by Roberto Bolano
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
If literature is indeed "a dangerous occupation," as Roberto Bolano surmised in his speech accepting the prestigious Premio Romulo Gallegos Prize (for The Savage Detectives), then 2666 is certainly his attestation. Completed (though left partially unedited) shortly before his death in 2003, 2666 is a monumental work of consummate achievement, one deserving of the most exalted acclaim. Epic in scope and epitomizing the "total novel," the late Chilean writer's masterpiece fuses many different genres and styles, yet is comparable to no other novel in modern literature. It comprises an entire world, perhaps the entire world. Divided into five distinct, yet synthesizing, parts, 2666 stands not only as the enviable acme of literary creation, but also as an act of utmost tenacity and courage.
With the threat of his own mortality looming (due to an ongoing liver ailment), Bolano wrote fervently throughout the last decade of his life, and with more aplomb. As he writes in part five of 2666, "The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy." Yet, despite the resolve that enabled Bolano to continue writing so prolifically, he appears to have been no stranger to the distress which often accompanies literary pursuit, for, in the same portion of the book, he writes:
[I]t was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives. Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear that one's efforts and striving come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace. Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. Fear of dining alone and unnoticed. Fear of going unrecognized. Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers.
It is as if being able to finish his final and most important work were a panacea to the destiny he knew he could not escape. "But everything collapses in the end....Everything collapses in pain. All eloquence springs from pain," a character utters late in the book. Bolano was well aware that 2666
was to be his ultimate offering, yet was able to transfigure his apprehensions into the devastating intrepidity required to write a book of such remarkable breadth.
At its nucleus, 2666 is based on the vicious murders of hundreds of young women throughout Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (reimagined as Santa Teresa in the novel), which began in 1993 and to date remain largely unsolved. In the fourth part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes," Bolano chronicles these deaths in horrific and exacting detail. Spanning nearly three hundred pages, this may be some of the most haunting, harrowing writing in modern literature, as Bolano's descriptions of murder, rape, and mutilation are all the more unsparing in their effect per the clinical, detached tone he employs. "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them," a character asserts. Incomprehensible in their brutality, it seems even Bolano was at a loss to make sense of the (still) ongoing feminicidios. Later in part four: "[T]he inspector told him he shouldn't try to find a logical explanation for the crimes. It's fucked up, that's the only explanation."
The crux of the novel is excruciating. Still, there is considerable beauty and humor to be found throughout 2666. As readers of Bolano's other works know well, his writing often deals with the lives of writers themselves, their often frustrating and fruitless pursuits, and the place of literature in a culture that seems to ever increasingly forsake both the story and the storyteller. Bolano devoted much of his life to writing, and, thus, it is of no surprise that he believed deeply in the myriad gifts offered by books and reading (for both the devout and the casual). In part three, "The Part About Fate," Bolano writes:
But I read and read anyway, sometimes so fast that even I was surprised, and sometimes so very slowly, as if each sentence or word was something good for my whole body, not just my brain. And I could read like that for hours, not caring whether I was tired and not dwelling on the inarguable fact that I was in prison because I had stood up for my brothers, most of whom couldn't care less whether I rotted or not. I knew I was doing something useful....Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people's ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
Bolano's knowledge of the literary world was immense, and he regularly enriched his stories with references to writers living and deceased, popular and obscure. Near the beginning of 2666
, Bolano alludes to his friend and colleague Rodrigo Fresan, the Argentine novelist whose only work in translation is the stunning, kaleidoscopic novel Kensington Gardens. Though even the most ardent student of literature is unlikely to gain much from these subtle intimations, they do affirm that Bolano understood his craft well. The Savage Detectives
focused (somewhat arguably) on the lives of two questing and itinerant poets, and, while 2666
too has characters that are writers, critics, and scholars, they are largely secondary to the ever-increasing severity of the novel's plot and to the looming, however unnamed, monstrosity which is always threatening from nearby (or rather, perhaps from within). "But someone worse than me and worse than the killer is coming to this motherfucking city. Do you hear his footsteps getting closer? Do you?"
It appears Bolano had given particular thought to what writing so monumental a novel would mean to his readership, and it seems he also realized that many would forego a reading if only on account of the book's daunting length (some 1,200 pages in the original Spanish edition). In one revealing passage at the end of the second part, one of Bolaño's characters offers his estimation (his indictment?) of the state of literary affairs:
One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leaving aside the fact that "A Simple Heart" and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
Without exception, 2666
is one of the most important novels of the past 50 years. It not only marks the pinnacle of a sadly truncated literary career, but it serves also as a momentous occasion for all literature in translation (2666
was adeptly translated by Natasha Wimmer, who also rendered The Savage Detectives
from the Spanish). Too long have American publishers shunned non-English authors, and so perhaps Bolano's masterwork, if nothing else, will serve to remind American readers that some of the world's finest novels are being written from without our borders.
To be sure, reading Bolano's 2666 is no easy task. Unlike many Latin American writers that rose to fame during the boom of the 1960s, Bolano asks us not to suspend belief, but rather to confront it head on. Reading 2666 forces us to allay our own moral trepidation long enough that we may consider "that something that terrifies us all." Bolano chose part of Baudelaire's poem "The Voyage" for the book's epigram, "An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom," and 2666 makes plain the aridity and ennui in which much of modern civilization subsists while a young, troubled century unfurls before us all. And so, if literature is, indeed, "a dangerous occupation," perhaps it is as much so for the one writing the story as it is for the one daring to read it.