So we finally get to hear the story of the mysterious writer we began searching for over 600 pages ago. Hans Reiter, as he is born in 1920 to a blind mother and a one-legged father, is a boy first obsessed with the sea. A book on 'Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region' is his constant companion and he is twice rescued from drowning. After dropping out of school he begins work at the house of Baron von Zumpe where his mother is a servant, forming a friendship with Hugo Halder, the Baron's nephew, and becoming an accomplice to his gradual looting of the silverware. This early section sees a welcome return to many of things which made The Savage Detectives such an entertaining read. A colourful cast of characters, rich and evocative language and most importantly perhaps (especially after the last section), humour.
"The Welsh are swine," said the one-legged man in reply to a question from his son. "Absolute swine. The English are swine, too, but not as bad as the Welsh. Though really they're the same, but they make an effort not to seem it, and since they know how to pretend, they succeed. The Scots are bigger swine than the English and only a little better than the Welsh. The French are as bad as the Scots".
Reiter's father then works his way through the rest of Europe before declaring of course that 'The only people who aren't swine are the Prussians'. That Reiter comes from a country that no longer exists is only the beginning of the rootlessness that sees him drift from place to place in the theatre of Europe's second World War with very little control of his direction. He becomes just one of many men who change or alter their history as Germany suffers defeat and the reprisals and trials begin.
Before that we have the first of many digressions. Bolaño has a habit of allowing a character to act like a portal, taking our attention away from the narrative we are following, giving us a fully formed chunk of something else entirely, before dropping us back where we were before. Whilst holed up in an occupied house, recovering from a gunshot wound which has rendered him speechless, Reiter finds some papers in a secret hiding spot at the back of the fireplace. These belong to Ansky, a Russian soldier whose story we then follow and which in turn will allow us to meet other characters like Ivanov, a science fiction writer. Ansky begins to figure in Reiter's dreams and in one, which plays on his fear that he may have been the very man that felled this Russian soldier, he finds a corpse which bears his own face. Waking with relief, his voice returns - 'Thank God it wasn't me.'
Chance or fate are themes which return again and again. When on the Eatern Front Reiter meets again the Baroness von Zumpe, daughter of the house he onced worked in, ('wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance') and along with some of his fellow soldiers watches a night of brutal sex she endures with a prodigiously endowed Romanian general. From her he hears about what happened to his childhood friend Halder, his work as a painter, and symbolically his pictures of dead women. Death's hand is all over this section with warfare, slaughter, disease and poverty and yet from this chaos comes Reiter's impulse to create, to write and indeed to reinvent himself.
Reiter becomes Archimboldi after two events. When in a camp at the end of the war he meets a man calling himself Zeller, a civil servant of the Third Reich, who relates his tale of Jewish liquidation as bureaucratic inconvenience. Reiter kills him and after meeting a former fortune teller who impresses upon him the importance of breaking the chain his new identity is born. He will be reunited with the Baroness again through his publisher, and she is not the only figure from his past to return again. This sense of return and unification continues right until the end where Bolaño manages to pull off a loose-thread-tying finish which he just about gets away with. I'll be honest and say that I was grateful for some resolution after such a dizzying and digressive ride (and that's just in this section).
I finished it. That I feel a sense of achievement is what worries me. There are some books that you read and on finishing them feel not so much joy, or inspiration, or even the simple need to talk to someone about it, but just exhaustion. I feel a bit like that. It'll take a while to sort through my thoughts but I'm not sure this is a book I'll be recommending to people. I'm not sure yet how or why I would. Plenty of people have asked what it is I'm reading and I've opened my mouth to try and explain to them what it's all about and found myself struck dumb for a few seconds, struggling to think where even to begin. As Archimboldi says himself near the very end, 'I don't know what to think.'