night and the city now: ciudad juarez and the limits of noir

The city, like all cities, was endless. –Roberto Bolaño

Birth of the Noir
The creation of the modern noir aesthetic is the compelling and enduring contribution to global culture of a deep, underlying current of U.S. pessimism that some have traced back to a pervasive Calvinism at the roots of the nation’s history. It’s by now widely known that noir, which arose out of crime-obsessed pulp fiction in the Depression era, became a film style that may have achieved its maximum expression in post-World War II America, but has influenced both film and literary representations worldwide ever since. French cineastes gave the style its color-coded name, and while the boundaries are endlessly debated, key elements of the noir mode are now universally recognizable.

More than the U.S’s legendary (and increasingly weirdly free-floating) optimism—or our goggle-eyed religious fundamentalism, for that matter—the noir mode has translated well in the globalized, ür-capitalist culture of the late 20th and early 21st century. In this more urban-than-ever-before world, the largely urban milieu of noir, with its mythically resonant hierarchies of extreme wealth and poverty, of greed and desire utterly unfettered by nature or the social contract that binds smaller communities, is easy to replicate. And this is true whether the metropolis in question is Bangkok, Mexico City, Stockholm or Liverpool—all of these have produced a popular contemporary author or auteur who works in the crime genre and the noir style.

Enter Roberto Bolaño
Noir has also climbed out of the ghetto of genre works to claim a powerful foothold in literature with a more ambitious intellectual agenda than the bestseller list. The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published magnum opus 2666 is a remarkable example. And one reason it is particularly significant, beyond its “instant classic” status in literary circles (which Bolaño, had he lived to see it, would have derided) is the place the author chose as this vast novel’s existential heart of noir-ness. “Santa Teresa” is his fictionalized rendering of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—as of now, after the curtain has closed on the 21st century’s blood-soaked first decade, probably the deadliest city in the world.

2666 is over 900 pages long and ranges widely in time and space; it has not one but five major narrative arcs, and a host of minor ones. It has joined the fairly exclusive society of encyclopedic modern mega-novels from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, works that in some way attempt to catch the broadest possible swath of reality in their net of words, while at the same time illustrating that no single storyline, protagonist, or way of telling a story is adequate anymore if you need to incorporate ideas about art, history, philosophy, politics, science, mythology, popular culture, and of course, the practice of writing itself, into your portrait of contemporary life.

And if a key difference between popular narrative and “serious” literary or cinematic narrative can be defined as the degree to which, in the former, every other element is subordinated to the production of a cathartic resolution, where all uncertainties are resolved, and all disturbing emotions are purged, then 2666’s multiple unsolved mysteries, vanishing protagonists, and resolution-free finale (Bolaño was still working on the novel at his death, but it’s clear from his other fiction and his literary criticism that he was not interested in narrative that sacrificed depth or complexity for melodramatic closure), challenging the reader’s complacency at every turn, make it highly serious.

Bolaño was aware of the ironic position of literature in our time, of its simultaneous marginality (how many people ever read long, challenging, complicated novels nowadays? or poetry? or review-essays, for that matter?), its seeming irrelevance (what novel can compete for significance with the revolutionary discoveries of science, or the shifting lines of force generated by movements of capital, which profoundly affect millions of lives every day?)—and at the same time literature’s pre-ordinate ability to tell anyone who will listen truths about who and what we are, the shared understanding of which is somehow crucial to humanity’s continued survival.

Thus Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juarez, a place both liminal and central, is clearly the repository of some essential truth for Bolaño.

While the novel has all the caché of structural fragmentation so celebrated by literary scholars and critics who want to see fragmentation as the defining metaphor of the contemporary world, it still retains a geographic center. All of its principal characters and storylines overlap in the U.S.- Mexico border city of Santa Teresa, at the end of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st. Bolaño’s vision of the city is infernal; it is a noir inferno populated almost entirely by perpetrators (seldom seen or identified), victims, a criminal underclass, corrupt cops and officials, and a few stalwart detectives and journalists. But there is also, as in the psychotropic noir of filmmaker David Lynch (to whom Bolaño even tips his hat in one of the novel’s scenes), a kind of occult atmosphere, conjured in the apocalyptic title, the prevalence of dream imagery, the recurrent references to mystics and madness. The narrative is shadowed by the idea that Santa Teresa may not be a place in the novel’s or our present at all, but an avatar of the dystopian anti-city of the future.

