Bolaño, madness, and the void

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 contains a repeated image of a void, pit, or hole, which appears to characters in their dreams in various guises. The critic Pelletier dreams of bathers leaving a beach and leaving behind an emptiness that swallows his cries of fear and despair. Bizarrely, Boris Yeltin appears to the mad Chilean professor Amalfitano in a dream, speaking about how life is always in danger of toppling into “the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void.” He proscribes a Dionysian antidote, one involving sex, magic, drink, and play; he sounds like he’s talking about art. Florita the seer goes into a trance on Reinaldo’s television show, and has a vision of murdered women, which another guest, a ventriloquist, seems to recognize as “the kind of revelation that flashes past and leaves us with only the certainty of a void, a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.” This repeated image of a void or pit seems to bear some relationship to madness, art, and the murders of women in Santa Teresa—or, in other words, to the central ideas and events of the novel.

There’s no unambiguous indication in 2666 as to how this void or pit ought to be interpreted, but it’s clear that the characters who stare into it find the experience profound and disturbing. By the time he dreams of Yeltsin, the exile Amalfitano has already gone mad, perhaps because of the loss of his country and his wife, and perhaps also out of fear that his young daughter might fall victim to the killers of Santa Teresa. The void that Yeltsin describes to Amalfitano threatens to break life down and discard it in a garbage dump, and the remedy he proscribes against it is sex and art. But perhaps Amalfitano is already lost to the void, overcome by madness when faced with all the loss and horror he’s experienced in his life. He’s fled the violence of a brutally repressive government, only to find himself free in a town where women are murdered with disturbing regularity. In Amalfitano’s dream, Yeltsin disappears into the void, and Amalfitano can’t bring himself to look into it after him. Perhaps he’s already looked into the void enough, and his madness is the result.

At another point, the critic Norton tells her colleague Morini about the story of a brilliant English artist who one day went mad, severed his hand, and made it the centerpiece of his latest work. Norton describes the decayed industrial neighborhood that the artist lived in, and the artist’s reaction to it:

He liked the color of the streetlamps and the light that spilled over the fronts of the houses. The shadows that moved as he moved. The ashen, sooty dawns. The men of few words who gathered in the pub, where he became a regular. The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness.

The source of the artist’s pain is obscure to Norton, but she connects it to emptiness, a void that seems to swallow the people in his neighborhood whole, leaving them empty, becoming voidlike themselves. (Here Norton’s description seems to echo Florita’s fear of the nature of her revelation, that it is nothing but “a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.”) At first the London artist’s response to the void is to make great paintings; later, he goes mad and commits an act of violence against himself.

There’s also at least one literal pit in 2666: the one in which the Nazi Leo Sammer buries a trainload of Greek Jews who he has been ordered to “dispose of.” Sammer carries out his orders with horrifying coldness, but he’s also already a broken man, having lost his faith in the war after the death of his son in a battle. When pondering what to do, Sammer finds himself “plunged…into a deep, dark pit where all that was visible, lit by sparks from who knows where, was my son’s face, flickering between life and death.” He seems in some ways disturbingly sane, but also maddened by grief. His murder of the Jews is in part an act of calculated self-preservation, and in part an act of desperate grief. His response to the void is to create another one: a pit in which the Jews he has murdered are buried.

Many of the murders in Santa Teresa seem to have a similar origin. More than a few of the murderers are impoverished, desperate, frustrated, angry men, who use acts of horrific violence in order to attempt to gain some measure of control over their lives. In 2666 Bolaño makes much of the voicelessness and invisibility of Santa Teresa’s murdered women: they lead lives of anonymous struggle and suffering, ignored by those in power because no one wants to face the reality of their poverty and misery. But some of the killers are similarly desperate and voiceless: they also work in maquiladoras and live on the margins in the same filthy and dangerous neighborhoods. In some cases, their violence can be read as an attempt to be noticed and heard. Like Sammer, these men resort to violence in a twisted, horrifically misguided attempt to bury their own suffering and save themselves.

In one unsettling passage, a Mexican policeman named Ramírez unleashes a misogynistic rant, asking the American sheriff Henry Magaña (who is obsessively investigating the disappearance of a young American woman in Santa Teresa), “What do you see when a woman spreads her legs?…. A goddamn hole. A goddamn gash, like a crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California.” Here Ramírez is perhaps articulating part of what motivates the killers of Santa Teresa to attack the city’s women: they identify women with holes, gashes, cracks—with pits and voids, with disappearance and death. The men of Santa Teresa are displacing their pain and their fear of mortality onto women who are even more vulnerable to victimization than they are themselves. This isn’t entirely unlike what Sammer did, killing Jews while clinging to a grief-stricken vision of his dead son as a light in a void.

I think what Bolaño is getting at with all of this is the idea that art, madness, and violence are all responses to the void—or to the fundamental human fear of death, extinction, and oblivion. Everyone in the book wants to remain visible, to be heard, to make vital noise in the face of the ultimate silence and invisibility of death. For Bolaño, art doesn’t seem capable of actually defeating the void—at one point, Hans Reiter, aka Archimboldi, flatly states that “Voids can’t be filled”—but all the same art is certainly a better response than madness or violence. Pelletier’s dream of what happens after the bathers leave the void on the beach suggests that it’s always possible to at least locate a kind of hope and strength in art:

And then Pelletier began to weep and he watched as what was left of a statue emerged from the bottom of the metallic sea. A formless chunk of stone, gigantic, eroded by time and water, though a hand, a wrist, part of a forearm could still be made out with total clarity. And this statue came out of the sea and rose above the beach and it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.

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3 Responses to “Bolaño, madness, and the void”


  1. 1 Erik L. January 6, 2009 at 4:34 PM

    Yeah I caught on to this void thing when both Pelletier and Espinoza had simultaneous dreams about it but I just now remembered something else. In The Part About the Murders you may remember the one where the man murdered his wife with the aid of his cousin. If I recall correctly when the police investigate the scene they comment on how shallow the burial is and how insufficiently the body is covered over. You make anything of this?

  2. 2 Ryan Williams January 9, 2009 at 5:16 PM

    That’s an excellent observation—the shallow burial is no doubt significant. I’m not sure how to fit it into the idea of the void—but maybe it has more to do with the way that the murders are effectively invisible even thought they’re sometimes very nearly in plain sight. It doesn’t take much to notice a body poorly concealed in a shallow grave—yet the bodies of the murdered women in 2666 generally escape the notice of most of everyone.

  3. 3 hier gibt esschönen sexg March 31, 2014 at 11:29 PM

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