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Book Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

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Early in 2007, the Colombian magazine Semana asked a panel of experts to select the 100 best novels in Spanish published during the last 25 years. Few were surprised to see Gabriel García Marquez take the top honors with his Love in the Time of Cholera. But who was Roberto Bolaño, who, captured both third and fourth spots with his novels The Savage Detectives and 2666?

At the time of the Semana survey, neither of these novels had been made available in English translation. Yet The Savage Detectives was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux a few days later to much acclaim. (See my review here.) And now Bolaño’s 2666 appears, a nine hundred page magnum opus that will no doubt solidify this author’s posthumous reputation as one of the leading—and most unsettling—modern novelists.

How does one begin to describe this writer’s unconventional work to the uninitiated? I am tempted to call him a Latin American Kerouac, given his wandering bohemian protagonists with their idiosyncratic literary ideals and often arbitrary itineraries. Yet at many junctures 2666 will remind readers of the very different sensibility of Cormac McCarthy, with his violent tales of the US-Mexico borderlands. One critic has taken a different tack, going so far as to proclaim this book as the novel that Jorge Luis Borges might have written. Yet none of these pigeonholes do justice the avant garde sensibility that constantly lingers below the surface of Bolaño’s fiction, and often threatens to take charge of the narrative. The diversity of these descriptions is perhaps the best indicator that Bolaño is his own man, straddling many traditions without settling comfortably into any one of them.

Bolaño, who died from liver failure at age 50 in 2003, was a wanderer himself for much of his life. In his acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1999, Bolaño defended his unwillingness to give complete allegiance to any one country, noting that “a writer’s country is his language.” A vagabond, perhaps by nature, and a traveler by either choice or necessity—he was born in Chile, raised partly in Mexico, and spent decades in Spain— Bolaño sometimes saw the Spanish language as his true homeland. Playing on this comparison, he described the quality of his writing as his passport, and defined quality in revealing terms: “to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”

All these elements play a role in 2666. This sprawling book takes place in a half dozen or so countries and moves back and forth over a period of some eight decades. And, yes, it is a leaping into the void, a thrust into the darkness. As with The Savage Detectives, the theme of searching after the unknown looms large in the unfolding plot lines. Sometimes the pursuit is an ardent vision quest, as in the opening section during which several scholars attempt to track down Benno Von Archimboldi, an enigmatic writer who makes Pynchon or Salinger look gregarious by comparison. At other points, the seeking takes on darker tones, as in the long penultimate section of the book, devoted to the local authorities’ attempt to identify and apprehend a serial killer who murders dozens—or perhaps even hundreds—of women in northern Mexico. The settings and situations constantly change in this unconventional novel, but the sense of restlessness remains.

As he worked to complete this novel, Bolaño planned to publish it in five separate books. His literary executor overrode this request, and as a result 2666 sees light of day as a single long fiction, although in five sections corresponding to the components the author would have issued separately. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Bolaño merely hoped to maximize the financial value of his final work, and decided that five short books would earn more money for his estate than one very long novel. The different sections do stand alone—and probably will be published in isolation in the future—although they take on their greatest resonance when juxtaposed and compared.

indeed, this work circles in on itself, and each section undermines, to various degrees, the narrative thrust of the remainder of 2666. For example, the apparent meaning of the opening section, devoted to the academics’ obsession with the elusive writer Archimboldi, is subverted and refined by the final section of the novel, which lays out in telling details Archimboldi’s own story. The experience is almost like finding an unpublished final act to Beckett’s famous play in which Godot shows up and offers the audience a gripping soliloquy.

But the fourth and longest section of 2666, some 280 pages, threatens to overwhelm the rest of the book. This is a peculiar crime story, in which the author presents the details of the murders committed by a serial killer in Santa Teresa (a slightly fictionalized version of Juárez) in the maquiladora-dominated northern border area of Mexico. This is much more than a murder mystery. The sheer number of victims is overwhelming, and Bolaño almost numbs the readers’ sensibilities by providing all the gritty specifics of several dozen corpses, crime scenes, autopsies and related investigations.

Yet at various points in this bloody litany, Bolaño breaks off to interpose some unexpected and almost avant garde digression. At one point, for example, he offers a lengthy and eccentric discourse on the medicinal properties of various plants; elsewhere he provides a retrospective look at the fast-and-loose life story of a reformist congresswoman, or the behind-the-scenes story of the making of an unsavory film. Then, in a flash, the detour is over, and Bolaño returns to the murders, senseless violence that haunts this whole novel and makes all of the previous subplots—dealing with academic conferences or surrealist experiments with geometry books—seem like mere frivolity by comparison.

In the final section of the novel, Bolaño has the opportunity to resolve the many narratives he has set in motion, and to some extent he does. But this life story of the author Archimboldi comes across more like the beginning of 2666 than its conclusion. In fact, I wonder if this novel would not be equally effective if one read the five sections in reverse order. In 2666, Bolaño has created the literary equivalent of the snake swallowing its own tail. Upon completing the book, you may feel tempted to go back to the beginning and start all over again—a remarkable claim for a work that approaches one thousand pages in length. Yet Bolaño’s mastery is perhaps best demonstrated by precisely this ability to pull readers into the orbit of his fictions with a gravitational pull that resists their best efforts to break free.

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About Ted Gioia