Who is killing the women of Santa Teresa? Or, to give the city its proper name, Ciudad Juarez? The short answer is – the men. In Bolaño’s novel, and in Juarez since the 1990s, about 30% of the hundreds of women killed were murdered by somebody whom they knew, most often partners. One cannot seek recourse to the metaphor of a ‘war’ between the sexes, when in this context, it is more or less one sex doing all of the killing. The authorities are at best, callously indifferent, and at worst, implicated in the killings There is a lengthy scene is which the very police who are investigating the killings pass the time by telling a series of viciously misogynist jokes.
I was reminded of Bolaño’s posthumous novel, which I read only this year, by this article, on a man creating portraits of the victims of femicidio in Juarez. That piece, by way of free association and some cursory googling, led me in turn to this piece, putting Mexico’s cartel wars in the context of 21st global capitalism. This is precisely the context that Bolaño puts them, also, as he frequently reminds the reader that the deceased (or her kin) work at the local maquiladoras, or sweatshops, the managers of whom have little sympathy for those looking for their missing loved ones. I do not know enough of Mexican culture to know whether the grim imperative for women to work in sweatshops runs against the ideals of Marianismo, but it would not be surprising. Whilst the specific nature of the horrors occurring in Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juarez may be unique, the underlying economic conditions are not, and an inventory of sweatshop horrors could be compiled, including the worker suicides of China, and the collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh. These are the modern day equivalents of Blake’s ‘satanic mills’, or of Marx’s cotton manufacturers in Capital, but, unlike in the 19th Century, the global economy implicates everybody who benefits – the Europeans, New Worlders (like Australians, and the norteamericanos), and the local elites. Indeed, some of the alleged serial killers reflect this culpability, involving a German (Haas) and a wealthy Mexican family (the Uribe family, whose name may not be incidental).
The other factor hinted at throughout the book (and more than hinted at in any recent account of Juarez) is the presence of the narcos. They are central to the economy, to law and order, such as it is, and to the city itself. Some – libertarians, perhaps – might imagine that prohibition is the root of all evil here. It is not. Organised crime, when it is well-organised, has a habit of infiltrating everything, prohibited or not. A fine book by journalist Oscar Martinez, recently translated into English, illustrated this well. The cartels of Mexico control not only the narcotics industry, supplying drugs to North Americans and Europeans, but also the coyotes (people smugglers), the protection industry, and human trafficking. In some respects, this latter may be the most profitable of all. A gram of coke or marijuana can be consumed but once; a sex slave, under threat of death and torture, can be used over and over again.
One of the threads of 2666 is violence. There is extreme but transient grotesquery, such as the vengeances enacted in the Santa Teresa prison, gruesome as they are. Yet there are also the enormous violences of the 20th Century, such as WWI, Stalin’s Terror and gulags, and the Holocaust. The logic of 2666 – and I believe that logic is what we are dealing with here – is to situate Juarez as the heir of this violence. After all, the Mexican cartel wars seem to have killed far more civilians than the Afghan war (since 2001). Perhaps both wars have been complementary – neo-conservatism in the military politics of Afghanistan and Iraq, neoliberalism in the economy of Mexico (and elsewhere). It is fitting that the frontier of this violence should be situated on the border between Mexico and the US. Bolaño’s violence, I should hasten to add, is entirely different to that of, say, Cormac McCarthy, in Blood Meridian. Bolaño’s killers employ the full repertoire of criminality to finish their victims, and 2666 could function as a catalogue of modern slaughter. It has an unmistakable cumulative effect, as one discerns styles, patterns, typologies.These slaughters include squalid domestic murders, to horrifically sadistic tortures, to utilitarian style of executions and drive-by shootings. Yet Bolaño almost never depicts the murder itself – there is no jouissance of torture and killing in Bolaño – but the heart-rending after-effects. The nameless victim to whom investigators are indifferent, tossed into an unmarked grave. The missing adolescent, searched-for desperately by loved ones around the rubbish dumps and maquiladoras. Crime fiction is genre fiction, to be sure, but with the best of its authors – Bolaño, or another favourite of mine, Sciasca – there is nothing b-grade about it. And why should there be, when there is no neat distinction between criminality and law and the rest of life?
Finally, there is something fundamentally psychoanalytic about Bolaño’s 2666. As with his other works, dreams are of some significance, and are described at length throughout the novel. To a lesser extent, this is true of memory, in all its fallibility. The figure of the detective – his enjoyments, labyrinthine journeys and crises – constitute one of Bolaño’s most important pieces of symbolism, from his poetry, to The Savage Detectives, to 2666. A detective, in Bolaño’s world, is never some mere proceduralist, a bureaucrat with a badge and a gun, but somebody searching for the answer to the riddles of life in life’s contingencies, obscenities, unfinished clues, cryptic symbols and horrors. If this is not psychoanalytic, then I do not know what is.