Written and left unfinished
by Roberto Bolaño
depicts the unsolved and ongoing serial murders
in Santa Teresa, Mexico (aka Ciudad Juaraz
), and the Eastern Front of World War II
. Spanning nearly sixty years, the plot also revolves around the exploits of the reclusive author Benno von Archimboldi
, and the people whom he has affected. The story was originally released in 2004, adapted into a stage play in 2007, and was eventually translated for English audiences in 2008. Bolaño was posthumously awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for it as well. The novel is divided into five parts:
The Part About The Critics: A group of European literary critics discover the works of Archimboldi and bring them to forefront of academic debate and prominence
. After building their careers
around the elusive author, the critics seek him out in the last place he was supposedly sighted: Santa Teresa, Mexico.
The Part About Amalfitano: Oscar Amalfitano
works as a philosophy
professor at the University of Santa Teresa. As he slowly loses his grip on reality
, he learns of the crimes being committed in the city and attempts to keep his daughter safe
The Part About Fate: Oscar Fate
, an American newspaper reporter
, wanders around the country taking assignments. He is eventually sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but he quickly becomes more interested in the killing spree plaguing the city.
The Part About The Crimes: The seemingly endless crime wave and its investigation
are chronicled from the perspective of the Santa Teresa police force. Not only are the murders described in detail
, but the attempts to find suspects
and the corruption
and ineffectiveness of the authorities
The Part About Archimboldi: The origin of Benno von Archimboldi
is finally unveiled. He's really Hans Reiter, a Prussian born in 1920 who fought for Germany in World War II and created a new identity as his homeland - and all of Europe - was reconstructed.
The narrative follows Archimboldi's childhood all the way into his eighties
, when his work has gained literary acclaim
and made him a contender for the Nobel Prize
- The Ace: Kessler, though even he can't solve the mystery of Santa Teresa.
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Amalfitano is a dark example of this. He's going insane, and his relationship with his daughter suffers for it.
- Apocalyptic Log: Ansky's journal depicts how he got caught up in the Great Purge.
- A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: The true identity of Archimboldi and the mystery of the serial murders in Santa Teresa.
- Absence of Evidence: Happens in just about every murder, given how most of the bodies are left in garbage dumps and that witnesses never come forward. What little evidence is found is frequently lost or forgotten.
- Alone with the Psycho: Amalfitano and Dean Guerra's son.
- Fate and Chucho Flores and his group.
- Always Gets His Man: Subverted with Kessler, the American inspector sent in to instruct the Mexican police force and aid in the investigation.
- Anti-Climax: The big boxing match Fate was supposed to report about? It's described plainly and barely lasts a paragraph.
- The novel ends with Archimboldi discussing Fürst Pückler ice cream with a descendant of the inventor just before he leaves for Mexico to save Klaus.
- Badass Bookworm: Archimboldi.
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: General Entrescu's defining feature. Baroness von Zumpe learned of it firsthand.
- Big Damn Heroes: Amalfitano acts a distraction long enough for his daughter and Oscar to escape the city and head for the United States.
- Implied in the last few pages, in which Archimboldi heads to Santa Teresa to get his nephew Klaus out of prison.
- Big Secret: It's heavily implied that the mayor, police, and the criminal underworld are all connected.
- Book Worm: All of the critics made their careers out of it. Lalo proves to be studious as well.
- Broken Bird: Azucena Esquivel Plata.
- Bumbling Dad: Amalfitano.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Mrs. Bubis.
- Children Forced To Kill: Lalo Cura.
- Clear My Name: Klaus Haas, after being accused of committing the serial murders and left to rot in jail. It was declared a mistrial, and the book ends as Archimboldi heads to Mexico to get him out of prison.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Amalfitano.
- Ingeborg is considered crazy by her own family.
- Hans is considered this early on in the war.
- Clueless Detective: Some of them are, though occasionally as a dark example of Obfuscating Stupidity.
- Cool Old Guy: Mr. Bubis.
- Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Bubis, aka Baroness Von Zumpe and one of the few people to know Archimboldi's real identity.
- Corruption of a Minor: Subverted with Lalo Cura, a child hired to bodyguard Pedro Rengifo's family. He eventually becomes part of the Santa Teresa police force, but he remains a far more honest and straightforward officer than his mentors.
