by Roberto Bolano

898 pp. | Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, | $30.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

Roberto Bolano is a difficult writer to grasp, both in terms of what he wrote and who he was. During his life, his relative insignificance on the literary scene outside Latin America prevented the gathering of any biographical details beyond the major facts of birth, marriage, and dates of publication. When his first major work, The Savage Detectives, was published in English in 2007, Bolaño gained a cult following, but it wasn’t until the English version of 2666 published in November, 2008, that his works went mainstream, eventually garnering him a National Book Critics Circle Award—which unfortunately had to be awarded posthumously, since Bolano had died of liver disease five years prior.

Suddenly, Bolano and 2666 were appearing on the pages of all the major literary reviews and newspapers, most of which evaluated the writer’s final novel in a positive, although tentative and puzzling, light.

It is no wonder that critics have had a difficult time with 2666. The sheer scope of the novel is enormous. Spanning a century, leaping across oceans, and shifting between locations and perspectives often within the space of a single page, the text is daunting. The work is divided into five sections, and although Bolano left directions that the manuscript be published as five separate books for purposes of both convenience and profit, his literary executor eventually contravened this decision on the grounds of “respect for the literary value of the work.”

The decision seems to have been fair, although significant battles among Bolaño scholars doubtless lie ahead. The novel adheres to no strict narrative structure, but several themes persist throughout the text, as do patterns of unsettling images that evoke the surrealist literature popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

Two major story lines dominate 2666: the life and work of a mysterious writer named Benno von Archimboldi, and a series of unsolved murders of women in the city of Santa Teresa.

The Archimboldi plot bookends 2666 in Parts I and V. Readers of The Savage Detectives will see close parallels between that earlier novel and Part I of 2666, in which the plot turns around the search of a group of academics for the writer Benno von Archimboldi. In The Savage Detectives, the pursuing group is composed of four artists, one of whom, Arturo Belano, is Bolano’s fictional counterpart. (Intriguingly, Bolano’s notes indicate that Belano is also the narrator of 2666, although he never appears in those pages).

In both novels, the characters’ search for the lost writer is ultimately fruitless, and both conclude in the emptiness of the Sonora desert. Unlike The Savage Detectives, however, 2666 lifts the veil from the lost writer Archimboldi, and in Part V, the story moves back across the Atlantic to record the writer’s life from his birth in Germany to the point where a number of story lines coincide and conclude the novel.

Although the Archimboldi question flanks the narrative, the core of 2666, and the part that has received the most attention, is Part IV, the Part about the Crimes. Constituting almost three hundred pages of the novel, this section recounts the rape, torture, and murder of scores of women in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a thinly veiled portrait of the real-life city of Cuidad Juárez, which lies on the border between Mexico and the United States. The emotions that this section produces are hard to describe. On the one hand, the fascination of following the doomed women through the course of their last days and hours can leave the reader feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, almost as a silent party to the crimes.

On the other hand, to not read the entire section implies a certain moral weakness. Because nothing has yet halted the series of horrifying crimes, Attaching names and faces to the nameless and faceless feels like the least a reader can do.

I do not intend to imply that Bolano wrote 2666 on a platform of social justice, but having read a number of articles and stories about the Juarez murders, I can say with confidence that none of them are able to produce the effect that 2666 does. Without an agenda, rhetoric, or propagandistic language, Bolano brings the desert underbelly of America starkly to life, and it is a portrait that will make the staunchest reader flinch.

The desert is a landscape that seems to particularly fascinate him. As certain writers embody certain geographies, his prose assumes many of the qualities of the desert: a chaos of detail, voids into which words seem to escape, violence, starkness and a lack of patterns. The majority of the desert is uninhabitable, a place where only the most savage creatures can survive, and 2666 seems to make the point that despite the layers of culture cultivated by human beings, an essential savagery runs through the core of our societies. Murder in Europe is equally as cruel and brutal as murder in Santa Teresa -- whether a woman’s broken body lies on the rocks of an Alpine ravine or at the bottom of a sandy desert ditch, the atrocity is the same.

Throughout the centuries, man has grappled with this savagery by imposing rational patterns and moral laws on the world to leach meaning from events that appear to lack reason or justice. The tragedy of Bolano’s universe lies in its negation of this pattern and its bleak insistence on reality as “a senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures.”

His constant digressions and the equal amount of words he devotes to a death and to a meal, as well as the sheer volume of detail that accompanies each episode, produces the effect of a mirror held up to reality. Repeated throughout 2666 with increasing insistence is the idea that reality, history, and life itself is a whore—the key characteristics of the whore is that she does not discriminate.

No man is unique from another and no tryst holds any more importance than another. The human dilemma is not our inability to judge the value of people and events, it is that no objective value exists at all, and our concepts of judgment and rationality are only semblances.

2666 is a harsh book and one that demands a number of readings. Few books have entered the literary scene recently that have offered such a close reflection of our chaotic, troubled, and senselessly violent world, and it will be interesting to see the place that the novel ultimately assumes in the postmodern canon.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor living in New York City.

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