“madness really is contagious”—more from “the part about amalfitano” in bolaño’s 2666

They returned the next day but were told that the patient was on bedrest. The same thing happened the following days. One day their money ran out, and Imma decided to take to the road again, this time heading south, to Madrid, where she had a brother who had done well for himself under the democracy and whom she planned to ask for a loan. Lola didn’t have the strength to travel and the two women agreed that she should wait at the boardinghouse, as if nothing had happened, and Imma would be back in a week. Alone, Lola killed time writing long letters to Amalfitano in which she described her daily life in San Sebastian and the area around the asylum, which she visited every day. Clinging to the fence, she imagined that she was establishing telepathic contactwith the poet. Most of the time she would find a clearing in the nearby woods and read or pick little flowers and bunches of grasses with which she made bouquets that she dropped through the railings or took back to the boardinghouse. Once one of the drivers who picked her up on the highway asked if she wanted to see the Mondragon cemetery and she said she did. He parked the car outside, under an acacia tree, and tor a while they walked among the graves, most of them with Basque names, until they came to the niche where the driver’s mother was buried. Then he told Lola that he’d like to fuck her right there. Lola laughed and warned him that they would be in plain view of any visitor coming along the cemetery’s main path. The driver thought for a few seconds, then he said: Christ, you’re right. They went looking for a more Private spot and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. The driver’s last name was Larrazabal, and although he had a first name, he didn’t want to tell her what it was. Just Larrazabal, like my friends call me, he said. Then he told Lola that this wasn’t the first time he’d made love in the cemetery. He’d been there with a sort-of girlfriend before, with a girl he’d met at a club, and with two prostitutes from San Sebastian. As they were leaving, he tried to give her money, but she wouldn’t take it. They talked for a long time in the car. Larrazabal asked her whether she had a relative at the asylum, and Lola told him her story. Larrazabal said he’d never read a poem. He added that he didn’t understand Lola’s obsession with the poet. I don’t understand your fascination with fucking in the cemetery either, said Lola, but I don’t judge you for it. True, Larrazabal admitted, everyone’s got obsessions. Before Lola got out of the car, at the entrance to the asylum, Larrazabal snuck a five-thousand-peseta note into her pocket. Lola noticed but didn’t say anything and then she was left alone under the trees, in front of the iron gate to the madhouse, home to the poet who was supremely ignoring her.

Madness is contagious, thought Amalfitano, sitting on the floor of his front porch as the sky grew suddenly overcast and the moon and the stars disappeared, along with the ghostly lights that are famously visible without binoculars or telescope in northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

After a week Imma still wasn’t back. Lola imagined her tiny, impassively staring, with her face like an educated peasant’s or a high school teacher’s looking out over a vast prehistoric field, a woman near fifty, dressed in black, walking without looking to either side, without looking back, through a valley where it was still possible to distinguish the tracks of the great predators from the tracks of the scurrying herbivores. She imagined her stopped at a crossroads as the trucks with their many tons of cargo passed at full speed, raising dust clouds that didn’t touch her, as if her hesitance and vulnerability constituted a state of grace, a dome that protected her from the inclemencies of fate, nature, and her fellow beings. On the ninth day the owner of the boardinghouse kicked her out. After that she slept at the railroad station, or in an abandoned warehouse where some tramps slept, each keeping to himself, or in the open country, near the border between the asylum and the outside world. One night she hitchhiked to the cemetery and slept in an empty niche. The next morning she felt happy and lucky and she decided to wait there for Imma to come back. She had water to drink and wash her face and brush her teeth, she was near the asylum, it was a peaceful spot. One afternoon, as she was laying a shirt that she had just washed out to dry on a white slab propped against the cemetery wall, she heard voices coming from a mausoleum, and she went to see what was happening. The mausoleum belonged to the Lagasca family, and judging by the state it was in, the last of the Lagascas had long since died or moved far away. Inside the crypt she saw the beam of a flashlight and she asked who was there.

Christ, it’s you, she heard a voice say inside. She thought it might be thieves or workers restoring the mausoleum or grave robbers, then she heard a kind of meow and when she was about to turn away she saw Larrazabal’s sallow face at the barred door of the crypt. Then a woman came out. Larrazabal ordered her to wait for him by his car, and for a while he and Lola talked and strolled arm in arm along the cemetery paths until the sun began to drop behind the worn edges of the niches.


