Roberto Bolano’s 2666

There’s nothing like dying to make you famous. Case in point: Roberto Bolano, a Chilean novelist who had little success up until the almost instant canonization that followed his 2003 death. Besides death, part of the reason for the recent rise of Bolano’s critical stock is that many of his books are just now being translated into English, most recently 2666, his posthumous final novel. 2666 is an ambitious, massive book (almost 900 pages) that seeks to do no less than to prove that literature can be meaningful in a world full of death and incomprehensible violence. Befitting its epic scope, 2666 is many things: funny, boring, stunning, confusing, depressing, and ultimately so powerful and so enigmatic that it validates Bolano’s rave reviews and guarantees people will be puzzling over him for a long time.

2666 is a writer’s book, a book about writing populated almost solely by writers. It divides into five parts (which Bolano originally intended to publish as five separate novellas): Part 1—“The Part About the Critics”—follows the romantic and professional entanglements of four European literary critics who have based their careers around the works of Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German writer. The critics eventually follow a dubious tip and head out in search of Archimboldi, which brings them to the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa before Part 1 abruptly and inconclusively ends. In The New York Times’s review of 2666, Jonathan Lethem compares Bolano to David Foster Wallace, which is pretty accurate in terms of plot: like Wallace’s gigantic Infinite Jest, 2666 traces a number of different storylines that sometimes skirt in and out of each other but never really quite intersect. (The two, however, are probably polar opposite in terms of prose, with Bolano’s lyrical, ironic style coming closer to someone like Garcia Marquez or Kundera than Wallace’s big-hearted, discursive voice.)

Parts 2 and 3 take place in Santa Teresa as well and depicts two other writers: Amalfitano, an unbalanced professor at the University of Santa Teresa, and Jack Fate, a magazine reporter sent to Mexico to cover a boxing match. The critics and these other writers all find themselves out of place in Santa Teresa, a city where hundreds of young women have been violently murdered over the course of a decade (modeled on the real-life killings in Ciudad Juarez). Their writings can do nothing to help them understand their own subjects—the critics never find Archimboldi and Fate never understands boxing or writes his article—let alone the horrific murders happening all around them.

2666 may at first seem like it’s trying to show the inability of literature to deal with these things, but it takes its most ambitious step in Part 4 (“The Part About the Crimes”), where it seeks to represent each and every one of the hundreds of Santa Teresa’s murders in excruciating, documentarian detail, with no writer-protagonist to hold it together. Almost fittingly, this part is where 2666 seems to drag the most, as if Bolano is fulfilling the novel’s prophecy about the inability to write meaningfully about death. Bolano sucks all the humor and lyricism out of his writing in this section in an attempt to depict the bare brutality of the murders, but he’s not quite successful. The writing here renders the murders indistinguishable from each other, muting their emotional impact and making the 300 pages of this section a painful slog.

But just when it feels like 2666 will never end, Part 4 moves into the final section (“The Part About Archimboldi”), where the reclusive writer himself actually appears. Part 5 traces Archimboldi’s life—from a soldier in the Nazi army to the “vanished writer” up for the Nobel Prize—and ties up most of the novel’s complex patterns of imagery, even if the plot doesn’t really come together in the same way (though it’s a little unclear whether Bolano actually finished this section before he died). This part of the novel is dreamy, enigmatic, and by far the best-written part of 2666, but I’m still kind of at a loss for what to say about it. Maybe Bolano’s description of Archimboldi’s writing also works for 2666: “The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed didn’t lead anywhere… All that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.”

Archimboldi walks off of the last page of 2666 and into some place I can’t even begin to guess at, following Bolano and the secrets of the novel into the void that the book tries to name and understand. The novel is full of secrets (right down to its title, which is never once mentioned in the text), but even if it never yields up everything, 2666 still proves its point, even in its missteps showing that literature can be just as big and confusing and downright mysterious and beautiful as life.


One Response

  1. You think that the “point” osf 2666 is that ” . . . literature can be meaningful in a world full of death and incomprehensible violence..” This isn’t a point but a fact of his writing.

    His point is about the return of the beast.

    When American and even Canadian banks have laundered hundreds of bilions of cartel money which enables the purchase of more weaponery than that held by the Mexican goverment so that Mexican drugs can feed the US demand, we have a problem.

    When a side issue of this is the serial kidnappings, brutal sexual assault, torture and killings of thousands of young women as young as 12, that is ongoingtoday, the beast is loose.

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