2666, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer). Farrar Straus Giroux. 912pp, $30.00
There is a void at the center of all of Roberto Bolaño’s work. This is not simply a void in the sense of a blackness, a blankness, an emptiness, or a space from which nothing can emerge—although, at times, it is all of these things—Bolaño’s void takes as many forms as humans can find ways to be evil, or forgotten. The potential for this void is limitless, and over the course of Bolaño’s career he left us with a number of unforgettable incarnations of it: a guilt-ridden old priest; a murderous fascist airman; a woman trapped in a bathroom during a minor fascist moment; a generation of lost poets; a continent’s incipient totalitarian impulse; hundreds of bodies of dead women on the Mexican border.
Bolaño’s final, posthumously published novel, 2666, is dominated by the void. It most frequently manifests the void in the form of madness, madness that is often masked, as Bolaño puts it near the end, “under a suit of armor.” This is a book mad with madness: mad artists, mad writers, mad poets, mad professors, mad murderers, mad cops, mad prisoners. Its characters are not so much fully realized individuals as searchers single-mindedly in pursuit of that one thing that will, momentarily, sate their madness.
Bolaño’s novels are almost uniformly short; 2666 is huge, and the form sometimes feels like a clumsy one for the author. Some novelists, Pynchon for example, so revel in abundance that the spillage of words feels like an absolute necessity. For them, the huge novel is their one true form. Other novelists, DeLillo maybe, prove themselves capable of extending their austere, ascetic style to the massive confines of an Underworld. Bolaño, whose books rarely grew to more than 200 pages, whose books, when they did grow larger than that, tended to do so by piecing together smaller, self-contained sections, seems at times unable in 2666 to distinguish the necessary from the ornamental, or worse, the banal. His 2666 was originally conceived as five connected novellas, and those distinctions have been maintained in the final product, but none of the “novellas” of which 2666 is comprised reach the clean perfection of a By Night in Chile. 2666 is a different beast, a purposeful mess whose best section positively revels in carnage and chaos. But over the course of 900 pages, this approach yields mixed results. Considering the circumstances of its publication and its sheer mass, 2666 reaches us as Bolaño’s most striking, his most anticipated book, but in the horserace that his works will undoubtedly run in the years and decades to come, my money rests confidently on The Savage Detectives.
The novel, as you have undoubtedly heard by now, is vast and impossible to summarize. Yes and no. Although the book indeed contains multitudes, many of the images fail to make a lasting impression, and so the book feels smaller than it might. Moreover, Bolaño was always an author who hammered on the same few themes. He certainly hit these themes with an imaginative virtuosity that was nothing short of incredible, but the fact that readers of Bolaño will enter with a fairly good understanding this book’s underlying logic and system of symbolism, means that the many phenomena found within 2666 will be much easier to situate than in other, more open-ended massive novels.
The book contains two poles between which everything else that occurs or appears within it can be fit: the fictitious German novelist Archimboldi (a void in the sense of a blank), and the ongoing nightmare of murdered women in the Mexican border-city of Ciudad Juarez (a void in the sense of horror). The book’s first 150 pages concern the four academics who “discover” Archimboldi, translate him, make him studied, famous, talked about. Although none of the four academics ever becomes an actual character, systemically this section is sure-footed, as the interconnected lives of the four academics are well-orchestrated to pose questions and hint at answers.
Here, Bolaño here is on familiar turf: the mythification of the author. Archimboldi is reclusive, virtually nothing about him is known, and, of course, the bespectacled masses of humanity that earn their bread of by dissecting and debating every gnomic utterance that can be attributed to him can have no wetter dream than to unveil the details of his life’s biography. This way lies academic immortality.
As befits a drama of intellectuals, this first section is the novel’s most classically neat and logical. It is here that the relationships between the characters become the most complex and rewarding; here that the outside world is the least present; here that the language is the most sculpted. The madness to be found in “The Part About the Critics” is the madness of love, occasionally abetted by the madness of an artist that the titular critics stop to investigate bemusedly. Although the general sensation of this section is safety and sterility, there are some intimations of what will come: notably the savage beating of a British taxi driver and one critic’s eerie confrontation with a mirror in Santa Teresa. As in his other works, here Bolaño’s language, though tidy (and almost plain), manages to withhold meaning: some of the sentences in this first section are stories unto themselves, not in the sense of Monterroso’s “when he awoke the dinosaur was still there” but in the sense of snaking, doubling collections of clauses that in their capacious ambiguity charmingly resist clear interpretation or simple solutions.
