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On Benno von Archimboldi

If Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a circular novel, then the figure of Benno von Archimboldi, along with the city of Santa Teresa, resides at its elusive center. He is the Nobel novelist par excellence, the prototypical long-obscure, sure-to-be-lately-recognized writer. For most of the novel, his existence remains peripheral and mysterious, and his entrance, in the book’s final section, does little to elucidate his enigmas. So how does one proceed into Archimboldi as a character in 2666? What is the best way to determine his metaphorical place in the novel? One way would be the way any writer would want to be investigated: through the work.

So let’s itemize Archimboldi’s novels as described in various sections of 2666 and see if there any metaphorical connections to 2666’s themes. Here are the titles, estimated publication dates, and (if available) brief descriptions of the contents of Archimboldi’s entire catalogue, listed in chronological order (until The Return, after which the order is unclear).

Lüdicke, c. 1949: Archimboldi’s first novel. The plot is never described, but the process of publishing Lüdicke is narrated in detail. The first publisher who rejects the novel acknowledges that it has “undeniable merits,” while Mr. Bubis, who agrees to take it on, says that it is, “in a certain sense, rather original,” and that he’d like to “take a gamble on” it—both of which suggest the book was unique, maybe even experimental. The first edition sold 300 copies.

The Endless Rose, c. 1950: Finished before Lüdicke is even published, The Endless Rose took Archimboldi only three months to write. Mr. Bubis describes it as “better than good” and says reading it left him “deeply shaken.” The first run sold 205 copies. It was later translated into Spanish by Amalfitano in 1974. Interesting side note: The Endless Rose is mentioned in The Savage Detectives where it is attributed to “a frenchman named J. M. G. Arcimboldi.”

The Leather Mask, c. 1951: Described as “Polish-themed” and part of a trilogy with “the English-themed” The Garden and “the clearly French-themed” D’Arsonval, although the other two novels weren’t completed until much later. First edition sold 96 copies. A few years after its initial publication, following the belated success of his next novel Rivers of Europe, The Leather Mask would go into a second edition.

Rivers of Europe, c. 1952: Despite its title, Rivers of Europe is “really only about one river, the Dnieper.” The fourth longest river in Europe, it runs from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine before spilling out into the Black Sea. This is where Archimboldi crossed with his battalion during the war on their way to Crimean peninsula. Rivers of Europe becomes Archimboldi’s first book to sell well enough to go into a second printing.

Bifurcaria Bifurcata, c. 1952: A novel about seaweed (bifurcaria is a genus of brown algea, while bifurcata is a species of palm), its title relates to Archimboldi’s youth, when “he seemed less like a child than a strand of seaweed.” He preferred lying on the seabed to walking on the earth or even swimming in the water. When his mother bathed him, he “always slipped from her soapy hands and sank to the bottom” of the tub, only coming up when she pulled him out. Bifurcaria Bifurcata is also the first Archimboldi novel that Mr. Bubis, the publisher, doesn’t like—he is unable to finish it. His wife, Mrs. Bubis, “couldn’t get past page four.” Years later Amalfitano won’t be able to get to the end either. Mr. Bubis publishes it, anyway. At any rate, the novel took Archimboldi only a month to write. It was the first Archimboldi novel Piero Morini translated into Italian, in 1988, but it “came and went unnoticed in Italian bookstores.”

Inheritance, c. 1957: A lengthy novel, more than 500 pages (to which Archimboldi would later add another 100 pages), Archimboldi wrote Inheritance after the death of Ingeborg and a four-year disappearance during which no one knew where he was. He mailed the manuscript to Mr. Bubis from Venice, and it was “full of crossings out and addenda and lengthy and often illegible footnotes.” Despite “the chaos of the text,” Mr. Bubis, upon reading it, “was left with a feeling of great satisfaction, because Archimboldi had lived up to all the hopes [Mr. Bubis] had placed in him.”

Saint Thomas, c. 1958: From 2666: “the apocryphal biography of a biographer whose subject is a great writer of the Nazi regime, in whom some critics wanted to see a likeness of Ernst Jünger, although clearly it isn’t Jünger but a fictional character.” Bolaño wrote on a similar subject in Nazi Literature of the Americas, and this strikes me as both self-referential and slightly defensive, as if Bolaño is preemptively cutting off any interpretations as to who Archimboldi might be based on. Translated into Italian by Morini in 1991.

