Une oasis d'horreur dans un désert d'ennui!
--- An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.
(Charles Baudelaire, Le Voyage, VII)
A MODERN MASTER
Calling Roberto Bolaño's 2666 a novel is somewhat misleading. Certainly, it bears many attributes of a work of long fiction - memorable characters, richly evoked locations, abundant action, recurrent themes. Nevertheless, the author is clearly working against the genre even as he labours within it; at times, he turns the common conventions of the novel on their head, whether by exiling a character that the reader has come to identify as a protagonist, or amputating storylines just as they start to pulse with life. The fact that the book remains as riveting as any top-notch thriller is testament to Bolano's astonishing virtuosity.
Perhaps 2666's sad provenance is the reason for this narrative disquiet. Completed just before Bolaño's death in July 2003 at the age of 50, it was provisionally intended to be five separate books, although the author's executors and editors decided posthumously to bring it out as a single work. It was the right decision. Read as a whole, 2666, whose enigmatic title is never explained in the text, achieves something extremely rare in fiction: it provides an all-encompassing view of our world.
The novel opens in Europe, where four literary scholars are brought together by a mutual obsession with Benno von Archimboldi, a prolific but elusive German author. A chance meeting leads them to a minor Mexican novelist known as El Cerdo (the Pig), who claims to have spent a chaotic day with Archimboldi in Mexico City as the great writer was en route to the fictional border city of Santa Teresa (which bears a strong resemblance to Ciudad Juarez). After travelling there, the scholars find scant trace of their prey, though they do discover that a serial killer has slaughtered hundreds of young women in the city over the past decade.
As Archimboldi's trail runs cold, Bolaño does what young novelists are told never to do - he drops his protagonists for new ones, in this case a Chilean scholar named Amalfitano, who has washed up in Santa Teresa with his teenage daughter, and an African-American journalist known as Oscar Fate, who has come to Mexico to cover a boxing match, only to become fixated by the murders. “No one pays attention to these killings,” Fate believes, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” In one of the novel's more remarkable moments (and that's saying something), his investigations lead him to a terrifying confrontation with the main suspect in a desert prison.
Abandoning Fate, Bolaño once again changes tack to give us the history of the murders. Although a weary police detective named Juan de Dios Martinez might be called this section's protagonist, the real hero (or antihero) is the city of Santa Teresa itself, a teeming dystopia in which the bodies of raped and mutilated young women are discovered almost weekly, often in garbage dumps surrounding the low-paying factories that manufacture cheap goods for American consumption. While some of the cases are domestic disputes or collateral in the drug trade, most seem to be the work of a sadist working out of an expensive black sedan. The authorities hope a high-profile arrest will quell rising fear and resentment, although any sense of relief is tempered by the fact that the killings continue after the suspect is banged up in prison.
Bolano then comes full circle in the book's last section by returning the focus to Archimboldi, presenting a remarkable biography of the writer from his birth in pre- Nazi Germany to his life as an itinerant cult novelist who possesses little more than a laptop and a backlist. Any sense that Bolaño has gone off track is dispelled in the novel's final pages, when the author miraculously draws together plot lines that seemed almost fatally irreconcilable.
What is most memorable about 2666 is the sheer abundance of its narrative. Bolaño mints characters with a spendthrift generosity, though there is nothing preening about this breadth of scope. A Mexican seer who describes the world as being “a kind of tremor”, an English artist whose most popular work contains his own severed hand, a former Black Panther who writes cookbooks, a prodigiously endowed Romanian general - it is sometimes easier to think of this book in terms of who is not present, rather than who is.
Bolaño is equally unstinting with his subplots, which spring organically from the novel, like the colourful offshoots of a rampant tropical plant. Perhaps the most memorable of these comes in 2666's final section, which details Archimboldi's service in the German army during the second world war. While in Romania, he finds himself stationed in a castle that might have been the home of Count Dracula. There, he witnesses an act of brutal lovemaking that seems to conjure the vampire's ghost. Later, while a prisoner of war, he hears the harrowing confession of a fellow soldier that serves as a bitter distillation of the general slaughter that has just decimated the world.
It is in stories such as this that the world of 2666 can be best experienced - one that is equal parts beauty and violence. When Professor Amalfitano arrives in Santa Teresa, he remarks that “the sky...was purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death”; when a German officer visits the site of the massacre of Jews he has reluctantly ordered, he cannot bring himself to stare into the abyss of the mass grave. “From now on,” he thinks, “this is the realm of the insects.”
The novel's most representative story comes when Amalfitano leads the European scholars on a wild-goose chase to a shabby circus simply because it features a German magician who might be their vanished author. “Examined coolly, it was a stupid idea...but the critics were in such low spirits that he thought it wouldn't hurt.” In an era where number-crunching publishers are turning out one coolly formulaic book after another, this awe-inspiring three-ring extravaganza of a novel is sure to raise a reader's spirits as much as any Mexican circus.
