Review of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Toronto Star, November 2008.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is monumental in more ways than one. A 900-page opus that spans decades and ranges from Europe to Mexico, the novel is the most potent distillation yet of its creator’s themes and techniques. Sadly, the book also serves as a monument to Bolaño himself. The Chilean-born author died of liver failure in Spain five years ago, at the age of 50, while still putting the final touches on 2666.
Not that the book feels unfinished – or, at least, it doesn’t feel any less finished than its predecessors did. Since Bolaño’s death, as his work has marched forth in English translation and garnered rightful acclaim, it’s become clear that he had no interest in neatly groomed little narratives. Whether sprawling like The Savage Detectives or short and concentrated like By Night in Chile, his novels are shaggy by nature. They’re structurally haphazard and unpredictable in tone; they can be demanding and willfully perverse. They also tend to be unforgettable.
2666 is no different. It’s made up of five discrete sections that build on each other thematically but not necessarily narratively. In typical Bolaño style, the novel’s title is never explained or even mentioned in the text itself, though it does come up in the earlier novella Amulet, whose narrator imagines “a cemetery in the year 2666” – a vision of death, neglect, and moral decay.
As the various sections of 2666 echo off of each other, the novel’s shape and meaning gradually gather around two main elements. The first is Benno von Archimboldi, a mysterious and reclusive German novelist who’s nearing the end of a long life. In the book’s first section, a clique of European academics tries in vain to locate the elderly writer. In the last section, we see Archimboldo as a young man, wandering amid the apocalypse of World War Two and forging himself as a writer.
The book’s other major force is Santa Teresa, a lawless and hellish Mexican border city to which all narrative roads seem to lead. Beginning in 1993, Santa Teresa is plagued by unsolved murders – dozens and dozens of them, going on for years. The victims are mostly young women who work in the city’s many maquiladoras, thrown-together factories churning out cheap goods to meet the implacable appetites of NAFTA. (Appallingly and staggeringly, this is not just some grim fantasy of Bolaño’s. Santa Teresa is modeled on Ciudad Juarez, a real border town in which literally hundreds of women have been murdered.)
By placing the German genius and the desert cauldron of modern industry in implicit opposition, Bolaño works his favourite theme: the pursuit of art and the way it collides and overlaps with the messy, ignoble, and sinister aspects of real life. His novels are full of fictional poets, but they’re also haunted by the Pinochet coup in Chile; one of his early books, Nazi Literature in the Americas, is a mock encyclopedia of imaginary fascism-enthralled writers.
The terrifying centrepiece of 2666 is the fourth of its five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Nearly 300 pages long, it’s primarily made up of short episodes that relate the discovery of one corpse after another. Wounds are described and clues are sifted in a terse, documentary prose style, making for a kind of police procedural parody. It’s a black and bitter lampoon, though – we see no real law and order at work, just apathy and corruption and outright depravity. Bolaño intercuts this material with several horrific side stories: an American sheriff scours the city in search of a missing woman, and an aloof German immigrant is charged with one of the murders and thrown into a Boschian pit of a prison.
There are other sections and other characters, but to summarize 2666 any further is both difficult and unnecessary. Suffice to say that Bolaño stuffs the novel with anecdotes that open up into other anecdotes – everything from the story of a mad artist who hacks off his own hand to the long church sermon of a former Black Panther. These tangents are usually intriguing, though their relevance sometimes seems subliminal at best. The prose has a similarly freewheeling quality. Sometimes it’s lyrical and striking and sometimes it’s offhand and artless, more testimony than narration. Bolaño is fond, too, of long sentences with clauses that wiggle and multiply – the rhetorical effect is of a steady murmur that you have to work to keep your attention on.
All of which is to admit that reading Bolaño can sometimes be a struggle. But he’s a true original, and the struggle is a rewarding one. 2666 is a fascinating and powerful book, in the end a hallucinogenic portrait of a great evil gathering on the surface of the world. A reader completes most 900-page novels with some measure of relief, and this one is no exception. But it’s also hard to think back on the book without itching to read it again.