F.I.N.D. #14
Murders in the Desert: Roberto Bolaño in Berlin

by Joseph Pearson

4 April 2014

A desert landscape scarred with pink crosses, and the academic investigators scour a Mexican border town. They are looking for the German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, but find themselves instead where scores of women have been murdered on their way home from work. They stand before a void. Late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño investigates these femicides in his posthumous novel 2666, published ten years ago. The New York Times called his work »not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form«.

2666 became an instant classic, a monument that’s a hard act to follow or expand on. So how to bring the complexity of this epic, remarkable, perplexing, 900-page, novel to the Berlin stage? Or is it precisely the fact that Bolaño’s novel, written in five parts and differing styles, was unfinished as he lay dying that leaves it open to expansion and experimentation?

Catalan director Àlex Rigola, who has directed the Lliure theatre in Barcelona and at the Venice Biennale, sits in the Schaubühne café, in Berlin for the F.I.N.D. Festival. He endeavours to find a theatrical language to deliver the novel visually and dramatically. »I love to put literature on the stage. You can read Bolaño, but here you can live Bolaño … At the end there is only Bolaño in the space. I am here to share his story with Berliners. When directing a normal play, there is more that I can share about myself. But here I have the pleasure to be behind Bolaño, and not to show myself. We are putting all our love into this production, as I have never done with another author.«

What entices him most about Bolaño’s writing is its density: the built-up literary tradition that provides layer on layer of storytelling. »He weaves together different stories, not just in the novel, but in the way he absorbs the tradition of Latin-American literature, starting with Borges … he has such a background that allows me more easily to transform his work for the stage, and for people who perhaps have not read those works but love to go to the theatre.« Dramaturge Florian Borchmeyer has provided a (»wise«, says Àlex) German translation of the script, and Rigola told me how much he is happy to be working within the Berlin theatre scene, so much strengthened by a culture of ensemble work.

The transformation from novel to theatre is made clearer when you look at the planned set design. Part One of the novel is set in a simple realistic space, an academic conference. This soon moves into a disorienting David Lynchian theatre, destabilizing the audience for Part Two. By Part Three, all the characters, nine of them, are stuffed into a tiny green box, 3x2x1 metres in dimension: a kind of hyper-Sartrean Huis Clos.

But it’s the fourth section of Bolaño’s novel, when he exhaustingly enumerates the women murders of Ciudad Juárez (or »Santa Teresa« in his novel), which is the biggest trial for stage adaptation. Rigola and the set designer, Max Glaenzel, respond to this challenge with an installation. They recreate a desert on stage and mark it with pink crosses (a commemoration initiative of the mothers of the murdered women). »This crime space is our translation of the fourth part of the book, which is crime after crime after crime after crime – it is really exhausting«, says Glaenzel. »We are translating this part into an infinite cemetery which is a desert.« Indeed, this desert landscape, in its infinity, suggests the incalculable losses with these crimes, the pink crosses the insufficiency of our efforts to memorialise that loss. The final part of the play leads us to a completely naked space, where the connections between the various characters and stories are finally drawn closer. »After the fourth part, with the desert, we go to nothing. It is a naked, empty space. With one character walking in continuous movement«, says Glaenzel.

There is a question of moral action tied to this movement, adds Rigola. »It is important for this one character to be in continual movement, taking decisions, hard decisions. Perhaps he does not like human beings, but he is in movement all of his life. When faced with evil, he takes a decision – maybe bad or good – but he takes one and continues walking. This idea of movement is important to us.« In this way, the play is not simply a formal experiment, it strikes me to be very much about political action. For Bolaño, our apathy and complicity in relation to this violence is the very definition of evil. For Àlex Rigola, the effort is largely to bring this message to a public.

The novel takes place mostly in a desperate and violent city, a borderland economy where capitalism benefits from the weakness of the third world abutting the first. The murder rate in Ciudad Juárez was the highest in the world in 2009, although it has since dropped to being the 37th most deadly city on the planet. The director himself visited northern Mexico before the Barcelona premiere of his 2666 adaptation. »When I was taking my flight to Ciudad Juárez in 2006«, says Rigola, »the other passengers asked me if I was a journalist, because no one else goes there … The real problem in Ciudad Juárez is that you don’t have a border like that elsewhere, where you can cross from the third world to the most capitalist place in the world. The first thing that happens here is that you can have slaves. People live very close to the United States, so they put the factory right there. The workers are there for 12 to 14 hours for nothing. Then you can take all these trousers or TVs that they are producing and then export them to the USA in two minutes. It’s right next to the Rio Bravo.«

There is also the business of human smuggling, and the drug violence and cartels, which also characterise the zone. »This takes the worst of the capitalist system and puts it in a lawless place, where you can do whatever you like … people come here from all over Latin America. They are some of the poorest people of the world, with little education. The value of human life in this zone is zero.« Women workers, often the most vulnerable, are subject to horrific violence partly as a result of this confrontation: picked up and attacked in the early and late hours, on the way to and from work. »The workers’ shifts change at 7am when plenty of men in the drug cartels finish partying, full of alcohol and drugs. Perhaps they haven’t found a girl. Then a girl misses her bus and has to walk home along the road. That is the most terrible moment of the day … The men stop along the road, pick up one of these girls, take her to the desert – no one sees you in the desert – rape her, and then it’s easier for these people to kill, no one will find out. And he does not think he is doing something very bad. Every day, a lot of people die in Ciudad Juárez.«

The director, the stage director, and I finish our whiskey, but I am feeling sobered and distressed. I understand a little better why Àlex is so adamant about bringing this novel to the stage.

»The main topic in the novel is what we are doing about this problem. Why are we always turning away from something that is happening elsewhere. Why are we not reacting or taking decisions? Why are we turning away each time we hear about what is happening in Libya, in Somalia, or, for that matter, in Ciudad Juárez?« 


by Roberto Bolaño
Direction: Àlex Rigola

Premieres on 3 April 2014