The Sunday Times review by Stephen Amidon, January 11, 2009
2666 by Roberto Bolaño,
translated by Natasha Wimmer
In a literary landscape thick with aesthetes, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003, at 50, was a true outlaw, a culture glutton whose reference points ranged from Heidegger to Keanu Reeves, and an experimentalist keen to try everything more than once.
Bolaño's reputation outside Hispanic countries was slow to materialise, but it has grown quickly. English translations have been a key factor. With the appearance of Natasha Wimmer's nimble rendering of 2666, we have something like a complete set.
2666 was Bolaño's final book; he was still tinkering with the manuscript when he died and it makes for a mighty send-off. Wading through its 900 pages, one never feels that he could have pushed things further but chose to rein himself in; at every turn, he went for it. The result is a wild, ungoverned book, full of surreal inversions and wistful comedy, the source of countless pleasures. Yet it is also a menacing proposition for readers of average intolerance, exhaustingly playful and tauntingly long, founded on dream sequences and digressions, replete with red herrings and wild geese. The book's fever-ishness can be contagious; symptoms include nausea and déjà vu.
Bolaño had asked for 2666 to be published as five separate books, corresponding to the sections into which it is divided, but his executors chose to disobey him. It was a good decision. Though the book has no plot, its individual sections are umbilically tied, “functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole”, to borrow a winking description of a novel within the book. That sweep is vast, taking in dozens of cities and most of the 20th century, and though Bolaño acknowledges his debt to the epic - a bullfighter is said to have been on an “Homeric bender” - this is far more agitated than the books in that tradition. It is an adventure without a thread, an Odyssey without an Odysseus.
Despite its zeal for travel, the book makes persistent pilgrimage to one setting, Santa Teresa, a city on the US-Mexico border ravaged by drug smuggling, sweated labour, prostitution and a serial killer, or possibly serial killers, laying waste the female population.
Yet it remains alluring. A group of European literary scholars go there in search of an elusive German novelist; a magazine reporter from New York is sent there to cover a boxing match; a Chilean philosophy professor moves there for a new job, and a new life. These are only the most prominent of the dozens of characters who visit or live in the city.
Bolaño's writing is abundant, but also consumed with abundance as a theme. The novel's longest section, The Part about the Killings, takes place in Santa Teresa between 1993 and 1998, a period in which hundreds of female visitors and inhabitants are murdered. Paragraph after paragraph gives the details of a new crime, always delivered in an unruffled reportorial tone. Bolaño's use of this device signals his allegiance, or at least openness, to a kind of postmodern scepticism, not only critiquing novelistic orthodoxy, but also questioning the stability of ideas such as truth and reality, meaning and value. The effect of describing so many murders is to strip each one of its gravity and to make murder itself banal, boring even.
Yet Bolaño is sure not to tick all the boxes on the postmodernist agenda; for instance, he shows none of the postmodernist disdain for the Western canon and the legacy of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, 2666 is a book full of other books, and one powered by a sense of possibility and discovery more commonly associated with children of the 18th century than the 20th. It is rootless and ramshackle like Tristram Shandy; it has Diderot's polymathic zeal (one of Bolaño's previous books was a fake encyclopedia, Nazi Literature in the Americas); and its whole approach seems to have been derived from Goethe's notion of “world literature”. The difference is that Goethe conceived “world literature” as a way of thinking about all books, whereas Bolaño, with his mixture of dynamism and overreach, managed to achieve it in a single novel.
The Times review by Leo Robson - January 9, 2009
A RACE AGAINST TIME
I don't know about the USA, but Britain has been rather late to recognise the achievements of this Chilean writer -- in the Spanish-speaking world he has already been lauded as a contemporary great after a 2003 literary conference of his peers recognised him, just weeks before his death, as the greatest Latin American writer of his generation. Born in Santiago in 1953, Bolaño actually came to fame towards the end of his career; for much of his life he was happy to be a provocateur, railing at the Latin American literary establishment (in particular Isabel Allende), writing incendiary poetry and founding a radical movement, infrarrealismo (likened by one critic to 'punk' surrealism). Only in 1990, after the birth of his son, and in an attempt to provide for his family, did he begn seriously to address himself to fiction. Between then and his death, he was extraordinarily prolific, producing 11 books of short stories, novellas and novels (including the acclaimed The Savage Detectives) and writing furiously to finish 2666 before his liver condition killed him.
'A writer's patria or country, as someone said, is his language. That sounds pretty demagogic, but I completely agree with him....' That is from Roberto Bolaño's acceptance speech for the 1999 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, an award given by the government of Venezuela for the best Spanish-language novel of the year in Latin America or Spain. Bolaño won the prize for The Savage Detectives, his sprawling, exuberant account of two Latin American poets over twenty-some years, which made him a literary celebrity and established him as one of the most talented and inventive novelists writing in Spanish. Bolaño was routinely asked in interviews whether he considered himself Chilean, having been born in Santiago in 1953, or Spanish, having lived in Spain the last two decades of his life, until his death in 2003, or Mexican, having lived in Mexico City for ten years in between. One time he answered, 'I'm Latin American.' Other times he would say that the Spanish language was his country.