Roberto Bolano’s 2666

We’ve been in Maine in the little cabin on Long Pond for 9 days or so.  No DSL.  My cellphone stopped working in Ellsworth.  Landline went out for three days.  I finally got it together to make dial-up work.

I associate time here in Maine with reading long novels.  Last summer I read The Magic Mountain.  I just finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (having read Bolano’s The Savage Detectives last year).  Meanwhile Sarah has been reading Moby Dick.

2666 (which was a 40th bday gift, btw – thanks George!) is an amazing and very weird, obsessive novel that invites comparison with some of the great long novels like The Magic Mountain, Ulysses, etc.  Having just read it, my initial feeling is that its flaw is probably a certain degree of incoherence.  To be specific, I am not sure all of its five “parts,” each of which Bolano intended to publish separately (he died just after completing it), belong together.  Part one, “the Part about the Critics,” and part five, “the Part about Archimboldi,” could constitute one novel, possibly also including part three.  And then parts four and five, “the Part about Fate” (about an African-American journalist named Oscar Fate; not sure if the pun seems as obvious in Spanish) and “the Part about the Crimes” could form their own novel.  Bolano’s executors decided to disregard his instructions about publishing the work as five separate shorter novels.  There’s a logic to this decision, because in fact overlaps do connect the different parts, and the end of the novel in particular links part five with part four… But at some level, it feels to me that there’s something slightly gerrymandered about declaring this a single 900 page novel.

I regret this a little, too, because I think many people would love the thread of 2666 that revolves around literature, novel-writing, and criticism (as well as many other things too), but will not have the stomach for the parts of the novel that are obsessively, disturbingly, focused on sexual violence against women, specifically the unsolved rape-murder of up to 200 women in a city on the Mexican-U.S. border.  Part four, “the Part about the Crimes,” is a mesmerizing nightmare of a reading experience.  It’s a policier, sort of, about the attempt to solve these murders, but it’s intentionally unsatisfying as an example of that genre since loose threads, lost evidence, indifference (towards the victims, primarily poor Mexican teenagers) and ignorance dominate the search.  Much of it takes the form of a dossier describing the discovery of the bodies of the women, nearly all of whom have been, as we’re told over and over, “vaginally and anally raped” (the novel is bizarrely obsessed with anal rape), and many of which are tossed aside, buried in pauper’s graves with only minimal, incompetent efforts to investigate the crimes.  It’s hard to think what to compare this aspect of the novel to – I’ve read one of the so-called policiers noir of Georges Simenon, Dirty Snow, a very disturbing, nihilistic novel taking place in Nazi- occupied Belgium, and that’s the closest analogy that comes to mind.  (In his review Jonathan Lethem mentions H.P. Lovecraft, Denis Johnson, David Lynch, and James Ellroy, all of which make some sense to me.)

What I found most pleasurable about the novel were the sections about Archimboldi, the German novelist whose identity is a complete mystery and whose work and career become the focus of the four academic critics who are the primary subjects of the novel’s first section.  The mystery of Archimboldi, whose identity seems to be known by no one other than his aged publisher in Germany, is revealed in the final section, which narrates his strange and picturesque life as a young man, then as a soldier in the Nazi army, then in various demi-mondes of Europe.  (I haven’t read The Tin Drum but I wonder if there are references or resemblances).  Like The Savage Detectives, 2666 in these sections is a wildly imaginative riff on the writing, reading, & publishing of literature as activities that take in all the rest of the world.

The novel is just amazing, sometimes jaw-dropping in its sheer verbal creativity.  It’s filled with countless passages, paragraphs, riffs that are like little prose poems or Kafka parables, hilarious, weird, wild, obscene.

To invoke another great big novel, what Richard Pevear writes about The Brothers Karamazov could apply to 2666 as well:

The Brothers Karamazov is a joyful book.  Readers who know what it is ‘about’ may find this an intolerably whimsical statement.  It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest of greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness.  But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiosity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing.  And therefore, finally, in its vision.

To me the big interpretive questions remains, how is the “authorship/writing” theme linked to the sexual violence topos?  There are some implications than an Author might be something like a serial killer, and at one point it’s said that for Achimboldi writing is a bit like being a detective on the track of a killer.  But in the end these connections didn’t really seem that deep to me.

1 thought on “Roberto Bolano’s 2666”

  1. Maybe I’m being too pedantic, though. Does ‘coherence’ really matter that much in this case? As I said, though, I guess I do regret that there are people I know who’d love the Archiboldi parts of the book who will probably never read it b/c of the sex-murder parts….

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