By Roberto Bolano
Published in Spanish in 2004
Translated into English in 2008
Length: 898 pages
Genre: World Literature
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom
– Charles Baudelaire
* This review is casually and spontaneously written. In other words, it is rather a mere reflection of my admiration on this book.
The novel 2666 is best described as the allegorical figuration of hell, the delirious depiction of our evil nature, and the inevitable helplessness we are faced with against such nature. Before I say anything about this 898 pages-long masterpiece of a novel, I’ll borrow the words of the New York Review of Books writer Sarah Kerr in her writing about the author.
“No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”
“Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic’s one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño’s conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it’s hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile.”
Basically, she is saying that due to the sublimely complex nature of his work, critics’ every effort to succinctly describe his novels mostly ends in vain. I firmly agree with her opinion.
Here is another by Todd Shy, a writer from The News & Observer.
“2666 may be the first great novel of the twenty-first century… In disarmingly straightforward prose, Bolano measures the abyss. But he does this with such speed and daring that the book remains buoyed by an irresistible ecstasy… The thrill of 2666 resides in the sheer range and mobility of Bolano’s attention, but it is a disturbed, disarming thrill regardless. Bolano draws us along the perimeter of an abyss with such momentum it is hard to register the grimness of what we see… This is tragic exuberance, metaphysics at light speed–a book, at last, equal to the times.”
Yes, Bolano measures the abyss, and yes, his sheer range and mobility of his topics and narrative techniques are thrilling. But he is so much more than that, especially this novel 2666. The novel is encyclopedic in every sense of the word. Only a man who has truly “lived” a life can write such a novel. Ironically, he died right after completing 2666.
Then they talked about freedom and evil, about the highways of freedom where evil is like a Ferrari
The book is comprised of five parts.
1st part: Four literary scholars, whose interests converge on the reclusive German writer, a perennial Nobel prize nominee named Benno Von Archimboldi, occupy a center stage. These scholars come from four different European countries: France, Germany, Italy, and England. Their search for the author leads them to Mexican city called Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juarez). They are informed of the killings of girls in the city, but their sole aim (that of searching for Benno Von Archimboldi) does not spare them the time to mull over such a peripheral matter, at least for them.
2nd part: Chilean literary scholar named Oscar Amalfitano, who works at a university in Santa Teresa, is the main protagonist in this section. He acted as a guide for the four scholars in the first section, but the main conflict for him in this part occurs in his memory (his relationship with his ex-wife). Besides, he worries about his beautiful daughter, Rosa Amalfitano, due to the rampant femicide occurring in Santa Teresa. Also, he hangs a geometry book on the laundry rope and philosophize. A reader gets to encounter all the famous intellectuals ever existed in the Western world.
3rd part: A sports reporter nicknamed Fate is the protagonist here. He lives in the States, but in order to report on a boxing match, he travels to Mexico. He hears about the killings of the girls in Santa Teresa and wants to write an article about it. His boss does not consent to his wish.
4rd part: Unlike the previous parts, there is no single protagonist in this section. Majority of the narrative is comprised of police reports, of the brutal rape and killing of young Mexican women working in maquiladoras in Santa Teresa. Who the fuck is committing all these crimes? Police is ineffectual, people don’t give much shit, and women keep getting killed. Misogyny, along with blood, swiftly flows in men’s vein in Santa Teresa. A suspect (who is probably innocent, at least of those killings) is jailed. The most repeated phrase in this section is: “She had been anally and vaginally raped several times. The case was soon closed.” It is a wonder how this report-like narrative actually makes a compelling read, encapsulating the reader with miasma of horror.
5th part: This section tells of a life of Hans Reiter. It tells briefly of his parents, his birth, his youth, his war years, his life as a writer until he is over 80 and heading to Santa Teresa to look after his nephew, a last favor bestowed from his sister. He witnesses mass murders during his war years, changes his name after a 16th century painter, writes novels that captivates one publisher named Bubis, and embarks upon a solitary journey around the world.
Bolano once said, “know how to stick your head in the dark, know how to jump into the abyss, know that literature is basically a dangerous business.” For this novel, he stuck his head in the darkest part of the abyss, that of the killings of women in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico (Santa Teresa in the novel) in the late 20th century. In the novel, evil is never conspicuous; it always lies beneath the surface, insidiously creeping up to entrap us when we are less aware. How evil works is a mysterious business because even though we talk, discuss and seemingly do so much about it, it seems to proliferate more as the world ages.