At one point, the academics visit an artist who has retreated to the comfortable confines of an insane asylum after closing his career with a singular piece:
Still, the [artist's] show wouldn’t have been so successful or had such an impact if not for the central painting, much smaller than the rest, the masterpiece that years later led so many British artists down the path of new decadence. This painting, viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly), was an ellipsis of self-portraits, sometimes a spiral of self-portraits (depending on the angle from which it was seen), seven feet by three and a half feet, in the center of which hung the painter’s mummified right hand.
It happened like this. One morning, after two days of feverish work on the self-portraits, the painter cut off his painting hand. He immediately applied a tourniquet to his arm and took the hand to a taxidermist he knew, who’d already been informed of the nature of the assignment. Then he went to the hospital, where they stanched the bleeding and proceeded to suture his arm. At some point someone asked how the accident had happened. He answered that he had cut off his hand with a machete blow while he was working, by mistake. The doctors asked where the amputated hand was, because there was always the possibility that it might be reattached. He said he’d thrown it in the river on his way to the hospital, out of sheer rage and pain. . . .
Shortly thereafter, the painter went mad . . .
This, perhaps the oddest readymade yet conceived, rhymes with another readymade found a few hundred pages later, a book hung on a clothesline by another man who may be mad. They are parts of a larger theme present in 2666, gestures of the futility of the artist’s struggle against the imperative to create, the ever-gnawing and sometimes maddening demand to make art. In their owners’ inability to silence them, they are examples of a kind of void that is struggled against in form after form throughout this novel.
Ciudad Juarez (known in 2666 as Santa Teresa), enters the picture when the academics journey there on the slenderest of chances that Archimboldi has absconded to the Mexican border. Once the academics depart for Santa Teresa, 2666 begins its slow, explosive inflation into monstrous proportions, a metamorphosis that reaches full flower in the book’s largest, fourth section, “The Part About the Crimes.” As regards that fourth section, one is reminded of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, Picasso’s Guernica, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, difficult, unflinching works that breathe the black smoke of atrocity and circulate tar as lifeblood. Uneven as 2666 is, “The Part About the Crimes” can stand among Bolaño’s greatest work, a genuinely horrible and singular take on pure evil.
When we reach this point, the frame of view has shifted entirely away from the academics and come to rest square on the horror that is Santa Teresa. If Mexico is the world’s future, as one character declares in The Savage Detectives, then Santa Teresa will be the globe’s nadir. The plodding baseline to this section consists of the murders, narrated to us as the numbingly similar discoveries of body after mutilated and raped body. Reflecting the existential wail of an ugly, exploited border town wracked by faceless murders, it is here that 2666′s fragmentation becomes most extreme. Besides the murders, themselves an extensive, disorganized archive, this section is spread among numerous protagonists and their secondary characters—cops, private investigators, reporters, a psychic, lawyers, American tourists, lowlifes, gangsters, decent Mexican families, a German immigrant framed for the murders, an impossibly pure kid from the fields whose name, Lalo Cura, is a smashed-together version of the Spanish for the madness. Abetting the fragmentation, Bolaño here abandons paragraphs and sections breaks, instead simply presenting “The Part About the Crimes” in discrete blocks of text, generally from one half of a page to two pages in length. These pieces are arranged roughly chronologically, but that is all the order that can be found here: the blocks of text are jumbled together, and, though there are subplots, no overarching plot brings unity to this section. From time to time the text diverts into intricate tangents that suddenly come to a (sometimes literally) dead end. Relationships between characters feel hollow and tend to be manipulative. What solidarity that can be found in section four comes from those who huddle together against an evil they know outmatches them. It is as though Bolaño is pushing the technique he developed in The Savage Detectives’s fragmented middle section to its limits. In that book, each fragment was large enough to have the saving graces of narrative and humor, and each could be linked back to the cordillera formed by Arturo’s and Ulises’s adventures; in contrast, 2666′s “Part About the Crimes” keeps striking the same note of horror, and in its fragmentation it all but forces readers to contrive their own narratives.1
After all the myth-making and dodges of the first four sections, the fifth seems impossibly direct: “The Part About Archimboldi.” It is as if Pynchon had ended Gravity’s Rainbow with a section titled “The Part Where I Explain What the Rocket Means.” Though this final section neatly reverses section four’s fragmentation, almost taking us back to the simplicity of section one, it nonetheless resists easy interpretation. Significant among the questions here is the nom de plume Archimboldi: What does it mean that our reclusive author takes his name from a 16th-century gimmick painter who is best known for arranging everyday objects to look like faces? (And is the fact that the Surrealists claimed him significant here?) This is Bolaño at his finest: a simple, enigmatic, almost playful gesture that suggests a number of likely, non-mutually exclusive readings.