Femicide as Noir
At the time Bolaño was writing 2666, in the first years of the 21st century, Ciudad Juarez was emerging as both the poster child for free trade-fueled industrial development and the place where hundreds of mostly poor and working class women and girls were disappearing, and many of them, young and pretty ones, often of a particular physical type, were turning up tortured, disfigured, raped and murdered in the desert. Bolaño, in whose works the detective, professional or amateur, is a recurring quest figure (in an interview towards the end of his life, he seriously expressed the desire to have been a detective rather than a writer), became obsessed with learning about the murders. It is this phenomenon, femicide, as it has come to be called, that forms the core of his portrayal of Santa Teresa. 2666’s central and longest section, “The Part about the Crimes,” contains over one hundred separate segments, each describing, in a clipped, forensic style, a murder victim, the circumstances of her death, and brief but telling details of her background.

In the novel’s world, which ranges backwards (erratically, and generally through the use of subsidiary stories embedded in the five primary story arcs) to the early years of the 20th century, the forces of principled resistance to systems of control in which violence is inherent have been relentlessly undermined since the pyrrhic mid-century victory against fascism (a Bolaño preoccupation in other works as well). They are reduced to absurdity, madness, corruption and a ghostlike presence in the memories of marginal characters by the time we reach the late 20th century, a peripatetic world of immigrants, exiles, and rootless, powerless outsiders.

Bolaño portrays the Juarez/Santa Teresa femicides as a kind of zero point for humanity, as evidence of its fatal flaw: the utterly perverse, apparently inevitable, aggression that degrades and destroys the source of life itself. “In these murders is the secret of the world, but no one pays any attention to them,” one character remarks. It is a compelling statement. It is also a glancing commentary on literary narrative itself in the contemporary world: although some of the deepest truths about our existence may still be revealed in works of literature, the world at large takes little notice.

Through Another Lens
And yet—neither half of the statement in that quote is completely true in the world outside the novel. In line with the noir vision, the women in 2666 are almost all objects of desire and/or violence. Marginalized and nearly absent from the narrative, just as they have been from most of the news media reports on the narco-violence that has exploded more recently, are the homely mothers, cousins, grandparents, neighbors, family members of victims, objects of no one’s transgressive desire, who continue to hold together families and communities and form lasting networks that can resist and sometimes even overcome extreme violence in their localities and persist in demanding justice.

And the Juarez femicides did slowly come to receive Mexico’s and the world’s attention, although that was not enough to overturn the culture of impunity that has meant that in over 80% of the cases classified as femicide no one has ever been brought to trial. There have been several films, both fictional and documentary, made about the murders. One of these, Traspatio (Backyard) a socially conscious Mexican police procedural with a female vigilante cop as heroine, was highly popular in Mexico. A less successful B-grade Hollywood attempt, Bordertown, was obviously a project of conscience for its stars, Jennifer Lopez and Martin Sheen, and its director, Gregory Nava. Playwright Eve Ensler publicized the femicide, international delegations have visited, ongoing solidarity efforts have formed, and so on.

A powerful documentary made in 2000 called Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), by the renowned Chicana documentarian Lourdes Portillo, puts the families of the murdered women in the foreground, along with the organized efforts they have made for redress. A striking thing about this film is that a day-time world suddenly becomes visible in it, instead of the night world that dominates noir; it is the world of people going to work, caring for children, preparing food, eking out their survival in unglamorous and generally un-dangerous ways, the world of unexceptional (in conventional terms) people who confront exceptional, even horrific circumstances and respond to them with collective action. It’s clear that it is the web of social relationships they have and continue to build which gives them their strength and tenacious persistence.

Noir mythologizes individual vigilantism as the problematic response to a seemingly transcendent evil, but Portillo’s work flips that mythology on its head. The evil may be embedded in society, but it is not necessarily a pre-ordained flaw in every human soul; it is over-determined (there are multiple potential causes) but they need have nothing to do with transcendental forces. And the response that seems to hold the best promise of healing and redemption is collective, not individual.

Dystopia and Beyond
There is another limitation to Bolaño’s powerful portrayal: although 2666 was meant to be prescient in its dystopian picture of Ciudad Juarez, an even more dystopian reality has to some extent overtaken it in the last few years.

It was already clearly understood by many that geography and the global economics at work in Juarez had created a perfect storm of factors that made possible a deepening cycle of horrific violence perpetrated with complete impunity. But none of the femicide narratives, fictional or non-, foresaw the degree to which gangster capitalism and its equally bloody alter ego, the government-run War on Drugs, would rise up to swamp Mexico at the end of the last decade.

Following his election in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided to stake his political fortunes not on his razor-thin (and many said non-existent) margin of popular support, but on fighting a U.S. proxy war against the Mexican drug cartels, using federal troops who seem to have employed many of the same tactics of torture and assassination as their opponents. Since then, drug traffic has not diminished, but Juarez has gone from hundreds of murders a year to thousands.

