The Penitent (2666)

After 392 pages of reading, it’s time I look back and process something out of this multiverse of a book. Fuller’s been good about keeping steady track of his experience with 2666, while I’ve been content to breeze through it and only write about how I don’t want to write about it. Now, when I say “breeze through it,” I mean to suggest what happens to me in a typical session of reading anything: I start by paying attention to everything but the words in front of me. At about 5 pages in, I get intensely invested in the new words now passing through my neural network (which has been firing just nicely without any additional input, thank you very much). For the next 10 pages or so, I merge with the text. I think, for a deliciously narcissistic moment, “Did I write this?” And almost simultaneously, “How did anyone write this?” (For whatever reason, my internal monologue loves italics.) Any consumption that lasts beyond 15 pages repeats this cycle of detachment and lucid intimacy.

Those 5 page challenges of detachment are – and this is maddening – brutal enough to deflect the ecstasy of returning to that intimacy. I get incurably lost in the labyrinth of my own skull, busy replaying as it does some dumb shit that happened earlier that day which, at the time, invariably doesn’t come close to bothering me but then all of a sudden decides to lock my mind down and take me hostage. You know, important shit like some passing interaction with a colleague or a text with a friend that was answered with inadequate enthusiasm (e.g., insufficient exclamation points and/or emojis; or like if I hit you with a series of Bitmoji and you holla back with a one word, unpunctuated response).

So that’s my relationship with 2666. Do I go back – ever – to revisit those 5 page increments? Oh, absolutely not. I lie to myself with something like, “If I’m meant to read those pages, I’ll re-read the book,” as if I won’t lapse into the exact same cycle the next time around. Besides, my dumb brain will just highlight the shit it already highlighted before, allowing me to think: “Man, I really get this book.” Because anything I miss isn’t worth reading anyway.

With that obnoxious preamble out of the way, let’s finally take a look at a piece of text from this behemoth:

La locura, lunacy, get it?

This is on p.386. It’s the part in the story where Bolano decides he only has like 200,000 words left to write. Or no, it’s the part after he’s introduced 5 new significant characters that you haven’t quite figured out how to distinguish yet because you’re probably a little (see: definitely) racist with Spanish names. It’s like when you read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy and thought, “I’m sure I’ll figure out who all these Russian people are by the end,” only to conclude later, at the end, “Wait, who were the Brothers?” It’s not like when you let out an audible sigh of relief and said to yourself, “I knew I liked this Cat in the Hat character.”

But if you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle, said the director.

There’s a character in this book called the Penitent who apparently suffers sacraphobia, or fear of sacred things. This leads him to desecrate churches all around Santa Teresa. Everyone agrees he’s got “too much urine for one man, for a man with a normal bladder” (370). For one priest, “the quantity of urine alarmed him” more than “the shit on the altar” (368). For another priest, the urine itself wasn’t the problem, but how it “[confirmed] that the aisle, as the priest had feared, was worryingly uneven” (362). Also, a ton of women are being murdered around the city. Not to take anything away from the Penitent’s very serious crimes – he’s killed a few people too.

So what should we really fear? Some revered leader once said some shit about how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; that and the likelihood of lapsing into cliche when you have nothing original to say.

Did I mention there were murders? 2666 dances around them for 349 pages before entering “The Part About the Crimes,” which journeys through one murder after another, in a fairly pedestrian manner, circuitously, all the way until p.633. I am complaining.

I’m also reading a book – poorly – so there’s nothing to complain about.

You have to listen to women. You should never ignore a woman’s fears.

Fate heard this – maybe – when he was a boy. Could’ve been his mother. Possibly his neighbor. But it’s likely a pole star for this entire story. The opening section tracks – for the most part – the inner workings of three men as they try to win the heart of a lady critic. The second part is about a guy trying to protect his daughter from – you guessed it – Fate. (Also, his wife – Amalfitano’s – goes on quite the journey. For fear of what, I don’t know. It’s more accurate to say I don’t remember.)

Don’t worry, I’m wrong about all this.

All of this is like somebody else’s dream, thought Fate.

There are so many terrifying dream descriptions in this book, and they’re more believable – they resonate more – than the stark reality of one woman after another being viciously raped and murdered. I sooner want to admit that all these characters’ dreams are real than face the unforgiving truth of the fear with which women – justifiably so – exist in this world.

Bolano names as many women as he can, and it’s hard to stomach the few he does; he’s barely scratching the surface. If we think Santa Teresa is some strange land, some place way out there in fiction, we’re missing the point. What’s the tragedy of 200 women compared to the comedy of a single Penitent?

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