Reading: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

I've always avoided the trendy book or film, the one that everyone says "you absolutely must see," preferring to convert any shame or embarrassment I might feel at not being up to date into a diatribe about the outrageousness of the fickle promotional machine and the gullibility of the masses, who turn their muttonlike focus to one particular cultural offering of the moment. This may be because I've never forgotten a favorite joke of my father's. Neither has my college roommate, Christian Crumlish, who reminded me of it once again by dropping the punchline into a recent facebook thread, some twenty years after he must have heard it.

It's a true story, and It goes like this: A learned medievalist (my father) is at a cocktail party, chatting with a society grande dame. The society lady soon finds she has little in common with the tweed-jacketed scholar. Doing her best to keep the small talk from shriveling away to nothing at all, she turns to literature, imagining it to be fertile ground for a conversation with an English professor. "Have you read John Updike's latest novel?" She asks, hopefully.

"I'm afraid I haven't," says the eminent PhD.

"Oh my," says the lady, stressed into aggression by this thwarting of her best effort at interclass chit-chat. "I'm quite shocked. It's been out for about six weeks already."

"Have you read the Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius?" Asks the rumpled but unruffled professor.

"No," she says. "I can't say that I have."

At which point my father actually said to the woman: "Really? How surprising. It's been out for almost fifteen hundred years."

This is all by way of illustrating that under normal circumstances I would never have picked up a novel by Roberto Bolaño. At least not right now. The gushing reappraisal of his oeuvre in the New Yorker, the deluge of translations and editions and awards, boxed sets and even posters, and the numerous friends wondering how "someone like you" with an interest in Latin America could possibly not yet have read this stuff, all should have conspired to keep the late Chilean author definitively off of my bedside table. At least, if he were a movie, until he came out on DVD.

I'm not sure what came over me. Perhaps it was one too many mojitos, but at the end of a fabulous book party for Walking to Guantánamo, caught up in the infection of book-buying but thinking it absurd to lay down the cash for my own book, I picked up the boxed set of Bolaño's new novel and paid for it. The lesson is: sometimes it's worth believing the hype. The posthumously published 2666 clocks in at a staggering 900 pages, but after reading the first ten of them I wanted to abandon any and all commitments and appointments in order to feverishly read through to the end. Not because this is what is traditionally known as a page-turner, but because I was impatient to uncover the next literary revelation. On almost every page I found myself stunned into submission by at least one sentence, buried somewhere in a paragraph, with which Bolaño managed to double or triple the weight of the meanings or sentiments he was conjuring. And this despite reading in translation. Indescribably diverse, reeking of a real and painful ambivalence and entirely unconcerned with traditional notions of resolution, 2666 ends by answering only one small and insignificant question posed so many, many pages earlier: Why does the elusive author Archimboldi travel from his Mediterranean stomping grounds to Sonora, in the north of Mexico, as an octogenarian? But between the posing and the answering of this herring, this flimsy excuse, Bolaño grapples with more of the really big questions than one novel ought to be able to contain.

Bolaño, who was nearly prevented from writing any books, was born in Chile and then moved with his parents to Mexico. After Allende's election, he returned to Santiago at age twenty, a place that then must have been, at least for leftist expats, like Havana in 1960, or Caracas a few years ago or La Paz today, a place worth going back to, a place to join and celebrate the struggle. I imagine it was one of those moments in history attractive to those eager to contribute and be a part of something bigger than themselves, the kind of moment we so desperately need to have in this country. The euphoria, as we know, was short lived. Briefly jailed after the Pinochet murder / coup, thought a terrorist and an enemy of the state, Bolaño survived, avoiding the fate of so many other long-haired austral idealists only because two friends from his youth at the colegio were among the prison guards. Freed, Bolaño fled the abundant savageries of Latin America for Spain. The combination of gratitude and cynicism he must have felt at his arbitrary, chance release informs many of the moments in 2666.

This gigantic novel is divided into five semi-independent book-like sections, but its landscapes are almost uniformly savage wildernesses, from the civilized sterility of the quadrilateral romance between the four literary critics of the first part to the wasted battlegrounds of the last, those forgotten eastern european fronts, muddy frozen places somewhere beyond Romania where the book's only hero, a German writer named Archimboldi, clawed his bulletproof way through the war.

Worst of all are the killing fields of Juarez, thinly veiled as the invented Sonora border town of Santa Teresa. In Bolaño's vision this is a place of such entrenched horror that nobody in their right mind would want to visit it. Naturally, he makes it the focus of our attention, and however improbably, all the characters will asynchronously converge on this bloodied city.

