Book Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is hypnotic and dreamlike as the author segues through the lives of dozens of characters, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes in a dark, twisted journey of horror.

Title: 2666
Author: Roberto Bolaño,
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
ISBN:978-0374100148
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

A book review of 2666

2666 by Roberto Bolaño centers around the fictional Santa Theresa, Mexico. On the U.S border, Santa Theresa is a city of maquiladoras and poverty where hundreds of women have been murdered. If this sounds like Ciudad Juarez, it is meant to, although it’s location corresponds more closely to Nogales, on the Arizona border.

The novel is divided into five parts, each with its own cast of characters, some interconnected. In the first part, entitled “The Part about the Critics,” three European academics travel to Mexico in search of mysterious and elusive Benno von Archimbaldi, a German novelist around which they all have built their careers. But Archimbaldi is never found and the critics leave, not sure if he was ever there at all. Ever in the background are the murders, like a news item in the morning paper.

The murders remain in the background until the third part, in which an African-American reporter from New York, in Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match, learns of the crimes and unsuccessfully tries to get permission from his editor to stay and investigate. In part four, we finally come to “The Part about the Crimes.” Interspersed with stories of the policemen who are assigned to the cases, Bolaño details one murder after another, as though they were being read from the police blotters, until the true horror of the crimes begin to sink into your subconscious. Finally, in the last part, “The Part about Archimbaldi,” we are given the story of the German novelist, who was a soldier on the Eastern Front in World War II, and witnessed the horrors of the Nazi regime. This section is almost fairy-tale like, but it is a dark, terrible fairy-tale about genocide and the atrocities of war.

2666 is hypnotic and dreamlike as the author segues through the lives of dozens of characters, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes in a dark, twisted journey of horror. The novel ends as Archimbaldi is leaving for Mexico to help his nephew, imprisoned and charged with killing four women. But there is no ending here, just a story which appears to stop in the middle, unfinished. This passage, describing the fictional writing of the fictional Benno von Archimbaldi, found near the end of the book, is a fair description of 2666, itself:

“The style was strange. The writing clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.”

This is not a traditional novel with a beginning and neatly tied-up ending. It is more like a meditation on human nature, and how we humans rationalize and cope with the most horrible of crimes, and how our rationalizations (and complicity) end up biting us in the ass .

Near the end of the book, an old writer says to Archimboldi:

“I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder, and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ or ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.”

For me, this passage most clearly sums up my understanding of what this novel is trying to say. Maybe you will read something different into it.

This is a difficult and complex novel in a number of ways, and may be of interest only to academics and other writers. At about 900 pages of dense prose, it took me about three weeks to read, but the subject matter, too, made this book a hard slog. Don’t get me wrong, it was worth every minute I spent with it.

Roberto Bolaño is a Chilean, who has lived much of his life in Mexico. The author died in 2004, and this book was published posthumously.

My rating: 5.0 stars

[rating=5]

Review: Felina’s Arrow

International Women’s Day at The Backspace.
Patty and I don’t get out much these days to hear live music. But waiting for the gates of spring to burst open had us chewing at the bit, so we decided Saturday night was the night.

Felina’s Arrow

International Women’s Day at The Backspace, Portland, OR, March 7

Patty and I don’t get out much these days to hear live music. But waiting for the gates of spring to burst open had us chewing at the bit, so we decided Saturday night was the night. We were going to find some good music, one way or another. Of course, not part of a demographic targeted by the current music scene, and no longer following the latest bands, we were confused. The days of punk and hard rock concerts are over for our aging and precious ears, and in this youth-oriented town, it’s hard to know what you’ll stumble into.

But we did know about International Women’s Day. And the event at The Backspace looked interesting. So, we googled the performers and listened. Okay, we decided, we’ll try them out. We were surprised by an evening of enjoyable music.

The first act was Nicole Sangsuree, backed up by members of Felina’s Arrow. She has a very competent, smooth voice with a strong presence. While the love songs she performed were not particularly inspiring to our demanding ears, many listeners would undoubtedly enjoy them more. I will confess a prejudice here. For a love/relationship song to pass muster with me it has to be really, really, really good. It has to touch something deep. Didn’t quite make it.

