by Sergio González Rodríguez
One of the recurring characters in 2666's "La parte de los crímenes" ["The Part About the Crimes"] is a Mexico City city arts reporter turned crime reporter named Sergio González who's first sent to Santa Teresa in 1993 to investigate the desecration of churches in the city by what's thought to be a lone whack job of a vandal. The narrator blandly introduces the reporter as follows--"Por aquellos días el periódico La Razón, del DF, envió a Sergio González a hacer un reportaje sobre el Penitente" ["Around this time the Mexico City newspaper La Razón sent Sergio González to write a story on the Penitent"] (470 in the original, 376 in the translation)--before briefing us on his age and a few other particulars about his personal circumstances. An ironic swipe at the newspaperman's work or readership--"Hacía reseñas de libros de filosofía, que por otra parte nadie leía, ni los libros ni sus reseñas, y de vez en cuando escribía sobre música y sobre exposiciones de pintura" ["He wrote reviews of philosophy books that no one read, not the books or his reviews, and sometimes he wrote about art shows or music"] (Ibid.)--could almost be construed as condescending save for the fact that Sergio González will be one of the first outsiders in this part of the novel to take the real Santa Teresa crimes, the mass murders of hundreds of poor women, seriously. On that note, I guess it's only fitting that the real life model for the character, a Mexico City arts reporter turned crime reporter named...Sergio González Rodríguez (photo above) did much the same thing outside the pages of Bolaño's book.
Not having read Huesos en el desierto [Bones in the Desert, unfortunately still not available in translation], Sergio González Rodríguez's 2002 collection of essays on the Ciudad Juárez killings, in many years, I thought it might be instructive to revisit the work in order to compare the author's own voice with that of his fictionalized double--as a literary matter in part but also as an entrée into the historical backdrop to "the part about the crimes." Rereading chapter 1 of the book, "La dimensión desconocida" ["The Twilight Zone"], probably the first thing I was immediately reminded of was how personal in tone the flesh and blood author's work is. Here's his jeremiad-like opening (13):
Hubo en el origen un deslizamiento fuera de los límites.
Entre 1993 y 1995, los cadáveres de 30 mujeres víctimas de homicidios dolosos en Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, formaban parte de una trama compleja de violencia sexual, cantinas, bares, bandas delincuenciales e inculpaciones mutuas entre diversos protagonistas de la vida colectiva.
Era el núcleo de una sociedad desgarrada que comenzaba a confrontar sus flaquezas culturales. Y hacía del espacio público la arena de sus diferencias y contrastes extremos. La sobrepoblación, la penuria urbana, la violencia externa o intrafamiliar, las inercias de género --presentes en muchas otras partes de la República mexicana-- transformaban lo cotidiano en una pesadilla singular. Sobre todo para las mujeres, la mitad de la población, poco más de 400.000 de ellas.
[There was, in the beginning, a sliding completely out of control.
Between 1993 and 1995, the cadavers of 30 female victims of premeditated murder in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, formed part of a complex web of sexual violence, cantinas, bars, criminal gangs, and mutual accusations between diverse protagonists of the collective life in the city.
It was the nucleus of a society in tatters that was beginning to confront its cultural failings. And it was converting public spaces into the arena of its extreme contrasts and differences. Overpopulation, urban poverty, domestic violence or external violence, inertia of that kind--present in many other parts of the Mexican Republic--were transforming daily life into a singular nightmare. Above all for women, half the population, a little more than 400,000 of them.]
In translating this opening, I was struck by how much the line "transformaban lo cotidiano en una pesadilla singular," which I've rendered as "transforming daily life into a singular nightmare," seems to be echoed by Roberto Bolaño in "The Part About the Crimes" when a forensic scientist leaves a Santa Teresa parking lot in his Grand Marquis "y las calles se lo tragaban como una pesadumbre cotidiana" ["and the streets swallowed it up like a commonplace lament"] (689 in the original, 551 in the translation). The similarity between the combination of SGR's "pesadilla singular" ["singular nightmare"] and "lo cotidiano" ["daily life, quotidian"] and Bolaño's simile about the "pesadumbre cotidiana" [literally: "quotidian affliction, sorrow" but which Wimmer more legibly translates as "commonplace lament"] may not seem self-evident in English, but it's only one play on words apart in Spanish from being an apparent homage to the Mexican writer's descriptive power (side notes: Bolaño and González Rodríguez exchanged correspondence about Ciudad Juárez for years, and Sergio also appeared as a "character" in Javier Marías' 1998 Negra espalda del tiempo [Dark Back of Time]).
