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On Water and the Desert and the Fearless Archimboldi

April 19, 2010

The first thing I noticed when I began reading “The Part About Archimboldi” is that here we have we have this child who seems as comfortable in the water as on land. “When his one-eyed mother bathed him in a washtub, the child Hans Reiter always slipped from her soapy hands and sank to the bottom, with his eyes open, and if her hands hadn’t lifted him back up to the surface he would have stayed there…” (p639)

And then, when he is six years old, he begins to dive. “He had been swimming since he was four and he would put his head underwater and open his eyes…At six he decided that a few feet wasn’t enough and he plunged toward the bottom of the sea.” (p 640-641). Hans is fascinated by seaweed, and continues his diving as a young man in the army.

Why this is significant is because to this point, there have been several instances where the ocean or other body of water is a source of terror. The first is a nightmare that the critic Morini has early in the novel, dreaming of Norton diving into a pool, which turns out to be vast, with oily patches, and very deep. He sees a female figure at the bottom of the pool (p 45). This turns out not to be Norton, and Morini wonders who she is, foreshadowing the many women we will find in danger later.

Pelletier later has a dream (p79) of a tremor in the sea, as if it were about to boil. He calls to Norton, but she doesn’t answer, “and then Pelletier began to weep and he watched as what was left of the statue emerged from the bottom of the metallic sea…” and “it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.” So again, we have Norton, the female of the quartet, endangered by the water. And this description of the metallic sea is significant as well.

“The Part About Fate” begins with similarly frightening imagery: “When did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get away? How do I take control? Was getting away what he really wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind? And he also thought: the pain doesn’t matter anymore. ” (p231).

This intersects with another theme that I want to explore, which is the link between suffering and escape (i.e. death). But that is another thread for another dive.

Right now, let’s keep it with Archimboldi, the character who seems to be unafraid of the water.

So what does this water represent? Is it death? That great, vast unknown? Bolaño knew that he was facing death as he wrote 2666, so perhaps Archimboldi is the courageous character he hopes he can himself be as he faces the dark unknown.

But there is, I believe, a key equivocation much later in the book, buried deep in “The Part About the Crimes.” Lalo Cura is pondering the desert and thinks “Living in this desert…is like living at sea. The border between Sonora and Arizona is a chain of haunted or enchanted islands. The cities and towns are boats. The desert is an endless sea.” (p559).

So the desert and the sea are one in the same. And then the source of the terror as it relates to the water begins to make sense. After all, the desert is where the bodies turn up. When the black car with the tinted windows shows up and the women are put inside, the desert is where they go.

When Sergio, the reporter is interviewing Florita, the television psychic, she says that she knows the bodies she has seen in her visions are from the Santa Teresa killings because “an ordinary murder almost always ended with a liquid image, a lake or well…whereas serial killings…projected a heavy image, metallic or mineral, a smoldering image…” So there’s the metallic again, as in Pelletier’s dream.

And then finally, toward the end of the novel, Archimboldi’s sister, Lotte, dreams of him. She sees him walking in the desert, dressed in shorts and a little straw hat. She shouts at him to tell him there’s nowhere to go, but Archimboldi “kept moving farther away, as if he wanted to lose himself forever in that unfathomable and hostile land.”

If the desert does represent the terrible unknown of death, then this image of Archimboldi marching into it, fearless, straw hat and all, may be the most heroic we have in the novel. I’d like to imagine Bolaño marching into the desert with such boldness.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 11:03 am

    I see The Part About Archimboldi as a portrait of the artist (poet) as witness to the horror (crimes against humanity). The contrast of water body (sea/lake) with the desert is very apparent. Whereas desert can symbolize the barren wasteland that is Sta. Teresa, the bottom of the sea is the fertile ground of imagination of the artist, the diver who is at home in his element, seeking poetry at the bottom of the sea. Bolaño once likened poetry to diving into the bottom of a lake. Does that mean that Reiter is a symbol for poetry? Adorno once said that poetry is no longer possible after Auschwitz. Bolaño seems to make an attempt to respond to this conjecture. The poem “Resurrection” talks about poetry slipping into dreams like a diver. It’s a short poem, so please allow me to reproduce it here. It’s from The Romantic Dogs, as translated by Laura Healy:


    Poetry slips into dreams
    like a diver in a lake.
    Poetry, braver than anyone,
    slips in and sinks
    like lead
    through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
    or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
    Consider it from below:
    a diver
    covered in feathers
    of will.
    Poetry slips into dreams
    like a diver who’s dead
    in the eyes of God.

    The images here are quite relevant to the associations with the “endless sea” that you
    talk about: dream, lead (metallic), “tragic and turbid” lake, “infinite as Loch Ness,” etc. I guess the lake’s bottom can symbolize both the unknown and death, for they can mean the same thing.

    “A diver who’s dead / in the eyes of God” conjures an accursed person. Hans Reiter, through his art, is the only one in 2666 capable of plumbing into the heart of darkness, the great unknown. In the process he became entangled into the unspeakable tragedies of humanity. Only courage perhaps can save him from perishing. Fear is his lonely enemy.

  2. April 25, 2010 6:27 am

    Thanks for the insight into Bolaño’s other works. 2666 is my first, so I wasn’t familiar with the place of water in Bolaño’s other work, but this does make me reconsider my theory about the water being death.

    In this new light, I want even more to know about the content of Archimboldi’s work.


  1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño « Disco Demolition Night

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