The second act, Ivy Ross, was great fun. Her slightly quirky voice reminded me of Jolie Holland at times and Iris Dement at others. She encouraged audience participation–which I love–and her songs were full of great social commentary and meaning. While maybe not as polished as the other two acts, she was very competent and had an winning stage personality. We’d go hear Ivy Ross again.

Felina’s Arrow was the crown of the evening. Felicia Figueroa’s amazing bass and guitar work was both accomplished and nuanced. I suspect she is classically trained, but her range of styles is impressive. The pieces ranged from jazzy samba style rhythms to Eastern European folk sounds. Poeina Suddarth’s vocals were equally amazing in range and precision. From soulful to tender, she didn’t miss a beat.

The songs, too, were skillfully written and very moving. The anthemic “Amelia” was the height of the evening, with beautifully structured minimalism and soulful pain.

My only gripe–and this is true of 95% of the live shows I’ve ever attended–the vocals are too far back in the mix.  I’m a lyrics guy, and I want to hear every single one of those beautiful words. As an ex-performer myself, I realize the problem is often the venue. Old brick buildings with concrete floors aren’t the best acoustic environment. And what you, the performer hear in the stage monitors is not the same thing your audience hears.  The ideal situation is to have a sound engineer you can trust, which is unrealistic most of the time. And then there is the obnoxious blathering redhead sitting near me–I really didn’t pay $7 to hear your self-absorbed chatter all night.

Despite the distractions, this is a very nice discovery for us. We will be catching Felina’s Arrow again soon.

My rating: 4.5 stars

****1/2

Movie Review: Sicko

Sicko graphicAn important and masterful critique of the U.S. health system, Sicko takes us from horror tales of our current system to a tour of countries with free national national health care systems, and conversations with their citizens. It is a masterful unmasking of the propaganda of the U.S. health industry and mainstream media.

Sicko graphic

Sicko by Michael Moore

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An important and masterful critique of the U.S. health system.

Sicko is a surprisingly good documentary, and I believe it will play a very important role in pushing forward a rethinking of health care in the United States.

I like Michael Moore’s films, even at their most propagandistic. But I recognize that political polemics tend to only galvanize the already committed, rather than persuade others less inclined. Sicko is different in this regard from past Moore films. It is a documentary which doesn’t preach, which puts Moore, the filmmaker, further in the background, and which approaches the horrors of the health and insurance industries from the point of view of their victims.

Those who like Moore soley for his on-camera antics will be disappointed, although there are a couple of good scenes that are fairly hilarious, such as when his “comandeered” boat approaches Guantanamo. This is the old Michael Moore, perhaps thrown in to placate the fans, but the film doesn’t need it.

Sicko takes us from horror tales of our current system to a tour of countries with free national national health care systems, and conversations with their citizens. It is a masterful unmasking of the propaganda of the U.S. health industry and mainstream media.

I urge everyone to see this film when it is released on June 29th. It will open a lot of eyes, and open a much needed debate in this country over our national health care scandal.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Portland warming rally good start, but…

Portland, Oregon

As I approached Terry Schrunk Plaza in downtown Portland, I was unsure of what I would encounter at the Global Warming Rally, which was one of 1300 actions around the country sponsored by a group call Step it Up. I suspected it would be one more lame event of the kind which the mainstream environmentalist organizations tend to put on: ie, lots of talk about lobbying and speeches by politicians.

I was exactly right-on in my expectations. Eric Sten talked about what a wonderful job Portland has done – presumeably under his leadership. Rep. Dingfelder urged support for several half-assed but “crucial” initiatives making their way through the state legislative chambers. I heard a lot of ra ra ra.

It would have been dispiriting if it weren’t for all of the youthful idealism in the crowd.It would have been dispiriting if it weren’t for all of the youthful idealism in the crowd. I say this metaphorically, because, even though a lot of the audience was young, there were also a kind of contagious idealism in the faces of older people as well.

But I don’t think that most of these people are even close to understanding the danger we are in, or the changes which are coming our way in the best of scenarios.

Step it Up’s goal is to get the government to agree to “80 percent reduction in carbon” by 2050. Okay, this is necessary. No argument here.

But the real problem is that we can’t wait. If we don’t do something drastic in the next few years, it could all be too late. There is mounting evidence, accumulated since the recent UN report was drafted, that polar ice is melting at ever-increasing rates which may already be irreversible. We will soon go into feedback loops which release tons of methane into the atmosphere. The science community is saying this, not me.