At the same time, the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing recession put a dint in the seemingly insatiable U.S. consumer’s demand for most goods, with the exception, apparently, of narcotics. Many of the factories that brought tens or hundreds of thousands of new inhabitants to Ciudad Juarez closed, seeking even lower wages elsewhere, taking with them subsidiary businesses. More recently, while the transnational maquilas (manufacturing plants) have rebounded slightly, by getting additional incentives from the Mexican state, and keeping unions out and wages brutally low, the need to pay high-cost protection rackets has driven mostly small, individually owned businesses to the wall. Massive unemployment, particularly among the young, created a vacuum that only the already active drug trade was ready to fill.

Long-time U.S. border watchers like journalists Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden even felt the need to decry the extent to which (in their view) the femicides became a simplistic fable for well-meaning but patronizing Northern liberals, obscuring the full-on slaughter going on in Juarez.

But their responses had their own problems. Bowden was so overwhelmed by his failure to personally stare down the violence that he wrote an execrable book, called Murder City, which ended up being mostly about himself, the tough-guy loner and truth-seeker (a noir cliché) overwhelmed by the horror, in prose straight out of a very bad novel. Whatever its intentions, this book does almost nothing to deepen the reader’s understanding or commitment to address the situation. Molloy’s crusade, by contrast, has been to present the facts, the statistics of the death toll to the public, as free from any organizing narrative as possible. She manages a web-group called Frontera List, a simple compilation of all the daily media reports of assaults and violent deaths in Juarez and other border towns. It’s a valuable effort to document the full scale of the “human rights disaster,” in her words, that is occurring on the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the limitation of this approach is that we think metaphorically, so just getting the facts doesn’t necessarily make us collectively more sensitive to injustice or to slaughter, or more able to confront them. The heart fails where the imagination fails. Nothing is more evident today than that patently false narratives can attract and even mobilize masses of people more powerfully than verifiable facts. Creators of noir narratives are always trying to get us to re-imagine violence, because imaginative engagement works better for engaging the emotions and then purging them to produce some kind of catharsis. But real violence on a mass scale overwhelms and deadens the imagination, and can kill empathy.

In contrast to the individual response commonly depicted in noir, only the complex web of binding relationships that sustain families and communities over time has actually demonstrated the ability to absorb, resist and survive waves of systemic violence the way the complex root systems of mangrove swamps and wetlands absorb and resist the force of giant storms and floods. The story of how strong social bonds can literally save individual lives, not to mention entire places that are at risk of devastation, is certainly one of the most underreported stories anywhere today. So much so that dedicated journalists and even one of the contemporary world’s most brilliant novelists appear to have missed it.

Lourdes Portillo’s film is one example of the counter-story, but so, more recently, are the testimonies of activists working in Ciudad Juarez to confront the array of social ills that have led to the unprecedented levels of violence. When Veronica Leyva, a long-time community and labor organizer from Ciudad Juarez working with the Labor Workshop and Study Center (CETLAC) spoke in various cities in the U.S. in 2010, she took pains to make her audiences understand that the violence in Ciudad Juarez is not suffered equally by all residents in all parts of the city. And surprisingly, perhaps, wealth and class are not the main preventative factors in a given neighborhood; length of residency and degree of social interaction are. That is to say, as Leyva pointed out, that violence was relatively uncommon in neighborhoods where the residents had been living for the longest time, knew one another best, and were most involved in one another’s lives.

The collective response is complex, and doesn’t always eschew violence itself: another phenomenon in some Ciudad Juarez neighborhoods is collective vigilantism, where known drug operatives, for example, are attacked and sometimes killed by teams of residents if they ignore warnings not to do business in the neighborhood. But generally, the function of the social web is far more preventive than responsive. That is its greatest strength.

The noir vision can, at best, use its profound power of attraction to help us conjure and exorcise psychological demons. Even the most pessimistic narratives like Bolano’s 2666, that purposefully withhold resolution and catharsis, can spur us to think, and stimulate our imaginations as well, so that possibly we are more capable of humane responses as a result. But only the unsexy, unconventionally heroic and almost invisible social web that at every moment around the world, women, children, and men are working incessantly to maintain in their lives, like the mangrove’s network of muddy roots, can actually buffer, defray and neutralize the seemingly depthless violence built into our economic and political systems of control.

And that web is what we are as well. If we don’t learn to perceive it even the places where our eyes seem helplessly drawn to the horror of violence alone, we understand nothing, and can change nothing. As the activists of Ciudad Juarez know, the more we become conscious of the presence of the social web and can dedicate ourselves to strengthening it wherever we find it, the better we can collaborate in our own survival. Dystopia is the dead-end of history, but history, as yet, has not ended, even in the most violent city on earth.