Elsewhere in "La dimensión desconocida," Sergio González Rodríguez mentions at least two other people related to the Juárez crimes who would wind up in Bolaño's 2666 in varyingly fictionalized fashion. The first is former high profile FBI agent and serial killer profiler Robert K. Ressler (a/k/a Albert Kessler in 2666), who was interviewed by SGR colleague Rossana Fuentes Berain for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma in April 1996 after Ciudad Juárez experienced a 35% increase in violent crime (and in particular the murders of women) from the year before which "ya causaban alarma en México y comenzaban a trascender al exterior del país" ["was already causing alarm in Mexico and was beginning to spread outside the country"] (14). Ressler, then famous for being the technical advisor for the film The Silence of the Lambs, which SGR claims helped put the serial killer on the map of the popular imagination worldwide as "el emblema de la criminalidad contemporánea" ["the emblem of contemporary criminality"] and the aesthetic purveyor of murder as just "una más de las bellas artes" ["one more of the fine arts"], opines that the frontier between Mexico and the U.S. is "una zona que por su naturaleza misma, por el tráfico de personas y de drogas, se convierte en una dimensión desconocida" ["a zone which, by its very nature, through the trafficking of drugs and people, has turned into a twilight zone"]. He then adds that he expects the Juárez murders will continue (Ibid.). The second later-to-be-fictionalized by Bolaño person mentioned in the chapter is the Egyptian-born U.S. immigrant Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, who allegedly fled to Mexico to avoid rape charges in the U.S. Accused of being the author of at least some of the Juárez killings, Sharif Sharif--like the German-born Klaus Haas in 2666, who is modeled after the Egyptian in some respects--proclaims his innocence via a rambling press conference held while he's in jail and blames the murders of over 50 of the Juárez women--murders which continue while he's behind bars--on figures known to frequent the city's dive bars where "se reúnen los policías con los narcotraficantes" ["the cops and the drug dealers get together"] (21-22). Was Sharif Sharif framed for the murders? Possibly. However, what's chilling in regard to this unsavory character is that SGR reports that other murders blamed on eight people from the gang known as "Los Rebeldes" ["The Rebels"] get called into question amid claims of police brutality (beatings and torture) and an adolescent witness' recanted claim that she was forced to testify against the gang by a cop who put a gun to her head. In other words, there's a pattern in which the police and other state authorities seem to be more interested in perpetuating the crimes rather than ending them.
Sergio González Rodríguez's partisan reaction to this state of affairs, while dramatically different in tone from the "forensic" narrative register that would be employed by Bolaño throughout much of "The Part About the Crimes," makes for a great counterpoint to the latter for anybody interested in comparing the nonfiction and the fiction approaches to the crimes in the two texts. Here's just one passage from "La dimensión desconocida" which continues to haunt me (23-24):
Susana Domínguez, la denunciante de abusos policiacos, una adolescente esbelta, morena, de ojos grandes y cabello largo, representaba la imagen promedio de la muchacha juarense. Vestía pantalones vaqueros y llevaba una playera. Como todas las muchachas que pululan en los malls de ambos lados de la frontera, como las que abundan en las escuelas, como las que trabajan en oficinas. Como las que sostienen a sus hijos --casadas, madres solteras-- y sobreviven al margen de lo funesto. Como las que salen por centenares de las fábricas para irse a su casa o a los bares cada viernes en autobuses suburbanos al concluir su turno. O como las que terminan con su cuerpo torturado en el desierto.
[Susana Domínguez, the denouncer of police abuses, a slender, brown-skinned adolescent with big eyes and long hair, looked like an average Juárez girl. She wore jeans and a t-shirt. Like all the girls who swarm to the malls on both sides of the frontier, like those that abound in the schools, like those that work in offices. Like those who support their children--married women, single mothers--and survive by the skin of their teeth. Like those who leave the factories by the hundreds to go home or to the bars in suburban buses each Friday night at the end of their shift. Or like those who end up with their body tortured in the desert.]
And here's another passage, from the preface, in which Sergio González Rodríguez boldly assigns blame for the crimes. This one might be even more sobering in its implications (11-12):
Este libro entrecruza documentos y testimonios múltiples de un suceso que se ubica en el límite de lo delincuencial y el femicidio: entre aquellos crímenes, está detectada la existencia de un centenar de asesinatos en serie.
Una orgía sacrificial de cariz misógino propiciada por las autoridades: los responsables estarían libres, a la sombra de una pirámide corrupta que tiene su base en la ineficacia policiaca y los delitos impunes en un índice de casi ciento por ciento en la República mexicana.
Más alla de las cifras, semejantes crímenes dejan traslucir dos hechos de análoga gravedad ahora y hacia el futuro: la inadvertencia o amnesia global ante un fenómeno extremo de signo anárquico; y el impulso de normalizar la barbarie en las sociedades contemporáneas.
[This book interweaves multiple testimonies and documents about an event which is situated on the extreme limits of criminality and femicide: among those crimes, the existence of a hundred serial killings can be detected.
A sacrificial orgy misogynistic in nature aided by the authorities: those responsible need remain free in the shadow of a corrupt pyramid which has its base in police inefficiency and unpunished crimes at a rate of almost 100% in the Mexican Republic.
Beyond the numbers, similar crimes suggest two facts of analagous gravity now and for the future: the global overlooking of, or amnesia in the face of, an extreme phenomenon marked by anarchic tendencies, and the impulse of normalizing barbarity in contemporary societies.]
"La dimensión desconocida," chapter 1 of 18 of Huesos en el desierto, appears on pp. 13-26 of the third edition of the work (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2005). References to Roberto Bolaño's 2666 refer to pages in the Spanish language original (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2007) or in Natasha Wimmer's English language translation (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008).
A 2012 Bookforum chat with Sergio González Rodríguez, in English, can be found here.
A 2012 Bookforum chat with Sergio González Rodríguez, in English, can be found here.