The machine has to stop, folks. We are looking, in this century, at die-offs, and mass migrations, and wars of survival on a scale never seen in the history of humanity.

Hyperbole? I think not. Please wake up.

Review: Choke on My Heart

Choke on my Heart

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Hilarious amateur theater

Some of us actually prefer amateur performances in intimate spaces to the slick professional variety being marketed around town. Toy Boat Productions Choke on my Heart was a delightfully funny series of nine short one-act plays at the COHO theater in Northwest Portland.

I must add the disclaimer here that my daughter, Jade Fenton, was the director of one of those shorts, so there may be a slight bit of bias here. But PattyJo and I found ourselves laughing ourselves silly at nearly all of the scenes, except perhaps for the one serious piece which was quite moving.

The last piece, in particular, had us roaring. Aaron Ross, who also wrote and directed the play, is an extremely funny man, and a very competent actor.

The other particularly fine piece was Bukowski, Dad and Me, written by P.L. Carrico. This was the more serious piece I mentioned, which consisted of a monologue performed by Rachel Voorhies, who did a fine job, and had the audience in tears.

Some of the plays were quite raunchy, and this kind of amateur theater is not for everyone. But we insist on celebrating the raw creativity that bubbles up from the community cauldron. Raw or not, it beats the hell out of Campbell’s Soup.

I almost forgot to mention, it was also a benefit for Planned Parenthood. A good cause.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

Movie Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

This film is one of those incredible European fantasies which is so much more than a mere fantasy. Set in Spain at the end of World War II, it is a multi-layered political and moral parable which takes place both in the faerie-land realm of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and the parallel world of Franco’s brutal fascism.

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

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Perhaps one of the best films of all time.

Writer & Director: Guillermo del Toro
Actors: Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil

This film is one of those incredible European fantasies which is so much more than a mere fantasy. Set in Spain at the end of World War II, it is a multi-layered political and moral parable which takes place both in the faerie-land realm of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and the parallel world of Franco’s brutal fascism.

Eleven year old Ofelia’s mother has married the captain of a military outpost in the Spanish mountains. Capitan Vidál (Sergi López) is charged with “cleaning up” the partisans left over from the Spanish Civil War. As we are shown the grim face of this real-life history, we follow Ofelia into an underground labyrinth where she meets a mythical faun, who informs her that she is a princess, the daughter of the king of the Underworld. She is given three tasks to prove that she is worthy.

Ofelia’s first task is to recover a key which has been swallowed by a giant toad who lives in the rotted trunk of a huge fig tree. The symbolism here goes much deeper than a simple fairytale princess-to-be must retrieve the key to the kingdom. The toad, a sign for the bloated and corrupt nature of the fascist beast, is destroying the tree of life.

For the second task, Ofelia must use the key to retrieve a ceremonial knife. Passing a sumptious feast presided over by a terrible sleeping monster who eats children (and faeries), she is warned to not touch a bite, no matter how tempting. The final feat I won’t give away, but the metaphors are deep and reveal levels of truth about the real world in which we live.

Meanwhile, Mercedes (Meribel Verdú), a young woman who works in the garrison, is also put to the test. Her brother Pedro is a member of the Partisans, and with the help of the outpost’s doctor, she has been smuggling supplies and mail to the guerillas, hiding in the nearby hills. Mercedes is guilt-ridden because she believes she should be fighting with the Partisans, instead of working for the fascists.

Of course, like the Partisans who were either killed or forced into exile, this film does not have a happy finale. In the end, both Mercedes and Ofelia must face a choice. And that choice defines the major theme of this film. What is our moral imperative in the face of terrible evil, when innocent lives are being destroyed?

Technically, this film is masterful. The cinematography and 3D animation are superbly done. The mood is dark and menacingly crafted, and the monsters quite fantastic. The acting also is great. López, as Vidál, is convincingly sinister, and Mercedes is played very touchingly by Verdú. The script is well written and the editing tight.

The story by itself would make this a fine movie, but everything about it seems just about perfect. This is a movie you could see several times, and find new insights and appreciation in each viewing.

All ten of my thumbs up on this one.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****