Like the pyramids of the Aztecs
by Kelvin Smith
In Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Benno von Archimboldi is published by Mr. Bubis’s publishing house in Hamburg. Mr. Bubis, re-establishing his company after the second world war, takes on the pseudonymous novelist’s first book with the assurance that “the book would receive the finest treatment and be carried in all the best bookshops, not just in Germany but also in Austria and Switzerland, where the Bubis name was remembered and respected by democratic bookshop owners, a symbol of independent and high-quality publishing“. On another occasion, we hear that all Mr. Bubis “really cared about was the adventure of printing books and selling them“.
Bubis sticks with Archimboldi in spite of very poor sales. He buys him a typewriter, pays larger than warranted advances, and, when he dies (laughing at a novel by a new writer from Dresden), his wife Baroness Von Zumpe continues as his publisher (and occasional lover), not even bothering to read his latest novel, The Return, before giving it to the copyeditor with instructions to publish it in three months.
When Archimboldi wanted to know why she kept publishing him if she didn’t read him, which was really a rhetorical question since he knew the answer, the baroness replied (a) because she knew he was good, (b) because Bubis had told her to, (c) because few publishers actually read the books they publish.
Much of Archimboldi’s dealings with Bubis are covered in the later part of this monumental book, although we first hear of him in the first section of the book: The Part about the Critics. Two of the Archimboldi specialists, Espinoza and Pelletier, visit Hamburg to see the publisher, but learn little. On a visit to Mexico, they hear an interesting view on publishing from Amalfitano.
In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this may be true across Latin America, intellectuals work for the state.
There are various other references to writing and publishing, with Archimboldi himself declaring the importance of the book.
“An old book is the past, too,” said Archimboldi, “a book written and published in 1789 is the past, its author no longer exists, neither does its printer or the ones who read it first or the time in which it was written, but the book, the first edition of that book, is still here. Like the pyramids of the Aztecs,” said Archimboldi.
Like the pyramids of the Aztecs, 2666 is large, mysterious but obviously of some great significance. Even if the novel suggests that publishers have motivations very different from those of writers, it is clear about the importance of the act of publishing.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666, 2004