The Blind Woman, c. 1959: By this point, Archimboldi is living on the Greek island of Icaria. The Blind Woman is “about a blind woman who didn’t know she was blind and some clairvoyant detectives who didn’t know they were clairvoyant.” This was the first Archimboldi novel read by Liz Norton, who “liked it, but not so much that it made her go running out to buy everything else that Benno von Archimboldi had ever written.”

The Black Sea, c. 1960: Either “a theater piece or a novel written in dramatic form, in which the Black Sea converses with the Atlantic Ocean an hour before dawn.” Figuring out a way to stage a conversation between two vast bodies of water seems, at the very least, daunting.

Lethaea, c. 1960: Described as Archimboldi’s “most explicitly sexual novel, in which he transfers to the Germany of the Third Reich the story of Lethaea, who believes herself more beautiful than any goddess and is finally transformed, along with Olenus, her husband, into a stone statue.” Lethaea “was labeled as pornographic and after a successful court case it became Archimboldi’s first book to go through five printings.” Morini wrote a study “on the various guises of conscience and guilt” in the novel.

The Lottery Man, c. 1961: The Lottery Man is “the life of a crippled German who sells lottery tickets in New York.”

The Father, c. 1962: In The Father, “a son recalls his father’s activities as a psychopathic killer, which begin in 1938, when his son is twenty, and come to an enigmatic end in 1948.”

The Return, c. 1963: No plot description. Sent to the now-widowed Mrs. Bubis “more than a year” after Mr. Bubis’s death.

At this point in “The Part About Archimboldi,” the focus shifts to Archimboldi’s sister, Lotte, and her son, Klaus. The following titles are all mentioned in “The Part About the Critics” and presumably fill the forty-year gap between The Return and the contemporary setting of 2666. Archimboldi’s seems to become less prolific as he ages.

The Berlin Underworld, sometime before 1964: A “collection of mostly war stories,” presumably semi-autobiographical. An Italian translation of The Berlin Underground was put out by “a publishing house in Rome” in 1964, so its publication by Mr. Bubis in the original German must have come sometime before 1964.

D’Arsonval, sometime before 1980: The first of Archimboldi’s novels to be mentioned in 2666, the “clearly French-themed” second part of a trilogy (after The Leather Mask and before The Garden). Translated into French by Jean-Claude Pelletier in 1984, it found great success.

The Garden, year unknown: The final novel in Archimboldi’s trilogy, this one “English-themed.”

Mitzi’s Treasure, sometime before 1981: Mentioned as a “slim volume” and compared to Bitzius. Found by Pelletier at a bookstore in Munich in 1981.

Bitzius, year unknown: A novel “that told the story of the life of Albert Bitzius, pastor of Lützelflüh, in the canton of Bern, an author of sermons as well as a writer under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf.” Gotthelf was a real figure, mostly known for his 1842 novella The Black Spider, an allegory about the plague, which was admired by Thomas Mann and was a predecessor to writers like H. P. Lovecraft. It is “less than one hundred pages long, similar in some ways to Mitzi’s Treasure.” Although The Blind Woman wasn’t enough to send Liz Norton “running out” to find Archimboldi’s other novels, Bitzius was—she runs out into the rain, no less. Must be a powerful novel.

Railroad Perfection, c. 1989—91: Mentioned only twice in 2666: once when Morini writes a literary study for an academic journal “on the role of fate in Railroad Perfection” and again when, after noting Espinoza and Pelletier’s thesis that The Head will be Archimboldi’s final novel, the critic Dieter Hellfeld objects that such a contention is “too risky” and “that the same thing had been said of Archimboldi when he came out with Railroad Perfection.” This leads me to assume that Railroad Perfection preceded The Head chronologically. In Woes of the True Policeman, a novel called Railroad Perfection by Arcimboldi is described as a novel “consisting of ninety-nine apparently unrelated two-page dialogues,” all of which “take place aboard a train. But not the same train, or even during the same time period.”

The Head, c. 1995: There’s no plot summary, but Espinoza and Pelletier believe that this novel will be Archimboldi’s last, as he is, they contend, “drawing his literary adventures to a close” with The Head.

