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SUFFERING, DEATH AND SANTA TERESA

May 24, 2010

Santa Teresa is the geographic and thematic center of 2666, the nexus where the five stories intersect. It is Bolaño’s stand-in for the real town of Juarez, Mexico. After 2666, I was so fascinated with Juarez that I listened to Charles Bowden’s disturbing Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. It pretty much confirms Bolaño’s depiction of the city—it’s a modern hell, the result of a perfect storm of poverty, violence, systematic corruption, depravity and desperation. In Juarez, murder is the leading cause of death, having surpassed diabetes.

Bolaño had been to Juarez, but many years ago. Still, he was in contact with a friend there, and so had an understanding of the situation. But why would he choose Juarez as the center of his novel? And furthermore, why would he rename it Santa Teresa?

Let’s tackle the latter question first—Santa Teresa. St. Teresa of Ávila was a Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun who lived in 16th Century Spain. In 1559, St. Teresa began having visions—many of Jesus, but one, which inspired Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, of an angel piercing her heart with the fiery point of a golden lance. This vision inspired her to follow closely in the path of Jesus, imitating his life and suffering. It also led to the saying most associated with St. Teresa: “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.” There is no patron saint of suffering, but St. Teresa might be the closest to it, certainly the closest woman saint. And there are few cities that embody suffering quite like Juarez—as Bolaño depicts it, it is the nadir of human depravity. Everyone suffers here, not just the guilty.

The theme of suffering is woven throughout the stories. In the very first paragraph of “The Part About Fate,” there is an enigmatic paragraph about suffering and escape. We learn shortly thereafter that Fate has lost his mother, so that might explain the motivation behind the passage, but because Bolaño uses both first person and third person, it is difficult to tell if he is referring to Fate or two people:

“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?…And the questions kept coming: 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.  And also: maybe it all began with my mother’s death. And also: the pain doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t get any worse, as long as it isn’t unbearable.” (p231)

Then, deep in “The Part About the Crimes,” Epifanio is talking to Lalo Cura and says, “Every life, no matter how happy it is, ends in pain and suffering” (p 511). Lalo counters that it depends. “Say you’re shot in the back of the head, for example, and you don’t hear the motherfucker come up behind you, then you’re off to the next world, no pain, no suffering.” Epifanio laughs at Lalo’s response: “Goddamn kid. Have you ever been shot in the back of the head?”

When reading that every life ends in pain and suffering, it recalls the quote from St. Teresa that life is about suffering. And it recalls that Bolaño himself was suffering greatly as he raced to complete 2666 before his death. It might be said that Santa Teresa is the geographic manifestation of that pain—the epicenter where pain and suffering aren’t just a way of life—they have become life. Suffering has consumed life, with death being the one quick, easy and, according to Lalo Curo, painless escape.

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