2666 by Roberto Bolano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 898 pages
Dear reader, it seems altogether fitting to begin the New Year with a review of the novel that is being hailed as “the book of the century.” Now, before you get cynical on me and dismiss such accolades as typical promotional blather, let me hasten to add that this is an international judgment. Here is a sampling: “A masterpiece,” says Le Magazine Litteraire (Paris); “An often shocking and raunchy tour de force,” says The New York Review of Books; “A cornerstone that defines an entire literature,” says La Vanguardia (Spain); “A world of a novel in which the power of words triumphs over savagery,” proclaims L’ Express magazine (France). The reviews from Italy, Chile (Bolano’s birthplace), England and Germany are equally enthusiastic.
The critical response to 2666 seems excessive. Certainly, no major work has been greeted with such enthusiasm since some 40 years ago when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, one major critic noted that if Marquez laid the cornerstone of literary excellence, then Bolano has “shifted that cornerstone.” Essays are cropping up that compare Bolano to Jorge Luis Borges, the acknowledged master of South American literature and a number of American magazines are already publishing lengthy articles that evaluate the significance of Bolano’s “magnum opus.” One of the most impressive is Francine Prose’s “More is More” in Harper’s this month.
However, there are dissenters. A handful of critics found the 2666 either “chaotic” or “bleak and depressing.” Even some of the novel’s strongest advocates found the writing “ugly,” (Adam Kirch in Slate magazine) but defended the repugnant aspects as “a new an unexpected kind of beauty.” Critics are at a loss for comparisons. One critic notes that 2666 resembles the eerie, surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch movie. Another rhapsodizes about apocalyptic themes. The words “daring” and “courageous” appear in the majority of the reviews. Finally, the most appropriate critique calls the novel “a leap into the darkness,” because the author has broken all the rules of current fiction and established new ones.
2666 consists of five sections (novels?) that appear to be unrelated to each other. However, in the final section, the reader discovers that the five divisions are like “five planets orbiting the same dark sun.” Suddenly, the pieces effortlessly unite like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.
Section One, “The Part About the Critics,” deals with a quartet of academic critics (Italian, French, Spanish and English) who devote their lives to tracking down an elusive writer who may be a candidate for the Nobel Prize. As they globetrot from city to city, they bicker, drink and fornicate with abandon (three males and one female). They finally end up in Saint Teresa (Ciudad Juarez), Mexico.
Section Two, “The Part About Amalefitano” concerns a mentally unstable professor at the University of Saint Teresa and his daughter. The professor lives in a constant state of dread because he suspects (imagines) some evil is imminent and his daughter is in danger. As it turns out, Amalefitano’s fears are well founded.
Section Three, “The Part About Fate,” deals with an Afro-American journalist who travels to Saint Teresa to cover a boxing match and ends up accompanying other journalists to a prison to interview a serial murderer.
Section Four, “The Part About the Crimes,” provides a disturbing history of the unsolved murders of female factory workers in Saint Teresa. (The style in this section resembles crime fiction and is based on the hundreds (perhaps over a thousand) of rape/murders around the maquiladoras (NAFTA plants) in Ciudad Juarez.
Section Five, “The Part about Archimboldi” chronicles the life of a German writer who survives WWII, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes a series of novels that attract national attention. However, he avoids publicity and refuses interviews. Then, a series of personal dilemmas brings him to Saint Teresa, “the city of paper houses” (cardboard slums).
It is impossible to discuss the plot of 2666 since its complexities would require extensive explanations. Suffice it to say that it is a frustrating, bewildering and, at times, an exhilarating work. Dozens of characters, including prophets, corrupt policemen, tormented lovers and psychopaths appear only to vanish and never return. Bolano shifts genres, veering for science fiction, to crime novel to “magic realism,” to erotica to folk tale and myth. Eventually, it becomes evident that the author purposely creates unstructured and meaningless action because he perceives life to have those same qualities (unstructured and meaningless).
Certainly, one of the most perplexing questions is the significance of the title. Is 2666 the future date in which the world will be reduced to sterile waste? Is that why this novel contains several thinly veiled references to the William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and the approach of the final Apocalypse? (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”)
Note: Robert Bolano died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50. However, aware of his impending death, he spent the last three months of his life preparing 2666 for publication. The final translation and publication has been an arduous, complex process. 2666 finally arrived in the United States about six months ago.