But this novel is much more than the topic of evil. It’s about literature. About human relationship. About time. What it means to live. Due to the sheer size of the book, I hesitate whenever I feel the urge to recommend this book to someone. It truly is the first great literature of the 21st century that in the long run will stand shoulder to shoulder with Moby-Dick and Les Miserable. Something changed in me after reading the novel. It made me modest. It made me respect others more. All in all, it stimulated my awareness into constant vigilance for evilness of human nature. We don’t necessarily commit evil; the evil is committed when we are not aware. When we are complacent. When we do not try to look further and beyond what can be seen.
I hope to return to this book soon. It will accompany me as long as I breathe. Yes, it deserves A+.
“Three days after the meeting with Archimboldi’s publisher, he showed up in London unannounced, and after telling Liz Norton the latest news, he invited her to dinner at a restaurant in Hammersmith that a colleague in the Russian department had recommended, where they ate goulash and chickpea puree with beets and fish macerated in lemon with yogurt, a dinner with candles and violins and real Russian waiters and Irish waiters disguised as Russians, all of it excessive from any point of view, and somewhat rustic and dubious from a gastronomic point of view, and they had vodka with their dinner and a bottle of Bordeaux, and the whole meal cost Pelletier an arm and a leg, but it was worth it because then Norton invited him home, officially to dicuss Archimboldi and the few things that Mrs. Bubis had revealed, including, of course, the critic Schleiermacher’s contemptuous appraisal of Archimboldi’s first book, and then both of them started to laugh and Pelletier kissed Norton on the lips, with great tact, and she kissed him back much more ardently, thanks possibly to the dinner and the vodka and the Bordeaux, but Pelletier thought it showed promise, and then they went to bed and screwed for an hour until Norton fell asleep.” – 30
“And he also remembered that he felt tenderness toward Espinoza at that moment, a tenderness that brought back adolescence, adventures fiercely shared, and small-town afternoons.” – 31
“They talked about what they’d felt as they rained blows on the fallen body. A combination of sleepiness and sexual desire.” -76
“It might be a live star or it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance. They are semblances, the same way dreams are semblances. So the traveler on Route 80 with a flat tire doesn’t know whether what he’s staring up at in the vast night are stars or whether they’re dreams. In a way, he said, the traveler is also part of a dream, a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water that we call a wave.” – 252
“Fate tried to get a look at them, but the lights, focused on the ring, left the upper part of the hall in darkness. The tone, he thought, was solemn and defiant, the battle hymn of a lost war sung in the dark. In the solemnity there was only desperation and death, but in the defiance there was a hint of corrosive humor, a humor that existed only in relation to itself and in dreams, no matter whether the dreams were long or short.” – 308
“No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” – 348
“She had been vaginally and anally raped, probably more than once, since both orifices exhibited tears and abrasions, from which she had bled profusely.” – 354
Haas didn’t understand how a cock could get hard when faced with an asshole like Farfan’s or Gomez’s. He could understand that a man might be turned on by an adolescent, a youth, he thought, but not that a man or a man’s brain could signal for blood to fill the spongy tissue of the penis, difficult as that was, with the sole enticement of an asshole like Farfan’s or Gomez’s. Animals, he thought. Filthy beasts attracted by filth. – 488
“Then they talked about freedom and evil, about the highways of freedom where evil is like a Ferrari, and after a while…” – 536
“There were the usual deaths, yes, those to be expected, people who started off celebrating and ended up killing each other, uncinematic deaths, deaths from the realm of folklore, not modernity: deaths that didn’t scare anybody.”
“What twisted people we are. How simple we seem, or pretend to be in front of others, and how twisted we are deep down.” – 596
“Until that moment archimboldi had never thought about fame. Hitler was famous. Goring was famous. The people he loved or remembered fondly weren’t famous, they just satisfied certain needs. Doblin was his consolation. Ansky was his strength. Ingeborg was his joy. The disappeared Hugo Halder was lightheartedness and fun. His sister, about whom he had no news, was his own innocence.” – 802
“During this time, Archimboldi’s finances improved slightly, but only slightly. The Cologne Cultural Center paid him for two public readings in two different city bookshops, whose owners, it must be said, knew Mr. Bubis personally. Neither reading aroused marked interest. Only fifteen people, counting Ingeborg, came to the first, at which the author read selections from his novel Ludicke, and at the end only three dared to buy the book. At the second reading, of selections from The Endless Rose, there were nine, again counting Ingeborg, and at the end only three people were left in the room, the small size of which went some way toward softening the blow. Among them, of course, was Ingeborg, who hours later confessed to Archimboldi that at a certain point she too had considered leaving.”