- Cowboy Cop: Epifanio.
- Crapsack World: Santa Teresa. It's based on the real life city of Ciudad Juárez, where things are even worse.
- Creepy Child: Many of the adults find Lalo Cura unnerving.
- Crusading Lawyer: Klaus's lawyer. The fact that they're sleeping together gives her an incentive.
- Da Chief: Pedro Negrete.
- Defective Detective: Juan de Dios Martinez.
- Destroy the Evidence: Whenever there's evidence, it inevitably ends up missing.
- Die Laughing: Mr. Bubis.
- Dirty Cop: And how. The extent of corrupt members of the police force and local government is never directly revealed, but it's heavily implied to include the higher ups and the majority of the beat cops especially Epifanio.
- Dissonant Serenity: Hans Reiter looks and walks around as if he's on the ocean floor...even when he's in the middle of battle in World War II.
- Door Stopper: The untranslated version is roughly 1,100 pages long.
- Downer Ending: Lola Amalfitano has another child, gets AIDS, and returns just long enough to see her husband and daughter, only to hitchhike out of town again.
- Driving Question: Who and where is Benno von Archimboldi?
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Especially with Archimboldi, who had to fight in World War II, survive multiple injuries, change his identity, and forge his new career as a writer in post-war Europe. It's never revealed if he won the Nobel Prize, but he certainly earned it.
- Played with in regards to the fate of Klaus Haas. After getting locked up, he devotes all his time and efforts towards expanding his power base, clearing his name, and helping with the case. In the last few pages, Archimboldi heads for Mexico to get him out of prison, but it's never revealed if Klaus makes it out alive.
- Eldritch Location: All of the characters notice that something's... off about Santa Teresa. As one reviewer put it:
There is something secret, horrible, and cosmic afoot, centered around Santa Teresa (and possibly culminating in the mystical year of the book's title, a date that is referred to in passing in Amulet
as well). We can at most glimpse it, in those uncanny moments when the world seems wrong.
- Many of the soldiers think Dracula's castle has some kind of otherworldly influence. It's mentioned that some of them were building the huge cross before they decided to crucify General Entrescu. When they tried to dig trenches around the fortress, they kept finding skeletons.
- Everyone Is a Suspect: So much so that the authorities arrested Klaus just so they could make it appear progress was being made in the investigation.
- Failure Is the Only Option: The critics eventually admit that they'll never find Archimboldi, but know he's somewhere in Santa Teresa.
- Forgotten First Meeting: It takes Hans a little while to remember Ingeborg.
- Friend to All Children: Epifanio initially comes off as this with regards to Lalo Cura, but it doesn't last.
- Geeky Turn-On: Liz Norton's debating skills are what got Pelletier and Espinoza interested in her.
- Genius Bruiser: Archimboldi is a Nobel Prize contender and fought for Germany in World War II
- Genre Savvy: Mr. Bubis, who immediately calls Archimboldi out on his ridiculous name.
- Even if he's not quite sane, Amalfitano instantly realizes how dangerous her daughter's boyfriend is, and is pivotal in getting her and Oscar Fate out of Santa Teresa.
- Klaus survives and thrives on this after being thrown in prison.
- Azucena Esquivel Plata knows she can't trust the Mexican police and uses her political power as much as possible.
- Gentle Giant: Archimboldi.
- Give Geeks a Chance: Liz eventually ends up with Morini.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Played with in regards to Klaus's lawyer. She's definitely on his side, but still shady.
- Growing Up Sucks: Especially when you're stuck on the Eastern Front of World War II.
- Happily Married: Mr. and Mrs. Bubis. He's a Jewish survivor of World War II, and she's the former Baroness von Zumpe.
- Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: Lola Amalfitano writes this in her first letter to her husband...after she's run off on a lifelong adventure with her female best friend.
- Hearing Voices: Amalfitano.
- Hello, Attorney!: By the end of the book, Klaus and his lawyer are blatantly in a sexual relationship.
- Hero of Another Story: Lola Amalfitano's exploits abroad serve as a counterpoint to Oscar's story.
- Identification by Dental Records: Attempted in the few times when the bodies were decomposed beyond recognition. It doesn't always work.
- Idle Rich: Baroness von Zumpe. She gets better.
- Ill Girl: Ingeborg Bauer.
