Review: Roberto Bolaño’s “2666”

There’s already a myth about Roberto Bolaño. It’s anti-Pinochet agitation, strife in the desert, and morphine, amongst other things. The photos they’re now putting on the dust jackets of his novels show him as a man with a well-furrowed brow, a high hairline, and more often than not a cigarette dangling from his lips. His eyes are very, very dark. Few of the stories about him were true, but judging by the way he’s become so rapidly idolised it seems some people prefer to think of him as being imprisoned and tortured in Chile after the fall of Allende, even if he wasn’t, because then he seems more legitimately apocalyptic. It’s got to the stage where it’s apparently impossible to talk about him as a myth, to discuss the book as something divorced from his bohemian life; I’d say it helps to appreciate the novel, more so than with most, but with a book like this it’s mere window dressing.

2666 is Bolaño’s final novel, the first draft only completed weeks before he succumbed to his cancer – and it may seem trite to say so, but it really has been a huge influence. His previous books had covered some of the smaller themes of 2666 – poems and short stories (especially his novella By Night In Chile), as well as his only other full novel The Savage Detectives – but this final book is vast beyond anything else he has written; a sprawl, like slums, vegetation, and the ramblings of a prophet come down from the mountain. It’s hard not to spill into superlatives when trying to describe 2666; it’s just so damn broad, so all-encompassing.

Bolaño was, at heart, a poet, and said he never really felt comfortable dealing in extended prose – so whilst 2666 may well be, in the English-language publication (translated by Natasha Wimmer, and special mention must go to her for how masterful a translation it is) just under 900 pages, they are divided into five separate books, none of which are longer than his previous novel The Savage Detectives. They are interlinked and completely mutually supportive, and can theoretically be read in any order. Together, they circle the same drain, and represent an impressionist portrait of the 20th Century – sort of dabs on the fabric, glimpses through rushes, and reflections of distorted memories. That several critics have apparently given into just how good this book is (I was trembling when I finished; I started reading the first page again immediately) and declared it the first ‘Great Novel’ of the 21st Century is somewhat misleading because the book was only written, at most, four years into this new millenium; its subject matter is firmly rooted in, and reflects upon, the past.

‘The Part About The Critics’ opens the novel, about a coterie of European literature critics attempting to track down an elusive German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, as their scholarly research grows his reputation and earns him nominations for the Nobel prize, whilst they fuck each other and live for nothing other than the quality of one man’s prose – the section introduces a scathing view of the societal worth of the literary class, something previously touched upon in By Night In Chile. The critics end up in the Mexican city of Santa Teresa, on the American border, floating without purpose and only anchored by their devotion to Archimboldi’s work – their relationships mere regurgitations of each others’ critical analysis, empirically empty vessels. Santa Teresa is, at this point, a roughly realised cultural swamp, empty of anything but restaurants, faded academics, and the poor; the locals are world-weary and sad; the city is the head of the novel, and events proceed to all lead inexorably to this one place. It is a kind of black hole, around which the five books orbit without ever really collapsing into.

‘The Part About Amalfitano’ documents the mental breakdown of a professor of philosophy at the University of Santa Teresa. He finds a book he doesn’t own amongst his possessions, and hangs it on the line in the yard, as an exercise in… something, he’s not sure what, he’s not even sure why he does anything any more when the world is so estranged. Santa Teresa is a deliberately thinly-veiled take on the real Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, and Amalfitano becomes horrified that his daughter will fall victim to the violence that plagues the city. The book runs parallel to the third, ‘The Part About Fate’, a weighted name for a reporter from a New York black-interest magazine sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, who then becomes obsessed with the murders and the locals, who proceed through life taking violence as an everyday recurrence – and it is in this section that the serial killings of Santa Teresa are finally brought to centre stage, supplanting the characters with the money to ignore them. The novel by this point is not exactly nihilistic, but it doesn’t get any lighter in the next section – ‘The Part About The Crimes’.