The King of the Forest, post-1995, probably 2000 or 2001: A short (“no more than one hundred and fifty pages”) autobiographical novel “about a one-legged father and a one-eyed mother and their two children, a boy who liked to swim and a girl who followed her brother to the cliffs.” Archimboldi’s sister Lotte buys the book at an airport in 2001, which suggests to me that The King of the Forest comes after The Head, disputing the critics’ thesis. It’s a typical Bolaño joke: proving critics wrong. Airports typically only carry the most recent titles (along with older bestsellers, but The King of the Forest probably wasn’t a bestseller, since it isn’t mentioned anywhere in “Critics”), so the timing of Lotte’s purchase puts its publication date at either 2000 or 2001. I would argue that Bolaño meant for this to be Archimboldi’s final work. Its autobiographical nature seems like a confession.


You’re going to think I’m an asshole for saying this after making you read synopses for every single novel by Archimboldi, but here goes: There is no relation between his novels and the larger themes of 2666. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discern some thematic references in some of them.

Bolaño, I suspect, had a lot of fun creating Benno von Archimboldi. The fictional writer’s novels are, for the most part, flights of satirical invention. The trilogy of European-themed novels, for instance, is exactly the kind of work a Nobel contender would produce. Bifucaria Bifurcata reminds me of William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape (2002), a slim novel written in monologue style in homage to Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, another referent for Archimboldi. The grandness of titles like Rivers of Europe and Inheritance, the foreign pomp of fiction like Bitzius and D’Arsonval, and the classical references of Saint Thomas and Lethaea—all ring true of a potential Nobel laureate in the 20th century.

And some of the books do lend themselves to comparison with 2666 as a narrative. Consider Morini’s study of “fate” in Railroad Perfection, which, considering there is a character named Fate in the book, seems like a deliberate choice on Bolaño’s part. Saint Thomas sounds like self-incrimination: Archimboldi writes a biography of a biographer of a Nazi writer, and the narrator mentions Ernst Jünger as a potential inspiration for the biographer. Jünger was friends with Martin Heidegger, who did join (and advocate for) the Nazi regime. The fact that Archimboldi took on such an ethically complex subject is telling (though it wouldn’t have been for Archimboldi’s readers; only for Bolaño’s readers). The life of post-WWII German soldiers weighed heavily on Archimboldi throughout his career.

Finally, let’s examine what I claim is Archimboldi’s final novel, The King of the Forest, which I described as a “confession.” Hans Reiter, as Archimboldi was once known, has been hiding from his true identity since World War II. He attributes this to his murder of Sammer in prison, but really stems from the fact that he was a solider of the Third Reich. Who wouldn’t be turned off by discovering that fact about an author? The title is obviously taken from the song in The Wizard of Oz—“If I were the king… of the foreeeeeeeeeest!”—so even though it asserts a royal upbringing, Archimboldi is really aligning himself with the Cowardly Lion. Maybe writing and publishing The King of the Forest was Archimboldi’s way of building up the “noyve” to come clean, although of course the novel (presumably) stops short of revealing his military duties under Hitler. Perhaps Archimboldi still considers himself cowardly.

More significantly, The King of the Forest plays a fateful role in Archimboldi’s life: It is the means by which Lotte found her long-lost brother Hans, and it allows her to ask him to help her with her son’s legal troubles in Mexico. The King of the Forest is the reason Archimboldi winds up in Santa Teresa, which is the reason the critics journey there too, which leads to the introduction of Amalfitano, whose daughter, Rosa, ends up being taken out of the country by Oscar Fate, who encounters Klaus Haas, Archimboldi’s nephew and the main suspect in the murders. The King of the Forest is Archimboldi’s only fully autobiographical novel, and it’s the one that sets the events of 2666 into motion. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it’s the most significant of Archimboldi’s later works. Only when he reveals his true self is Archimboldi able to reunite with his beloved sister Lotte and his not-so-beloved nephew Klaus.

Archimboldi, in other words, spent most of his life hiding from his past. His final fictional revelation, his last work, brings him fully circle not only with his previous life, but also with the novel in which he is a predominant character. A novel helps tied together the loose ends of 2666, suggesting that there is more truth in art than we might at first recognize. Yet, the conclusion The King of the Forest brings about—Archimboldi’s reunion with his sister and the realization that Klaus, the murder suspect, is his kin—is not a beautiful truth but a stark and sad and poignant one. It is certainly a far cry from the inspiration and youthful joy experienced by the critics in 2666’s first part. Archimboldi demonstrates that the circles of life do not send us back to identical positions, but somewhere familiar but new. As Thomas Pynchon once wrote, “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”

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