I would like to think that there is no one left who is unaware of the murders of Juarez. The unsolved, unexplained, ongoing serial slaughter of young, generally poor women in and around that city has been going on for years. The killings had been going on for years before Bolaño began his novel, and he died half a decade ago. They should be an international scandal. "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them," someone says in 2666. If we have all now heard of them, that has done nothing to prevent them; it has done nothing to change the dynamic of them, which is that when the victims are drawn from the South's infinite, disenfranchised pool of factory workers and would-be illegal immigrants, just so many fleshy cogs in the industrial machinery that makes our absurdly underpriced t-shirts and underwear and cleans our houses and picks our tomatoes, only the most very limited resources will be brought to bear to solve their disappearances, their violation and disposal.

Should we be upset, then, to find at the heart of this novel what amounts to a numbingly graphic list of the abuses perpetrated against the women of Santa Teresa, a partial list only, but one running to the hundreds of pages? This fourth book, "The Part about the Crimes," is something like a police blotter, but one devoid of any sense of humor. Here there are no cats stranded in gutters or umbrella-wielding grandmas successfully defending themselves against purse-snatchers, only an interminable accounting of the most violent, inhuman murder-tortures, one after the other. This is not easy stuff to stomach, particularly given the clinical, documentary detachment with which Bolaño catalogs the horrors. The list drags on. Just when you feel it is all too much Bolaño lengthens an account, digresses into the invented minutiae of the victim's life, recounts an episode from the history of one of the countless squalid "colonias" that make up the exurbs of this seething city. Sucked into the narrative, you read on. The cycle repeats, until you realize you've emerged out the other side.

You are breathless, after your orgy of gory page-turning. You feel dirty, complicit. And this, of course, is one of Bolaño's many points. For him the Juarez murders could not happen anywhere else but in the brutal borderlands between the first and third worlds, a place where NAFTA has erased any impediment to the free flow of capital while the fences for preventing the free flow of labor are built taller and longer. The dollars we save by buying cheap goods are reinvested to prevent the pseudo-enslaved from following their fabrications across the frontier. In 2666 the border is a spectral presence dominating the imaginary city of Santa Teresa, a wound, like the wounds inflicted on the once anonymous women victims to whom Bolaño has given names. The pressure of this vast yearning, the smashed, misplaced aspiration, and titanic exploitation make for an infected, explosive pustule on the back of capitalism. This is the trash-heap of globalization; is it any wonder the wasted corpses of its expendable workers pile up here?

In the final of the five "parts" Bolaño turns to Archimboldi, inventing, essentially, a complete biography. We have heard almost nothing about him since the obsessed, fornicating academics trailed the aged author to Santa Teresa back at the end of "the Part About the Critics." (I'm not sure if the joke, that critics are a bunch of fuckers, would work quite the same way in Spanish). Offspring of a one-legged man and a one-eyed woman, the young Archimboldi, born Hans Reiter, wants nothing but to dive to the bottom of the sea, so predisposed is he to escaping our savage world. It is not just the pun that makes us aware that there is a lot of Bolaño the writer in Archimboldi. Sometimes we are privy to insights like this one, which might serve to summarize the novel's central point: "it's common knowledge, thought Archimboldi, that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness." Archimboldi is a guy who stumbles his way through life. He takes his pseudonym on the spur of the momentary meeting with his Hamburg publisher, and takes as his woman and only love of his life the tubercular Ingeborg, a waif he re-encouters at random in the aimless wanderings of devasted post-war Germany. (We know when Ingeborg is about to die, after coughing, for "when she took the handkerchief away from her mouth the stain of blood was like a giant rose in full bloom.")

It takes a brilliant writer to make such a compilation of bleak visions compelling across so many pages. Bolaño is such a writer, and we can only lament his premature death at fifty, and wonder what more marvels he might have delivered had he lived, like Archimboldi, into his ripe and spry eighties. Don't wait fifteen hundred years to read him.


Anonymous said...

I can unashamedly say that I fall into that category of those easily swayed by a literary nudge to some writer I might not otherwise have discovered, and on the strength of your high praise will undoubtedly delve into Bolano.
I am currently rereading Machado De Assis's Epitaph of a Small Winner (Brazil publ.1880) intermingled with Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno but rereads never hold my attention like the initial discovery.
So, thanks for the heads up on Bolano
For sheer mastery of bleak landscapes, did you ever consider the oh so fashionable, Cormac McCarthy's The Road !

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great review! I also appreciate the first comment. In fact the whole of McCarthy's "border trilogy" seems to provide a pretty close parallel. Surely this is not a landscape that can be written about without major reference to the drug trade. No Country for Old Men--and as almost always the book is better than the movie, though the movie is good enough--is pretty emphatic on that score.

They say it's a cold world said...

Anonymous 20:33 is absolutely right about the drugs. They are there. The drug trade, and possible local law enforcement participation / protection in it, is in Bolaño's novel, just not in my review. 2666 offers many, many forking possibilities; my post could just as well have focused on, for instance, Bolaño's treatment of modern academic romance, or conditions at the Ukrainian front at the end of WWII, as viewed from the German perspective. There are many many threads one could follow in looking at this hefty volume.