Madness really is contagious, and friends are a blessing, especially when you’re on your own. It was in these words, years before, in a letter with no postmark, that Lola had told Amalfitano about her chance encounter with Larrazabal, which ended with him forcing her to accept a loan of ten thousand pesetas and promising to come back the next day, before he got in his car, motioning to the prostitute who was waiting impatiently for him to do the same. That night Lola slept in her niche, although she was tempted to try the open crypt, happy because things were looking up. The next morning, she scrubbed herself all over with a wet rag, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, put on clean clothes, then went out to the highway to hitchhike to Mondragon. In town she bought some goat cheese and bread and had breakfast in the square, hungrily, since she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Then she went into a bar full of construction workers and had coffee. She’d forgotten when Larrazabal had said he’d come to the cemetery, but that didn’t matter, and in the same distant way, Larrazabal and the cemetery and the town and the tremulous early morning landscape didn’t matter to her either. Before she left the bar she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She walked back to the highway and stood there waiting until a woman stopped and asked where she was going. To the asylum, said Lola. Her reply clearly took the woman aback, but she told her to get in nevertheless. That’s where she was going. Are you visiting someone or are you an inmate? she asked Lola. I’m visiting, answered Lola. The woman’s face was thin and long, her almost nonexistent lips giving her a cold, calculating look, although she had nice cheekbones and she dressed like a professional woman who is no longer single, who has a house, a husband, maybe even a child to care for. My father is there, she confessed. Lola didn’t say anything. When they reached the entrance, Lola got out of the car and the woman went on alone. For a while Lola wandered along the edge of the asylum grounds. She heard the sound of horses and she guessed that somewhere, on the other side of the woods, there must be a riding club or school. At a certain point she spotted the red-tiled roof of a house that wasn’t part of the asylum. She retraced her steps. She returned to the section of fence that gave the best view of the grounds. As the sun rose higher in the sky she saw a tight knot of patients emerge from a slate outbuilding, then they scattered to the benches in the park and lit cigarettes. She thought she saw the poet. He was with two inmates and he was wearing jeans and a very tight white T-shirt. She waved to him, shyly at first, as if her arms I were stiff from the cold, then openly, tracing strange patterns in the still-cold air, trying to give her signals a laserlike urgency, trying to transmit telepathic messages in his direction. Five minutes later, she watched as the poet got up from his bench and one of the lunatics kicked him in the legs. With an effort she resisted the urge to scream. The poet turned around and kicked back. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird. The inmate smoking next to him got up and chased the poet for thirty feet, aiming kicks at his ass and throwing punches at his back. Then he returned calmly to his seat, where the other inmate had revived and was rubbing his chest, neck, and head, which anyone would call excessive, since he had been kicked only in the chest. At that moment Lola stopped signaling. One of the lunatics on the bench began to masturbate. The other one, the one in exaggerated pain, felt in one of his pockets and pulled out a cigarette. The poet approached them. Lola thought she heard his laugh. An ironic laugh, as if he were saying: boys, you can’t take a joke. But maybe the poet wasn’t laughing. Maybe, Lola said in her letter to Amalfitano, it was my madness that was laughing. In any case, whether it was her madness or not, the poet went over to the other two and said something to them. Neither of the lunatics answered. Lola saw them: they were looking down, at the life throbbing at ground level, between the blades of grass and under the loose clumps of dirt. A blind life in which everything had the transparency of water. The poet, however, must have scanned the faces of his companions in misfortune, first one and then the other, looking for a sign that would tell him whether it was safe for him to sit down on the bench again. Which he finally did. He raised his hand in a gesture of truce or surrender and he sat between the other two. He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the un-vanquished. And he sat between them and then he looked at the one who was masturbating and said something into his ear. This time Lola couldn’t hear him but she saw clearly how the poet’s left hand groped its way into the other inmate’s robe. And then she watched the three of them smoke. And she watched the artful spirals issuing from the poet’s mouth and nose.


read on…

from roberto bolaño’s 2666

Roberto Bolaño’s massive novel 2666 might be better understood as a series of five novels, each of which chronicles a journey into corruption. Part two, entitled The Part About Amalfitano, takes a character introduced in part one, Professor Amalfitano, a Chilean academic at the University of Santa Teresa who specializes in the obscure German author Benno von Archimboldi (the pen name of Hans Reiter, an elusive figure through out 2666). Amalfitano’s wife, Lola, disappears, and the professorand his daughter Rosa attempt to cope with her absence. The Part About Amalfitano could be called A Book about Madness and Forgetting. There’s something reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry’s never-completed cycle of novels involving Lowry’s fictional novelist-character Sigbjørn Wilderness. The opening of The Part About Amalfitano:  


