2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The English translation, by Natasha Wimmer, reads like this:
The city center was old, with three- or four-story buildings and arcaded plazas in a state of neglect and young office workers in shirt-sleeves and Indian women with bundles on their backs hurrying down cobblestoned streets, and they saw streetwalkers and young thugs loitering on the corners. Mexican types straight out of a black-and-white movie. Toward the east were the middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods. There they saw streets with carefully pruned trees and public playgrounds and shopping centers. The university was there, too. To the north were abandoned factories and sheds and a street of bars and souvenir shops and small hotels, where it was said no one ever slept, and further out there were more poor neighbourhoods, though they were less crowded, and vacant lots out of which every so often there rose a school. To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and they even watched a match, without getting out of the car, between a team of the terminally ill and a team of starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighbourhoods that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind, and sometimes, in the distance, the sillhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras.
The city, like all cities, was endless. If you continued east, say, there came a moment when the middle-class neighbourhoods ended and the slums began, like a reflection of what happened in the west but jumbled up, with a rougher orography: hills, valleys, the remains of old ranches, dry riverbeds, all of which went some way toward preventing overcrowding. To the north they saw a fence that separated the United States from Mexico and they gazed past it at the Arizona desert, this time getting out of the car. In the west they circled a couple of industrial parks that were in their turn being surrounded by slums.
They were convinced the city was growing by the second. On the far edge of Santa Teresa, they saw flocks of black vultures, watchful, walking through barren fields, birds that here were called turkey vultures, and also turkey buzzards. Where there were vultures, they noted, there were no other birds. They drank tequila and beer and ate tacos at a motel on the Santa Teresa-Caborca highway, at outdoor tables with a view. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
This is a remarkable book by any standards, and I’m so glad I wasn’t put off by its 900 pages, and took the time to read it.
Bolaño actually presents us with five separate novels and, with the exception of the last one, they can all be read without reference to the others.
2666 opens with a novel about four European literary critics, academics, who specialize in the work of a fictional German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi. Archimboldi, rumoured to be a future recipient of the Nobel Prize, is an evasive and reclusive writer who stays well away from the public eye. In fact, none of the critics who pursue him in this novel manage to track him down in person, though they seek him in several different countries, even traveling to a boom town in Mexico in their quest.
Bolaño’s subjects are writers and violence, and staying in the border town of Santa Teresa, we are introduced to Amalfitano, a professor of philosophy and literature at the local university. This text is quite different to the opening novel of the quintet, with an overt feeling of magical realism about it; Amalfitano leaves a book of geometry hanging on a clothesline in his back yard, and we slowly become aware that he is slipping into insanity. We also learn something about Amalfitano’s first wife, who ran off after a mad Spanish poet.
The third part of 2666 is entitled, The Part About Fate, and follows an American reporter, Oscar Fate, who is sent to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa. There have been clues in the two preceding books, but in this one we are very aware that there are lots of cases of sexually-violated and murdered young women, their bodies found regularly in deserted parking lots, isolated ravines, abandoned buildings and the surrounding desert. The narrative throughout is that of hardboiled noir.
The Part About the Crimes, the fourth part of 2666, is a tour-de-force, one inexhaustible list of the hundreds of women and girls who are butchered in and around Santa Teresa. One of the characters in this section introduces us to the concept of gynophobia, which is fear of women. Bolaño describes the discovery of each body in forensic, even clinical terms, in some cases drifting over to the more hard-edged tone of the crime-novelist. As the body-count builds, and with no solution or hint of closure in sight, we begin to glimpse the extent of the deep misogyny which pervades our society and culture. Though a handful of these horrific crimes are ‘solved’, most are shelved with little or no investigation taking place.
The final section, The Part About Archimboldi, ties everything together. We finally meet the German writer, follow him through his childhood and his time as a soldier in the second world war, witness the surrealistic horror of the twentieth century through his eyes as well as taking in his relationship to beauty and solitude. And we finally understand how all the other sections of 2666 relate to each other.
It is, of course, impossible to describe this novel; to understand it and what it is about there is no substitute for reading the book. So much of its greatness is in the language and in the bravado of the telling. Bolaño is a poet and his prose is always drifting, like the smoke from a cigarette; it weaves patterns in your mind and carries on working in the same way whether the book is in your hand or not. I believe it is going to stay with me for a long, long time.
Roberto Bolaño was born 28 April 1953 in Santiago, Chile and he died 15 July 2003 in Blanes, Spain. 2666 was his final statement.