Although “The Part About Archimboldi” has strong moments and is satisfying overall, it also is often underwhelming. This section is drenched in what can only be described as unremarkable details from Archimboldi’s life; at times they are so daringly pointless that the only charitable interpretation is that Bolaño is punishing us for our natural curiosity about what, by now, has become an object of much mystery. The literary formation of Archimboldi the author is too magical, partakes far too much in the Romantic myth of the sui generis artist outside of society. Throughout his works Bolaño has given us many enduring characters, but in his refusal to meaningfully account for Archimboldi’s literary and moral prowess, he makes him flat and dull.
Archimboldi’s life, which spans Europe in the 20th century, fails to intersect meaningfully with his homeland as a geographical, political, or historical location, as the lives of so many of Bolaño’s artists and henchmen have in the past. Even those details that shake off the dust that covers much of section five largely don’t match up to the imaginative standards Bolaño set in his earlier works. One of these details, Archimboldi’s instinctive urge to stare at the bottom of the ocean and other large accumulations of water, links up too easily with imagery found throughout the novel and is a one-dimensional metaphor. By this point it is overwhelmingly clear that Archimboldi is a redemptive character that can stare down what mortals flinch from; his obsession with the bottom of the sea, as here described, does little to expand on that (and if you wish, feel free to extend the sea to stand for all the things it generally does as a metaphor). Likewise Archimboldi’s love for the German Holy Grail epic Parzival; perhaps justifiable as a little nugget of characterization, here it is drawn on a little too firmly to support all the attention given it.
It is fitting that this fifth section was likely the last thing Bolaño ever wrote, or at least among the last things, because it is here that Bolaño is forced to directly face the birth of that which animates much of the horror to be found in his novels: German fascism and World War II. Yet anyone who has waited this long to see Bolaño confront the Nazis will be disappointed. Although it makes sense that Archimboldi spends much of World War II on the Eastern front and thus isn’t privy to the disintegration of the Third Reich (unfortunately, the descriptions of war in 2666 don’t match up well to other novels of World War II), Bolaño spends barely any time considering Archimboldi’s life in Germany as Hitler took hold and consolidated his rule. No book burning, no Reichstag fire, no purges, not even some brownshirts marauding around. The most we get are Archimboldi’s father’s refusal to participate in the madness and a few pages of a mysterious Japanese man Archimboldi pals around with before heading off to the front. One wonders what happened to the man who dared make Pinochet a character in his novel.
Bolaño could do a number of things with astonishing grace, and he perhaps did nothing better than find ways to make the political integral to his novels without ever making them political novels, but here he has chosen to take us right up to the cusp of Nazism—and then divert us away from it without even acknowledging the tease. Perhaps there is some good reason for this elision of the moral, political, and philosophical underpinning of his life’s work, but to me it feels like a strange discontinuity.
That’s not to say this final section is entirely lacking in substance. There are powerful moments, as when Archimboldi comes upon a crucified German baron during the collapse of the front in Eastern Europe, or when much later in life he’s directed to a “rest home” for authors that turns out to be an insane asylum. Moreover, Archimboldi’s life does integrate nicely into the greater structure Bolaño has erected in 2666, giving the strength of unity to what is by all accounts a mammoth undertaking. Furthermore, Archimboldi is the logical conclusion that Bolaño’s personal myth of the artist trended toward, and the place that he occupies in 2666, and Bolaño’s oeuvre, is satisfying. Although section five is not the most powerful note to end on, it is still worthwhile. Bolaño, even when he is merely good, still handily shames most of the competition.
Astute readers will by now have noticed that I glossed over sections two and three of 2666. They are slight (less than 200 pages combined), and that is part of the reason why they feel as though they don’t amount to much. The other reason, a failure of the imagination on Bolaño’s part, I will try to exemplify by reference to section two, which is about Amalfitano, a professor at Santa Teresa and a minor character from section one. Amalfitano is either losing his mind or being contacted telepathically, yet, despite the great potential opened up by both topics, he spends much of his section involved in exciting situations like this:
. . . [a professor] asked what had made him choose the University of Santa Teresa over the University of Barcelona. I hope it wasn’t the climate, he said. The climate here seems wonderful, answered Amalfitano. Oh, I agree, said the young professor, I just meant that the people who come here for the climate are usually ill and I sincerely hope that’s not the case with you. No, said Amalfitano, it wasn’t the climate, my contract had run out in Barcelona and Professor Perez convinced me to take a job here. He had met Professor Silvia Perez in Buenos Aires and then they had seen each other twice in Barcelona. It was she who had rented the house and bought some furniture for him. Amalfitano paid her back even before he collected his first paycheck to prevent any misunderstandings. The house was in Colonia Lindavista, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of one- and two-story houses with yards. . . .
Though there are a few noteworthy scenes and ideas in both section two and three, one must wade through pages and pages of unimaginative prose such as that above in order to reach them.2 Whereas in other books Bolaño conscientiously cared over even minor characters, here Amalfitano and a journalist named Fate (section three’s lead) generate little actual interest. They come off as stock characters plodding through what are largely stock landscapes, with very little to distinguish them and little reason for wanting to know their stories. Neither section is very strong on its own and I find it hard to believe that either was completed to Bolaño’s satisfaction.
Still, despite the bumps and drags inherent to this massive undertaking, 2666 does leave the reader with a very definite feeling, and, notably, 2666 makes itself understood with virtually no authorial editorializing. So little is the author’s intrusion into this text that even the section titles, generally one of the most dependable clues to authorial intention, don’t offer much in the way of help here. Almost the only direct clues to interpretation found in this massive novel are its title and its epigraph. The title, as many have pointed out, is directly referenced at various points in Bolaño’s other works (most notably in Amulet) and seems to have represented something of an endpoint or void for him. If Bolaño’s personal mythology can be likened to a religion, the year 2666 is his Judgment Day.
The book’s epigraph, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom,” is from one of the lengthier poems in Baudelaire’s masterwork, The Flowers of Evil, generally considered a cornerstone of Modernist literature. The poem in which the quote is found is “Le Voyage” (alternatively translated at “The Voyage” and “Travelers”), and although the excerpt would seem to indicate that the “oasis of horror” is a physical place (Santa Teresa, perhaps), in the context of the poem the locus of horror shifts from the land to the person:
O bitter is the knowledge that one draws from the voyage!
The monotonous and tiny world, today
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our reflections,
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!
(The line has been translated many, many times; the one chosen to preface 2666 appears to be from Geoffrey Wanger’s translation, found in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (Grove Press, 1974). In the Spanish-language edition, the quote is translated into Spanish and largely corresponds to the Grove translation.)3
Intentional or not, the ambiguity is fitting. Although Bolaño’s final novel is nothing if not fecund with the tiny reservoirs of horror that lurk within and perversely dominate otherwise mundane lives, in 2666 Bolaño is most successful at realizing this horror when finding it in the landscape. His evocation of the horror of Santa Teresa must stand as one of his greatest, most disturbing achievements, and his use of this location as a central metaphor around which to array the personal horrors of a vast cast of characters is a fittingly ambitious conceit for a thousand-page novel. Although 2666 is not the novel of Bolaño’s that most deserves the central place that circumstance has contrived for it, the book nonetheless is an effort on a scale that few authors are fit to attempt, and it is largely a success.
The book should be read if only because here Bolaño gets as close as possible to naming what for him was unnamable. As previously mentioned, section four of 2666 is distinguished by its numerous journalistic accounts of dead bodies that are found in and around Santa Teresa. One of these bodies we are permitted to see just before it becomes a cadaver: somehow a beaten, bludgeoned woman has crawled her way to the door of a hospital. The moment is electric: if this woman lives, we will know! Finally, we will know! She will tell us who or what attacked her, and perhaps she will tell us why. The senseless murders will finally have an explanation. Inevitably, this woman expires before she can reveal what only the dead have access to. Bolaño’s 2666 is like this woman. It is our best and most complete chance at knowing the author’s void. Whether or not Bolaño knew it would be his last book, it is the logical conclusion of his life’s work. Despite inconsistencies, it remains a bracing vision, quite essential for those who have fallen under the sway of Bolaño’s writing.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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