I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

He had a little single-story house, three bedrooms, a full bathroom and a half bathroom, a combined kitchen—living room—dining room with windows that faced west, a small brick porch where there was a wooden bench worn by the wind that came down from the mountains and the sea, the wind from the north, the wind through the gaps, the wind that smelled like smoke and came from the south. He had books he’d kept for more than twenty-five years. Not many. All of them old. He had books he’d bought in the last ten years, books he didn’t mind lending, books that could’ve been lost or stolen for all he cared. He had books that he sometimes received neatly packaged and with unfamiliar return addresses, books he didn’t even open anymore. He had a yard perfect for growing grass and planting flowers, but he didn’t know what flowers would do best there—flowers, as opposed to cacti or succulents. There would be time (so he thought) for gardening. He had a wooden gate that needed a coat of paint. He had a monthly salary.

He had a daughter named Rosa who had always lived with him. Hard to believe, but true.


Sometimes, at night, he remembered Rosa’s mother and sometimes he laughed and other times he felt like crying. He thought of her while he was shut in his office with Rosa asleep in her room. The living room was empty and quiet, and the lights were off. Anyone listening carefully on the porch would have heard the whine of a few mosquitoes. But no one was listening. The houses next door were silent and dark.

Rosa was seventeen and she was Spanish. Amalfitano was fifty and Chilean. Rosa had had a passport since she was ten. On some of their trips, remembered Amalfitano, they had found themselves in strange situations, because Rosa went through customs by the gate for EU citizens and Amalfitano went by the gate for non-EU citizens. The first time, Rosa threw a tantrum and started to cry and refused to be separated from her father. Another time, since the lines were moving at different speeds, the EU citizens’ line quickly and the noncitizens’ line more slowly and laboriously, Rosa got lost and it took Amalfitano half an hour to find her. Sometimes the customs officers would see Rosa, so little, and ask whether she was traveling alone or whether someone was waiting for her outside. Rosa would answer that she was traveling with her father, who was South American, and she was supposed to wait for him right there. Once Rosa’s suitcase was searched because they suspected her father of smuggling drugs or arms under cover of his daughter’s innocence and nationality. But Amalfitano had never trafficked in drugs, or for that matter arms.

It was Lola, Rosa’s mother, who always traveled with a weapon, never going anywhere without her stainless-steel spring-loaded switchblade, Amalfitano remembered as he smoked a Mexican cigarette, sitting in his office or standing on the dark porch. Once they were stopped in an airport, before Rosa was born, and Lola was asked what she was doing with the knife. It’s for peeling fruit, she said. Oranges, apples, pears, kiwis, all kinds of fruit. The officer gave her a long look and let her go. A year and a few months after that, Rosa was born. Two years later, Lola left, still carrying the knife.

