecurity in which those who were colonized live out a fantasy in which they take on the style and behaviour of those who colonized them. Rather pathetic.

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