The murders take up the largest section of the book – vile and disturbing, involving the mutilation and rape of hundreds of young women, workers in Santa Teresa’s viral maquiladoras, sweatshops and factories for the world – murders that are real, murders that have stalked Juárez for almost two decades (the murder tally right now is just shy of 1000). Using the style Bolaño has previously used in books such as Nazi Literature In The Americas (an entire encyclopaedia of fictional fascist and right-wing Latin and Northern American authors), in 2666 he lists the murders of Santa Teresa with the cold rapport of the police report (his source here is the Mexican journalist González Rodríguez, who has spent years investigating the corruption and crime in Ciudad Juárez for the magazine Reforma – many of the characters here, from the corrupt politicians to the European man accused of the murders, are based on Juárez figures). Very rarely is a murder solved, and cases are quickly closed. When hope comes and characters appear to draw near to the centre of the killings (such as an American sheriff looking for a missing friend), they vanish, or their narrative is dropped; the lens switching to a new scene. The recurring sensation is of some kind of tectonic shift, or riding a wave propelled by unseen forces. It’s this section that makes the 900 pages feel like such a trek, but coming out the other side feels like emerging for air from a bunker.

Perhaps a grim joke, but the number 2666 never appears in the text; and the murders are never resolved (indeed, Bolaño’s tally ends at the dawn of the new millennium at femicide 108). Yet it is significant that the largest section of the book, a third of the 900 pages, is so detached and helpless. The standard fare of the novelist, the characters and plots, have to take a back seat to grim reality, one that encapsulates every texture and sensation of the previous century; one of globalisation, shifting cultural identities, and the progress of the new economic world order. As the workers’ bodies pile up against the border fences of Santa Teresa any heroes who might seem to present themselves are rendered helpless and impotent against the forces arrayed against them. Their dramas are powerfully written by Bolaño, making their helplessness all the more jarring; these are not caricatured stereotypes or pulp detectives, but carefully and delicately described personalities. We arrive in Santa Teresa following the live of those who rely on the word – the critic, the professor, the journalist – and repeatedly their interests and obsessions create madness from the impossibility of action. Murder is the defining narrative of the 20th Century, and everything else is tangential. Bolaño called the world of literature, “sometimes heroic but much more often despicable” – his evidence, the fascist revolutions in 1970s Latin America, where the ‘great’ writers chose to ignore and evade the political machines that killed millions in favour of flights of fancy, mere stories.

Thus we come to the final section, ‘The Part About Archimboldi’, a novelist with followers who know nothing of him yet dedicate their lives to living off his works. The section constitutes the culmination of the novel – the relentless slaughter of before demands that the reader hold their breath when they turn the page and see the title of the final part. If there is no salvation in Santa Teresa, perhaps it lies with he whose work ties together critics, professors and Fate? But what possible meaning can there be for a time, for a place, other than that which is imposed upon it by the reader and the critic, or the journalist looking for the epiphany? We’re given the life of Archimboldi, his childhood, his lovers, his time in the trenches of the Eastern Front of the Second World War, and we’re given the full range of human achievement, transcendence, and death. Yet we have nothing but shadows of meaning when there is no way to impose it on anarchic chaos; no way to demand order from the myriad fragments of the last shattered century. Not to say, again, that this novel is inherently one of nihilism – Bolaño’s prose is fluid and beautiful, capable of alarming and stunning turns of phrase that many other authors may only manage once or twice a book, and between the murders lies a novel with the power to enlighten and move. The overwhelming sensation, reading 2666, is that Bolaño is staring down into the abyss and smiling through gritted teeth; only Bolaño would compose pages of the most gorgeous, delicate words, only to finish with, “he grew tired, jerked off, and fell asleep.” The man never let himself get sucked into his own illusion. To read 2666 is to realise there is no rational end point to the concept of humanity, and whatever meaning we can find we only see through prisms and out of the corner of the eye. We’re all circling some dog star somewhere, but we’re probably not aware of it.

So is it the first ‘Great Novel’ of the 21st Century? That’s jumping the gun, and running with fire – it is far too early to make such grand declarations and to induct a work into the Western Canon. Yet it’s hard to see how Bolaño’s fingerprints won’t be found all over the next generation of novels, especially considering the frankly crazy amount of hype every new unpublished manuscript found in his possessions brings (one magazine even called him the ‘Tupac Shakur of Books’ since it seems he’ll end up being published far more now he’s dead). And yet it remains hard to imagine readers not coming away from 2666 with an experience of a powerful shift in their perspective on the world towards something more fragile; analysing its powers any more than this would require thousands of words and more cups of coffee than I can manage at the moment.

Ian Steadman

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