Lola’s pretext was a plan to visit her favorite poet, who lived in the insane asylum in Mondragon, near San Sebastian. Amalfitano listened to her explanations for a whole night as she packed her bag and promised she’d come home soon to him and Rosa. Lola, especially toward the end, used to claim that she knew the poet, that she’d met him at a party in Barcelona before Amalfitano became a part of her life. At this party, which Lola described as a wild party, a long overdue party that suddenly sprang to life in the middle of the summer heat and a traffic jam of cars with red lights on, she had slept with him and they’d made love all night, although Amalfitano knew it wasn’t true, not just because the poet was gay, but because Lola had first heard of the poet’s existence from him, when he’d given her one of his books. Then Lola took it upon herself to buy everything else the poet had written and to choose friends who thought the poet was a genius, an alien, God’s messenger, friends who had themselves just been released from the Sant Boi asylum or had flipped out after repeated stints in rehab. The truth was, Amalfitano knew that sooner or later she would make her way to San Sebastian, so he chose not to argue but offered her part of his savings, begged her to come back in a few months, and promised to take good care of Rosa. Lola seemed not to hear a thing. When she had finished, she went into the kitchen, made coffee, and sat in silence, waiting for dawn, although Amalfitano tried to come up with subjects of conversation that might interest her or at least help pass the time. At six-thirty the doorbell rang and Lola jumped. They’ve come for me, she said, and since she didn’t move, Amalfitano had to get up and ask over the intercom who it was. He heard a weak voice saying it’s me. Who is it? asked Amalfitano. Let me in, it’s me, said the voice. Who? asked Amalfitano. The voice, while still barely audible, seemed indignant at the interrogation. Me me me me, it said. Amalfitano closed his eyes and buzzed the door open. He heard the sound of the elevator cables and he went back to the kitchen. Lola was still sitting there, sipping the last of her coffee. I think it’s for you, said Amalfitano. Lola gave no sign of having heard him. Are you going to say goodbye to Rosa? asked Amalfitano. Lola looked up and said it was better not to wake her. There were dark circles under her blue eyes. Then the doorbell rang twice and Amalfitano went to open the door. A small woman, no more than five feet tall, gave him a brief glance and murmured an unintelligible greeting, then brushed past him and went straight to the kitchen, as if she knew Lola’s habits better than Amalfitano did. When he returned to the kitchen he noticed the woman’s knapsack, which she had left on the floor by the refrigerator, smaller than Lola’s, almost a miniature. The woman’s name was Inmaculada, but Lola called her Imma. Amalfitano had encountered her a few times in the apartment when he came home from work, and then the woman had told him her name and what she liked to be called. Imma was short for Immaculada, in Catalan, but Lola’s friend wasn’t Catalan and her name wasn’t Immaculada with a double m, either, it was Inmaculada, and Amalfitano, for phonetic reasons, preferred to call her Inma, although each time he did his wife scolded him, until he decided not to call her anything. He watched them from the kitchen door. He felt much calmer than he had expected. Lola and her friend had their eyes fixed on the Formica table, although Amalfitano couldn’t help noticing that both looked up now and then and stared at each other with an intensity unfamiliar to him. Lola asked whether anyone wanted more coffee. She means me, thought Amalfitano. Inmaculada shook her head and said there was no time, they should get moving, since before long there would be no way out of Barcelona. She talks as if Barcelona were a medieval city, thought Amalfitano. Lola and her friend stood up. Amalfitano stepped forward and opened the refrigerator door to get a beer, driven by a sudden thirst. To do so, he had to move Imma’s backpack. It was so light it might’ve held just two shirts and another pair of black pants. It’s like a fetus, was what Amalfitano thought, and he dropped it to one side. Then Lola kissed him on both cheeks and she and her friend were gone.


A week later Amalfitano got a letter from Lola, postmarked Pamplona. In the letter she told him that their trip so far had been full of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Mostly pleasant. And although the unpleasant experiences could certainly be called unpleasant, experiences might not be the right word. Nothing unpleasant that happens to us can take us by surprise, said Lola, because Imma has lived through all of this already. For two days, said Lola, we were working at a roadside restaurant in Lerida, for a man who also owned an apple orchard. It was a big orchard and there were already green apples on the trees. In a little while the apple harvest would begin, and the owner had asked them to stay till then. Imma had gone to talk to him while Lola read a book by the Mondragon poet (she had all the books he’d published so far in her backpack), sitting by the Canadian tent where the two of them slept. The tent was pitched in the shade of a poplar, the only poplar she’d seen in the orchard, next to a garage that no one used anymore. A little while later, Imma came back, and she didn’t want to explain the deal the restaurant owner had offered her. The next day they headed back out to the highway to hitchhike, without telling anyone goodbye.  In Zaragoza they stayed with an old friend of Imma’s from university. Lola was very tired and she went to bed early and in her dreams she heard laughter and loud voices and scolding, almost all Imma’s but some her friend’s, too. They talked about the old days, about the struggle against Franco, about the women’s prison in Zaragoza. They talked about a pit, a very deep hole from which oil or coal could be extracted, about an underground jungle, about a commando team of female suicide bombers. Then Lola’s letter took an abrupt turn. I’m not a lesbian, she said, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I don’t know why I’m treating you like a child by saying it. Homosexuality is a lie, it’s an act of violence committed against us in our adolescence, she said. Imma knows this. She knows it, she knows it, she’s too clearsighted not to, but all she can do is help. Imma is a lesbian, every day hundreds of thousands of cows are sacrificed, every day a herd of herbivores or several herds cross the valley, from north to south, so slowly but so fast it makes me sick, right now, now, now, do you understand, Oscar? No, thought Amalfitano, I don’t, as he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses, and with his foot he steadily rocked his daughter in her seat.

Then Lola described again the night when she’d made love with the poet, who lay in majestic and semisecret repose in the Mondragon asylum.  


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