2666 by Roberto Bolano: a review

Andy Beta


Near the end of "The Part About Amalfitano"––the second of five sections that comprise Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s massive last tome, 2666––expat professor Amalfitano laments the state of literature after encountering a young pharmacist: "He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick. . .A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox. . .even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown." Amalfitano himself is on the verge of plunging into that unknown. Inexplicably he hangs an edition of Rafael Dieste’s Testamento geométrico out in his backyard, as if such mathematical proofs might erode out in the elements, as his sanity, similarly, slowly uncoils. Caught up in his own thoughts, he also fails to realize that his only daughter faces the same horrific fate as other young female characters whose brutal murders are chronicled in clinical and chilling detail in the middle section of the book. And yet Amalfitano pauses to comment on the state of the novel, doubtless a mouthpiece for Bolaño’s own thoughts on the matter.

Five years after his death, Bolaño has become a cause célèbre in the literary world. And for good reason, as it’s not often that a staggering ambitious work like The Savage Detectives (published in translation last year) is soon followed with a work nearly twice its length. The New York Observer even deemed that toting around an advance copy of 2666 was like being spotted “driving an open-top Porsche.” In The New York Times review, author Jonathan Lethem notes that––unlike the abstract beauty attainable in art and music––"novels and stories…are helplessly built from the imperfect stuff: language, history, squalid human incident and dream." As a junkie, misfit poet, and tangential figure in literary circles for much of his life, Bolaño embraces and revels in such imperfection: the squalor that comprises the underbelly of human endeavor, the poverty that shadows economic growth, the destruction that accompanies creative acts, Bolaño packages such "squalid human incident" into his work. And as Bolaño plunges towards the unknown in 2666 in much the same fashion as the above-invoked authors––Kafka, Melville, Dickens—he has Amalfitano talk about the artistic grappling in those great books, that struggle "against that something, that something that terrifies us all."

The title 2666 itself implies a date hundreds of years beyond the work’s (and our) own timeframe, wherein seemingly disparate stories will converge. The novel is broken into five distinct sections: about four literary academics in search of their favorite reclusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi, about Amalfitano, about Oscar Fate, a low-tier newspaper reporter, about Archimbodli himself, and at the center of the book, about the unsolved murder mysteries of Santa Teresa. Bolaño wrestles with this unknown by deploying flawed human language. The novel routinely eschews high-minded conceits and instead conveys its stories via the detritus of "the imperfect stuff": everyday slang, police case studies, dirty jokes, dream sequences, World War II remembrances, erotica, casual asides, rambling speeches of questionable figures.

While "that something that terrifies us all" is never quite made overt, innumerable possibilities accrue: the savagery of mankind, physical death, misogyny, lust, greed and globalism, injustice, the unplumbed depths of the unconscious, corruption, male-female relations, the act of writing itself. All of these possible themes entangle and loom over the rape-murders of hundreds of young women in the fictional border town of Santa Teresa, a place where each of the book’s five sections ultimately wind up. These dead, desiccated bodies discovered in shallow graves and city dumps make up the core of the book.

Facing his own mortality (the book was written as Bolaño slowly succumbed to liver disease), at times the abyss is simply that. In the first section, one of the scholars, Elizabeth Norton, turns over a story in her mind about Edwin Johns, a painter who severed his own hand to create a particular work of art. In the midst of rendering a sketch near a waterfall, Norton hears how the one-handed Johns plunged to his death: "’He fell into the abyss.’ That was all." The unknown, for all its metaphors, in the end might just be a hole in the ground.

At 900 pages, 2666 is a messy work: shambolic, scattered, untidy and unfinished, as bereft of justice and conclusions as daily life itself. In the nearly 300-page center of 2666‘s triptych, "The Part About the Crimes" which documents in agonizing, unflinching detail the horrific deaths of hundreds of young women, we are never offered closure, justice, succor, or even narrative relief. Each and every body, hundreds of them, gets examined in detail by Bolaño.

Here, Bolaño echoes a conceit of his audacious early novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas. Published in 1996, the work on the surface is a cataloguing of the writings of every escaped Nazi and every other right-wing, fascist-leaning authors of this hemisphere. Bolaño has entries on authors like Ignacio Zubieta and his major work Cross of Flowers (published in 1950) and Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce and her novel Poe’s Room (from 1944). No biographical detail or trivial minutiae is too arcane to go without notice. For the Richmond-born author Harry Sibelius, we learn that he “was prompted to write one of the most complex and dense works of his day by his reading of Borman Spinrad and Philip K. Dick, and perhaps also be reflecting on a story by Borges. The novel, since it is a novel and not a work of history, is simple in appearance.” That novel, The True Son of Job, gets detailed as a 1,333 page work.

A hefty tome, were it or any of the other described works in NLITA to exist in this world. If the alternate world in Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (both Borges and fellow Argentine Julio Cortázar are literary touchstones for the Chilean Bolaño) revolves around an entry found in a peculiar “delinquent misprint” of an encyclopedia, then consider Nazi Literature to be what books might comprise the rest of that arcane library.

Such cataloging of names continues through 2666, with gruesome details of the rape murders of Margarita López Santos, Elsa Luz Pintado, Rosa López Larios, Rosario Marquina, Angélica Ochoa, Leticia Borrego Garcia, María Estela Ramos, Esther Perea Peña, and the dozens of others who get marched past our eyes, as if this section of 2666 were a mausoleum or an atrocity exhibition, a way to remember these women raped, butchered, and left for dead on the side of the road or in city dumps. Unlike weekly television crime series wherein perpetrators are caught and justice is swiftly served, in the world of 2666, it all remains an unsolved mystery. Even the story of a figure called “the Penitent,” who goes about urinating inside of and desecrating the churches of Santa Teresa becomes lost a hundred pages into this particular section, vanished back into the memory hole, never to be heard from again.

These shortcomings, misunderstandings, and failures all conspire to cast light come novel’s end. In the final section of 2666, we finally meet Benno von Archimboldi, the Pynchon-ian author shrouded in mystery that the academics at the beginning of the novel had sought (and failed) to find in Santa Teresa. In this section, the murders of Santa Teresa are all but forgotten, occurring fifty-plus years into the future, yet they echo with future portent. Set in Germany before, during, and immediately after World War II, we observe this shellshocked soldier named Hans Reiter as he wanders amidst the rubble and lawlessness of Germany (in much the same way that he dreamed of peregrinating over the ocean floor as a child).

Reiter goes into a shop to purchase a typewriter so as to type up his first manuscript and when asked his name, blurts out his new moniker Benno von Archimboldi. The seller is another writer, who tells him that Germany "has tried to topple any number of countries into the abyss in the name of purity and will…Thanks to purity and will we’ve all…become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same." In seeking perfection and purity, in avoiding flaws and imperfection, the worst crimes in the history of humanity are perpetuated.

This malcontent failed writer goes on to prattle about masterpieces of literature as well as minor works, those works that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But in fact, he states, there is no distinction: "The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece. . .There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself." In 2666, the mass of unmarked graves, the failed relationships and futile love, all convene on the spiritual void at the core of the book. Fitting then that Bolaño surmises that the very act of writing involves a void within its own author. In his final work, for all instances his last will and testament, his final transmission to this world, he plunges into that void head-on.

*Bolaño illustration by Danny Jock.