- In a male version, Morini's health declines so much that he doesn't accompany the other critics to Mexico.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Lalo Cura, though judging by some of his actions, it may be a case of Ping-Pong Naïveté.
- Indy Ploy: Oscar Fate's escape from Santa Teresa.
- Innocence Lost: Lalo kills a man, and sees the corruption of the police force firsthand.
- Internal Affairs: If there were, they've long since been bought out or killed.
- Iron Lady: Congresswoman Azucena Esquivel Plata.
- It Never Gets Any Easier: Most of the police officers have gotten used to see dead women. Juan de Dios Martinez eventually starts showing signs of a mental breakdown.
- I Was Quite a Looker: Mrs. Bubis, who is eventually revealed to be the Baroness von Zumpe.
- Karma Houdini: Those responsible for the Santa Teresa murders.
- Hans gets away with murdering Sammer by becoming Archimboldi.
- Kid Detective: Lalo Cura spends so much time studying old procedural handbooks that he points out flaws in the officers' investigation of a crime scene.
- Kid Sidekick: Epifanio treats Lalo like one.
- Kissing Cousins: Hugo wishes he was this with the Baroness. It never happens.
- Last Minute Hookup: The first part ends with Liz leaving the love triangle with Pelletier and Espinoza in favor of Morini.
- Last Name Basis: Archimboldi.
- Love Makes You Crazy: Pelletier and Espinoza assault a taxi driver.
- Love Triangle: Between Norton, Pelletier, and Espinoza. Norton eventually leaves them for Morini.
- Mad Artist: There's an artist who chopped off his own hand to provide the centerpiece for his last work. The critics visit him at the asylum.
- Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal: Lotte for Klaus. She knows he committed a few minor crimes when he was younger, but knows he's no murderer.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ingeborg is a dark version of this for Hans. Everyone, including him, realizes that the girl is crazy.
- May-December Romance: Mr. and Mrs. Bubis.
- Meaningful Name: Oscar Fate and Lalo "The Madness" Cura.
- Meaningful Rename: Benno von Archimboldi is named after Guiseppe Arcimboldo, an artist Hans Reiter read about while going through Anksy's diary. The von is associated with his Germanic heritage, but it's also a way for Reiter to remember Baroness von Zumpe.
- Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All: Klaus gains so much power and media attention in prison that he takes a few steps in solving the investigation himself. He even has a cell phone to communicate to the outside world whenever he wants.
- Mighty Glacier: Hans. The guy is huge, but moves as if he's walking on the ocean floor.
- Missing Mom: Lola Amalfitano.
- Mistaken for Gay: The critics assume Amalfitano is gay.
- Non-Idle Rich: Mrs. Bubis runs the publishing business well and played a key role in getting Archimboldi's writing career started.
- Nothing Is Scarier: It's never revealed what the Germans and Romanians saw inside Dracula's crypt, but the visitors "were divided into two groups, those were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naïveté of the human race."
- Not Now, Kiddo: In a particularly chilling example, Epifanio angrily dismisses Lalo's observations in order to impede the investigation of the crime scene.
- Not-So-Harmless Villain: Popescu is introduced as a Romanian intellectual touring Dracula's castle with General Entrescu. Several years later, he shows again, tying up loose ends from the war by killing a former comrade.
- Old Cop, Young Cop: Epifanio and Lalo Cura.
- Overly Long Name: Benno von Archimboldi. Both Mr. and Mrs. Bubis mention what a weird and ridiculous and an obvious pseudonym it is.
- Parental Abandonment: Lola Amalfitano ditches her daughter and husband and travels with her best friend in search of a poet with whom she once had sex.
- Police Are Useless: When it comes to the serial murders. Evidence is frequently lost, few leads are followed through, and certain steps in logic are never taken. Not even pressure from the government makes a difference.
- Police Brutality: In one instance they not only beat a perp, but they douse him with water and urine and well.
- Protected by a Child: Pedro Rengifo hires Lalo to be a bodyguard for his family.
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Pops up occasionally, most notably with the critics, Florita Almada, and Lotte.
- Really Gets Around: Azucena Esquivel Plata and Mrs. Bubis's sex lives and affairs are legendary. Plata quickly remarks that all legends are false, especially in Mexico.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Sammer starts out as one, until he's mistakenly left in charge of the care and eventual disposal of hundreds of Jews originally meant for Auschwitz.
