The skill of the translator is a difficult thing to quantify. It is often when the writing seems effortless, when you don't notice the translation, that you know you are reading a really good one. The scope of this novel, and the range of Bolaño's writing gives Natasha Wimmer an opportunity to show just how good she is. This third section, telling the story of Oscar Fate (it's a nick-name loaded with portent), is immediately different in style. As someone who reads a lot of American fiction it had begins with that reassuring tone of realism, of statement, feeling almost Chandleresque.
Fate is a journalist for 'Black Dawn', a small Harlem magazine focusing on black-interest stories, and is still it seems reeling from the death of his mother. When he is assigned to cover a boxing match in Mexico he feels professionally out of depth and with the unfamiliar surroundings Bolaño creates a brilliant sense of unease. This is a man with his centre missing; he feels unaccountably sick to the stomach, unable to focus clearly and the creeping sense of unreality blurs the distinction between what is real and what he dreams. It is hard to articulate what this feels like until Bolaño does it for you. In a conversation with a motel clerk the name David Lynch pops up and that's when you realise why it all feels so vivid without being tangible.
Whilst in Mexico Fate gets to hear about the killings, the mysterious deaths of maybe two hundred women.
"That's a lot for one person," he said.
"That's right amigo. Too many. Even for a Mexican killer."
"And how are they killed?" asked Fate.
"Nobody's sure. They disappear. They vanish into thin air, here one minute, gone the next. And after awhile their bodies turn up in the desert"
Without the support of his editor and with little interest in the fight (Bolaño does one of his brilliant undercuts by describing the warm-up bout with flair and then dispensing with the disappointing big fight in a few lines) Fate gets drawn into the story, first through a female reporter and then through Rosa Amalfitano (daughter of the professor from parts 1 and 2) and a group of friends around her. That sense of unease I mentioned earlier builds as the pace of the plot ratchets up, Fate becoming convinced that Rosa is in danger, perhaps in line to be the next victim. Rather than this simply being an increase in pace, it is an increase in style, the language subtly warping so that as this section reaches its conclusion you are as confused as Fate himself, and perhaps as nauseous.
Even in a throw away conversation about the advent of the multiplex and the death of the cinema experience Bolaño is able to throw the doors open onto something which reaches much further, something he calls the end of the sacred.
The end had begun somewhere, Charly Cruz didn't care where, maybe in the churches,when the priests stopped celebrating the Mass in Latin, or in families, when the fathers (terrified, believe me brother) left the mothers. Soon the end of the sacred came to movies.
The breakdown of society is palpable, but without feeling grandly apocalyptic, it's hidden in the shadows at the corner of the room. That is what makes the killings possible as an overheard conversation in a restaurant makes clearer. A 'white-haired man' discusses how the many deaths of those outside society go unremarked, whilst the single murder within it becomes a headline. And then, throwing those doors open again,
'In the nineteenth century...society tended to filter death through the fabric of words...We didn't want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed..Everything changes you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes'
How's that for a theme? I have a feeling that the 'white-haired man' will have more to say.