2666 by Roberto Bolano

Book Quote:

“Do you believe in love?” asked Reiter.
“Frankly, no,” said the girl.
“What about honesty?” asked Reiter.
“Ugh, that’s worse than love,” said the girl.
“Do you believe in sunsets,” asked Reiter, “starry nights, bright mornings?”
“No, no, no,” said the girl with a gesture of evident distaste. “I don’t believe in anything ridiculous.”
“You’re right,” said Reiter. “What about books?”
“Even worse,” said the girl.


Book Review:

Reviewed by Doug Bruns (JUL 03, 2009)

I came to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: A Novel after a long spell of reading narrative non-fiction. I was spending a lot of time with other women and my wife knew about it, Joan Didion and Anne Dillard, in particular. Not that she minded, my wife. She is refreshingly open about these things, but I was starting to feel guilty and was, frankly, longing for some male companionship, specifically companionship that would take me down a windy path, into a woods or alley, lose me on the wet streets of a foreign city, then find me again, guide me then threaten me–all the while making me feel more manly, whatever that might mean. Hemingway can do that, to cite a cliché. Also, I was coming to Maine for the summer and wanted to get lost in a big thick weighty book, a book that would be wasted in the city where it would be not so much attacked as toyed with. How can you read a 900 page book but to attack it? You can’t nibble at it. You have to take blocks of time and sit down in a quiet place and rest the tome on your lap and go after it, like a loon after a harbor sardine. I had wanted to read 2666 since it came out in English last year (from the Spanish), published posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death. Now was the time.

2666 consists of five books or chapters. According to an opening note, Bolaño, fearing he would not survive the work, thought it would be most profitable to publish the five “novels” separately. His estate, however, decided differently, arguing that keeping the work whole “seems preferable.” He did, indeed, finish a first draft of the last section. The five sections could stand alone, but Bolaño was writing 2666 as a single work, and it works best read that way. At center to the five sections is the Mexican town of Santa Teresa. Here, in this industrial US border town, an appalling series of murders has been going on unabated. Young girls have been abducted and raped and killed and dumped in fields, alleyways and barren landscapes. The police are impotent to stop the killing. Santa Teresa is modeled after Ciudad Juárez, where a series of murders of factory-working women and girls remains unsolved. At its essence 2666 is a conventional mystery, a who done-it. The murders, taking place over a series of years, share the markings of a serial killer or killers. The other major mystery contained in the novel is the reclusive author Archimboldi, a long-missing Nobel-nominated German novelist. The book opens as four critics cum detectives attempt to track him down while building their careers as scholars around interpretations of his work. The bookend end chapter finds the return of Archimboldi in the flesh, or at least we draw the conclusion, as best we are directed, that we have found him, as certitude is purposefully missing in this novel. In the middle sections he disappears, but is never far from the action, hinted at and drawn upon as a motif incarnate. Indeed, everything in 2666 seems cryptic and shrouded in mystery.

The prose of the novel is straightforward and direct, refreshingly so. It is elegant and rich at one moment, documentary the next. It is opaque. So much so that at one point I found myself enjoying a sentence of particular fluidity and grace and then realized that I had been reading the same sentence for four pages. These were not mind-numbing twisted Proustian pages. But rather, four pages consisting of one remarkable sentence that carried the reader along like a gentle stream. And this is what the book requires, like all great literature: the compliance of the reader. You must give yourself up to it. Like the magical realism of a previous generation, Bolaño’s style requires submission. In the modern tradition, the novel explores all streams of thought. It exploits nuance. Subtlety is in short order–or rather, subtlety permeates everything such that subtlety is lost. By this I mean, the reader must be prepared to be exhausted in the pursuit of creating a masterpiece. There are plots and subplots, nuance, blind alleys and most challengingly, lack of resolution. The mysteries, like life, grow in complexity and are never solved. It is as if a grand oil painting were being attempted in front of our eyes and every brush stroke is being observed. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the protagonist’s name differs from the Renaissance painter’s by only two letters, an observation mentioned in the book. It is telling that Arcimboldo’s paintings were representative portraits, faces created from objects such as fruits, vegetables and flowers. Our guy, Archimboldi, is likewise not so much seen as represented.

In talking to my bookseller recently, he said someone had recently commented on the book, decrying it, putting it aside, saying, “I’m not going to punish myself with this any longer.” I think this is interesting. It is a challenging book, but accessible. If there is punishment to be found in 2666 it would be specific to the fourth section entitled, “The Part About The Crimes.” Here we suffer through 284 pages of murder, rape and molestation. Though minor motifs are employed, we are bludgeoned with account after account of the murders of Santa Theresa. The section breaks suit with the other sections stylistically. It becomes raw and sparse. But still, the artistic motive remains. That is to say, here, as elsewhere, the author explores to the point of exhaustion the work at hand, the attempt to create a masterpiece brushstroke by brushstroke. As a reader, committed to experiencing a literary work of the highest order, I believe I understand why such a section exists, but that does not make it less of a grind.

There is a passage on page 786 spoken by a very minor character (the book is full of minor characters who have lives involving very minor characters, spawning yet more and so forth in increasing twists and turns.): “By now I knew it was pointless to write. Or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece.” 2666 has been hailed as a masterpiece by many, but history will judge definitively should that be the case. I think this passage telling though, an author’s nod as to his intent–that writing is only worth it if one is prepared to write a masterpiece. Two pages later the same very minor character, walking away from the challenge of writing a masterpiece, resolves: “What a relief to give up literature, to give up writing and simply read!” What a relief to simply read. The sentence washed over me like a summer wave. Henry James said that the only obligation of the novel is to be interesting. This is a refreshingly simple evaluation. Is 2666 interesting? Yes. Can one, as the very minor character implies, find relief in simply reading it? Yes again. A troubling relief, given the subject matter, but relief regardless–which is core to the artistic experience.

I finished the novel, closed the covers and turned to my wife. “I wish it didn’t end,” I said. I felt as if the author had inhabited my closing thought. Knowing that he fought to finish the book before he died, I am given to believe Bolaño shared the same sentiment.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 188 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (November 11, 2008)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Roberto Bolano
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: This book makes me think of:

And see our review of:

Bibliography (translations only):

July 3, 2009 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Latin American/Caribbean, Literary, Mexico, Mystery/Suspense, Translated, World Lit

2 Responses

  1. poornima - July 3, 2009

    What a wonderful review!

    I’m hoping that at some point you can also review the Annie Dillard books you read. Thanks.

  2. Mary Whipple - July 4, 2009

    Outstanding review, Doug! I’ve been looking at this book for a year, but the size of it has been so daunting that I haven’t read it. Your description of the plot and style have made me change my mind. It sounds exciting! Thanks. Mary

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.