- Red Herring: The crazy man who goes around desecrating religious icons is not the killer.
- Refuge in Audacity: Klaus practically runs on this after he's thrown in prison. He even has a cell phone, which he uses to contact the outside world whenever he wants. Everyone knows and goes along with it.
- Reluctant Psycho: Amalfitano knows he's going crazy and occasionally mentions the possibility of being committed to an asylum.
- Rescue Romance: Between Oscar Fate and Rosa Amalfitano.
- Ripped from the Headlines: Santa Teresa is the fictional version of Ciudad Juarez.
- Rule of Symbolism: General Entrescu spends a lot of time discussing heroism, history, and religion. He also has access to Count Dracula's castle. He's eventually crucified by his own men.
- Sanity Slippage: Amalfitano, though it's implied to happen to people who stay in Santa Teresa for too long. Being caught up in World War II doesn't help matters, either.
- Espinoza eventually becomes enamored with a local girl and nearly forgets about the search for Archimboldi.
- Sammer goes from running a quaint European town to ordering the deaths of hundreds of people.
- Entrescu gets desperate enough to take refuge in Dracula's castle and is eventually crucified by his own men.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Implied with Pedro Rengifo.
- Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Implied with the mayor of Santa Teresa.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Few of General Entrescu's men - most notably Popescu - stay behind once the Russians get close.
- Liz Norton leaves Mexico much sooner than the other critics.
- Oscar Fate, once he realizes that he's gotten into something way over his head.
- Socially-Awkward Hero: Oscar Amalfitano, who spends his chapter gradually going insane.
- Society Is to Blame: Regarded as an explanation to the motives behind the killings.
- Something Only They Would Say: Lotte realizes that Archimboldi is really her brother Hans, based upon the descriptions she read in one of his novels.
- Straw Misogynist: Prejudice against women is common in Santa Teresa, which fuels the domestic violence and murders. One scene even depicts officers taking advantage of prostitutes that they arrested.
- Strong Family Resemblance: Klaus looks just like his uncle, Archimboldi.
- Suspiciously Idle Officers: While they're all busy, many of them are on the take.
- Sympathetic Murderer: Hans Reiter kills Leo Sammer, resulting in him changing his name to Archimboldi to help cover his tracks.
- Sammer attempts to portray himself as this in his backstory, but fails to convince Hans.
- Take a Third Option: Liz Norton spends much of the first section in a love triangle with Pelletier and Espinoza. She ends up with Morini.
- Technically a Smile: Azucena Esquivel Plata doesn't even attempt to hide her bitterness and resentment.
- Technology Marches On: Archimboldi learns how to use a computer and the Internet, and throws his old, expensive typewriter he got from Mr. Bubis off a cliff.
- That Man Is Dead: Hans Reiter becomes Archimboldi.
- There Are No Therapists: Averted with Elvira Campos, who runs Santa Teresa's asylum.
- The Chick: Liz Norton.
- They Do: Between Liz Norton and the other critics. After having a threesome with Pelletier and Espinoza, she leaves both of them for Morini.
- The Peeping Tom: Hans and a few other soldiers watch Entrescu and the Baroness have sex.
- The Straight Man: Hans Reiter, compared with the characters he meets throughout the war.
- Those Two Guys: Pedro Negrete and Pedro Rengifo.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Averted, as the Germans are portrayed as normal people. The characters Hans Reiter does meet are crazy in their own ways.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: The Part About Amalfitano practically runs on this.
- The Unsolved Mystery: Much like in real life, the serial murder investigation is never concluded.
- Troubled Child: Lotte, who spends much of her life wondering when her brother will return from World War II.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Lalo Cura kills a gunman sent to kill his boss's family. He's also sharp enough to notice key flaws in the police force's investigative procedures.
- Hans Reiter is considered strange by his peers as well.
- Upper-Class Twit: Hugo Halder, especially when compared to the Baroness.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: There are references to literary theory, geometry, mythology, psychology, philosophy, morality, art, religious symbolism, Dracula, Communism, Mexican, German, and Russian history and culture, World War II, and many others.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Hugo Halder.
- Wrong Guy First: Liz Norton's relationship with the other critics.
"An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom".