Book review: Roberto Bolano’s “2666”

Review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, first published in Prospect Magazine, February 2009

Born in Chile in 1953, Roberto Bolaño moved to Mexico at the age of 15, then came to Europe at 24, where he wandered, worked odd jobs by day and wrote poetry by night. It was a strange apprenticeship for a writer in the second half of the 20th century: not so much a baptism of fire as of silence, of total marginalisation in the public world of letters. Writing in 1999, Bolaño recalled himself at the age of 28, still three years away from publishing his first book of poetry: “I was living like a recluse in a house outside Gerona, with no money and no prospect of ever having any, and literature was a vast minefield occupied by enemies.” These “enemies” included almost every living writer in his native Chile, whom he considered worthless, irrelevant, dishonest. “I was a nobody and not inclined to beg for mercy or to show it,” he explained. And a nobody, one might have thought, he would remain, just like so many other would-be writers unwilling or unable to find readers.

Except, two decades later, the plot shifted with stark improbability. Having started writing fiction as well as poetry in his forties, Bolaño’s 1998 novel The Savage Detectives was presented with Latin America’s most prestigious literary award and hailed as a masterpiece. By this stage, he was already working on 2666, an epic novel in five parts which he barely finished before his death from liver failure in 2003. His passing seemed only to accelerate the process of canonisation, however. If praise for The Savage Detectives, which appeared in English in 2003, had been heartfelt, then the reaction to 2666 was cacophonous. Published in Spanish in 2004, it too was instantly declared a masterpiece, and has been bearing down on the English-speaking world ever since. Now, at last, we have it; and the critics have prepared quite a reception. It is “a landmark in what’s possible for the novel,” “as disturbingly original a work of art as you could encounter,” “the first great book of the 21st century”—and plenty more.

All of which is quite a thing for a genuinely, unapologetically difficult novel. 2666 is not difficult throughout (it is wildly, filthily funny in places)—but is often hard going, and occasionally fiendishly oblique, with its three-page sentences and its 20-page digressions within digressions. Isn’t the world thoroughly out of sympathy with books that make these kinds of demands? Evidently not, or not any more. 2666 makes difficulty sexy. Or, rather, it successfully (and sexily) makes the case that art has every right to be challenging, shocking, self-referential, intellectual, intermittently insane, and to contain more corpses than a CSI box set. It is a novel that crackles with moral purpose and that invites you, the reader, to agree with the young Bolaño: that the literary world really is packed with frauds and jobbing apologists. This is what they should be doing and, if they can’t, you’re quite justified in despising them. Like all superconfident bastards, 2666 is flattering, unpredictable, swaggering—and irresistible to anyone who wants something to care about in the world of books. No wonder reviewers loved it. Reviewing a novel like this is about the most intense thrill a critic will ever have, short of writing one themselves.

The intoxicating force of 2666 also lies in its utter disregard for boundaries. Take one scene from its first section. We are riding in the back of a London cab with three young academics, two men and a woman, who are discussing the messy entwinements of their love life (both men are sleeping with the woman). Suddenly, unexpectedly, their Pakistani cab driver interrupts the rarefied string of references to Borges, Dickens and Stevenson to observe that “he might not know this Borges… but he knew very well what decency and dignity were, and by what he had heard, the woman here present… was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was… and the word was bitch or slut or pig….” And so it continues, and we seem briefly to be in familiar 21st-century literary territory, with different moral words and worlds colliding on a journey through Europe’s most multicultural city.

Except that, when the cab stops, the two men drag the driver out of his cab and proceed to kick and beat him to within an inch of his life, all the while screaming a bizarre series of insults that have clearly been brewing in their liberal souls for years—”shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie… this one is for the feminists of Paris… this one is for the feminists of New York…”

It continues until they are spent, at which point they experience a near-orgasmic state of satisfaction. Worried about discovery, they then drive the cab away themselves. The driver is left, unconscious, on the street. But later, despite token efforts at guilt, these clever young men discover they are fundamentally pleased by what they have done. They felt, briefly, vindicated and potent: “deep inside they were convinced that it was the Pakistani who was the real reactionary and misogynist, the violent one, the intolerant and offensive one, that the Pakistani had asked for it a thousands times over.”

Here lies a far harder question than all of the relativistic games it’s possible to play with values. What does that place “deep inside” signify, where we gratefully turn to violence to enforce whatever beliefs we hold? And what would it mean for a liberal reader to feel guiltily gratified, or insincerely appalled, by this beating; or for a browsing cab driver to hurl his copy away in a huff? In 2666, the polite divide between words and actions soon evaporates. Having begun in the cloistered realm of liberal discourse, these characters rip apart the myth of their isolation at the world’s merest prodding.

The academics are also linked by their devotion to the works of a mysterious European novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, whose spectre they fruitlessly pursue across half the world. Again, such a plot could serve any number of wittily postmodern functions. But Archimboldi himself is not part of the gag. Typically, Bolaño answers his readers’ curiosity as to the nature of this enigmatic figure in far, far more detail than might seem either reasonable or necessary. The fifth and final part of 2666 belongs to Archimboldi, and it tells the story of a life in which writing is at once the most important thing and a strange, secondary mix of repression, sublimation, self-indulgence and sheer will. Archimboldi has, among other things, strangled a Nazi war criminal with his bare hands, slept with a string of prostitutes, and entirely concealed his identity from the world. He is neither a joke at the reader’s expense nor a cipher; rather, he is a character who makes no sense in any terms other than his own idiosyncrasies.

Throughout 2666, literary devices are deployed, violently extended past their limits and discarded. At one point, the number of times different words appear in a conversation is precisely listed; later, an entire page is devoted to the names of human phobias; we also get two solid sides of sexist jokes. All these are just warm-ups, however: Bolaño’s testing-to-destruction of literature’s possibilities reaches its apex in his descriptions of the murdered, violated bodies of over 100 women, one-by-one—an incandescent imaginary inquiry that shadows a similar plague of real killings in the Mexican border-town of Ciudad Juárez (the site of one such killing, where the bodies of eight women were found in 2001, is pictured, right). In Bolaño’s telling, the detail is at once coolly forensic yet never generic: to each there is a story, a circumstance, a particular human absence from the world. It is literature as a kind of after-image, alternately numbing and blinding but always insistent on one point—that no one can consider themselves safe from this violence, which crosses borders and categories as easily as it leaps between words and deeds.

It is also a kind of writing that borders closely on madness. The crimes take up a third of 2666’s 900-odd pages, and are as bloody and monomaniacal a ride as you could wish for: sometimes moving, sometimes excruciating, sometimes boring—an all-out assault that has hit a masochistic sweet spot in modern sensibilities. For Bolaño, I suspect, these unquiet dead justified and demanded and called forth his art. For the rest of us, recovering from the shock and awe that any reading of 2666 entails, they form an apocalyptic liturgy: nature’s sacred order reimagined as a Mexican slum whose rubbish dumps blossom with corpses. And what could be more contemporary than that?