POLITICS (pages 513-564)

The novel’s politics rise a little closer to the surface in this section. They’ve been there all along but there’s a sense of people’s eyes being opened to the structural/political sources of the violence in this week’s reading, which I’d characterize as follows (Naptime has also been digging into the politics, and has an excellent post here):
a) The Maquiladoras are the quintessential expression of neo-liberal economic policies (NAFTA/Free Trade). They become a magnet for impoverished workers, especially young women, for whom they are a source of potential social and economic empowerment, or, perhaps more accurately, the best of a bad set of options. At the same time they create tremendous opportunities for their victimization.
b) A toxic stew of misanthropy/misogyny/homophobia permeates Santa Teresa, devaluing women’s lives especially, and making young women easy targets (murders aside, the book reaches what may be the apex—or nadir–of its portrayal/critique of misogyny in the section on pages 552-53 where a police officer tells an endless series of offensive jokes about women).
c) Class divisions also influence who becomes a victim–there’s little-to-no redress for the poor women who are killed, but when Linda Vazquez, a young woman from a wealthy and connected family is murdered, the killer is horrifically dispatched as soon as he arrives in prison (prison is the one place in the novel where you witness the brutalization of men).
d) The drug trade and the corruption of the political system and the police force creates an environment, as Steve so astutely puts it in the comments to this post, in which the state has ceased “exercising its monopoly on violence to protect its citizenry”, and “we are being confronted with a situation in which the social contract has broken down at every level.” This fuels the violence and enables the killers to act with impunity.

Admittedly Bolaño’s political analysis is hardly earth shattering–you learn nothing you couldn’t learn much more quickly by reading journalistic accounts of the situation in Ciudad Juárez, but that’s true of just about any topical novel. The point is not to tell the reader something she doesn’t already know, but to evoke the social-political conditions in a way that traditional journalism either can’t or won’t–to fictionalize the events in order to get at a presumably deeper truth. Or at least to entrench them more firmly in the reader’s brain.

One of the main thrusts of The Part About the Crimes, obviously, is to dramatize all the things that either blind people to the victimization of women in Juarez, or that make such a thing tolerable, and by tolerable I don’t mean acceptable, but rather something that you live with because you feel powerless to stop it–either because the consequences of trying could mean your own swift and ignominious end, or because you lack power and a platform. But I was struck by this quote from Charles Bowden in an excellent NPR doc on Juárez, because it suggests that Bolaño’s focus on the murdered women is itself a form of obfuscation (transcript here):

Mr. BOWDEN: People are interested in the dead women of Juarez because it’s a way not to look at Juarez. If you say it’s young girls, 16 to 18, being killed by a serial killer or rich guys for fun or whatever, then you have a finite problem and you don’t have to look at the city. And you can ignore the fact that, well, one to 300 women have vanished, depending on who’s counting; 2,800 people have died. You can ignore the fact that 700 men have disappeared in the same period. You can just pretend that really the only problem in Juarez is this bizarre slaughter of young girls, and then you’re safe. And you don’t have to deal with the fact that this economic idea we had of border factories, etc., is a goddamned disaster, that it’s killing people, that no one can live on the wages, that workers leaving American factories spend two hours getting home to a cardboard shack and they’re working 44 to 48 hours a week and you wonder why they get violent.

If you have questions about what the global economy will eventuate in, go to Juarez. The global economy–what we call the global economy, no tariff barriers, etc., has been running there since the late ’60s. You’ve got a 40-year record. And what it’s produced is one of the most violent cities in the world.”

I don’t know if this was Bolaño’s intention, but I wonder if he’s hinting at a second level of blindness, one that implicates readers of the novel–the way the focus on the murders of the young women, which enables the idea of a serial killer, obscures the larger climate of violence of which they are a part, and the structural/political forces that make this slaughter possible.

Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood Dept: I am NOT arguing that violence against women is not a particular and distinct subset of violence in general, or that it’s improper to view the feminicidios apart from the larger violence of the drug war, just as I would not argue against hate crimes legislation because there are already laws against assault and murder on the books. But it does seem like they are an integral part of this larger climate of violence, and I do wonder if Bolaño is aware of what he screens out in narrowing the focus to the murders of women. Maybe the joke’s on us: we think that we are seeing THE harsh reality by exposing ourselves to Bolaño’s relentless accounts of the murders of young women, but in narrowing our focus to these crimes we miss or ignore the larger political critique Bolaño is trying to put forward.

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4 responses to “POLITICS (pages 513-564)

  1. Oregon Michael

    Really fantastic commentary. Excellent point that narrowing our focus to the feminicidios does perhaps keep us from seeing a bigger culture of violence, and that maybe Bolaño sought to do this.

    It seems like Ciudad Juárez is in the news all the time, with so many deaths in just the last couple of years, I think mostly due to cartel violence.

    Speaking of cartel violence, when I read the Part About the Crimes I almost always imagine the killers to be part of a drug gang, and the murders as a sort of ritual within the gang to prove something to each other. I can see new recruits being required to rape and mutilate a woman as an initiation procedure.

    And I guess that’s where the globalized economic situation comes in. If people are poor and can make much more money working for a cartel than a maquiladora, then off they go.

    But the drug trade seems absolutely huge to me. The amount of money from the drug trade seems to fuel the corruption of the politicians, the police, and it would be easy to imagine a factory owner being heavily caught-up in the drug trade, too.

    Can you see the majority of these crimes being committed by anyone else other than gangs caught up in the drug wars? Men in black Peregrinos? The only murders the police can solve are domestic violence cases. When there is a black Peregrino involved and an inspector gets too close, the case gets suddenly called off from up high.

    Again, thanks so much for this, I’m eager to read your thoughts for the remainder of the novel.

  2. Pingback: Bolano’s quote of the week (10) « Naptime Writing

  3. As Michael does, I particularly appreciate your reference to the Bowden comment that focusing so intently on the dead bodies functions as a metaphor for the myopia we have about international trade and cultural denigration of humanity in the era of NAFTA, drug wars, and maquiladores.

    That perspective, while not arguing that we ignore the deaths, the misogyny, the corruption certainly leads me to insist, as a reader, that I shake off the haze of being rocked slowly to sleep with death after death to see the whole town, the whole culture, the importance of the border’s invisible line just miles away that separates this violence from the privilege of ignoring the greater social implications of Santa Teresa.

    Buried within this week’s reading is the Mexican 10-1 male to female murder ratio, which in S.T. is 10-4. Why, then, aren’t we talking about the men who are dying other than the brief glimpses from Lalo’s perspective and the prison violence?

    Thanks, again, for a great post.

  4. Look at the novel another way: it’s an epic of the pettiness of the violence of men against anyone, the pettiness and the cruelty and the suffering endured by its most defenseless victims. Think of it as a postmodern Iliad, or an even-more-post modern commentary on Gravity’s Rainbow. In Part I the critics become crazed almost-killers attacked a Pakistani taxi driver who incites them. Sure, they may feel really offended and pissed off, but they didn’t need to beat him almost to death. And they get away with it. Amalfitano’s dad is a cruel boxer. (So was Bolano’s, am I right about that?) Then we have the crimes in ST. We have both the patterned serial rape/murders of young girls with long hair dressed after the crime, and all the boyfriend/husband vengeance killings, among others. The men who die in violent crime (in greater numbers than women, to be sure) are absent from the book, but they are not in the same league as the women (and the homosexuals who are other victims of this machismo, both in Mexico and the US [ref the homosexual serial killing in the US he refers to around p 500 or so]). Those men are culpable for their own deaths in ways that women and homosexuals aren’t. Where Homer’s epic of violence was about the struggle of its hero to chose glory or domestic happiness, the stakes being kingdoms and national histories, Bolano’s is about the functioning of violence in the postmodern world, where cartels (illegal, as in the drug cartels; and legal, as in the corporate cartels of the USA) have much greater influence than the state, which can protect no one and is ultimately subject to pressure and influence from the cartels. The best we can do is escape from one place to another, as so many of Bolano’s characters do (in this novel and others).
    –John

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