2666 was the last novel written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño before his untimely death at the age of 50 years due to liver failure, he was near the top of the list for a liver transplant, but sadly didn’t survive long enough to be a recipient.
Knowing of his precarious existence and wishing to be able to support his family for as long as possible, he embarked on the grand oeuvre that would become 2666. He had planned to publish it as five separate volumes, which is no doubt in part responsible for it being such an exceptionally long novel at 900 pages.
Born in Chile, he spent much of his childhood and youth in both Chile and Mexico before moving in 1977 to Spain where he married, settled and eventually would die. His literary success came late in life and with death looming, he appears to have been in somewhat of a rush to pen this last grand tome. It wasn’t until after his death, that his work became known to readers in the English language, though he was widely perceived as the most important Latin-American writer since Gabriel García Márquez.
2666 is structured into five parts, which would have been the five books, though they are meant to be read as a whole. Four of the five parts are reasonable in length and content and intrigue while Part 4. The Part About The Crimes is long, arduous and was for me in parts sickening. It recounts hundreds of crimes against predominantly young women that occur in Santa Teresa, the one location that connects all 5 parts of the story. It is largely based on the mostly unsolved and still ongoing serial murders that took place in the MExican town of Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the novel).
In order to try to make sense of the sum of parts, I created the diagram below after reading, in its entirety it depicts the global, interconnected horrors that have infiltrated and usurped parts of 20th century society, while on the surface story level, it shows the connections between characters, locations and subject, with that Mexican town of Santa Teresa taking centre stage, the one place all these characters are at some time drawn to.
The five parts briefly are as follows:
Part 1: The Part About the Critics introduces us to 4 critics from 4 European countries who specialise in the literature of a German writer, they travel to conferences around the world, presenting, discussing his work, seeing each other, pursuing reports of the disappeared writer named Archimboldi, until Mexico. They too become more or less interconnected and though supposedly intellectuals and above the debased actions of the lesser educated, we see that they are no better than the rest and perhaps even worse.
Part 2: The Part about Amalfitano, his daughter Rosa, his wandering wife Lola and the poet in the asylum in San Sebastian, his move from Barcelona to Mexico and the beginning of hearing that voice in his head.
Part 3: The Part About Fate, the political/social journalist, his dead mother, her neighbour,writing up Barry Seaman’s speech, the death of a sportswriter, the fight he covers in Santa Teresa, the Mexicans, the gun, Rosa Amalfitano, Guadalupe Roncal and the albino German singing prisoner.
Part 4: The Part About the Crimes mentioned above, this reader begins to suffer fatigue from the pages and pages of repetition, another young woman, raped a certain way, strangled, the long hair, dumped on a highway or in a dump, the lack of police investigation, that lack of interest, as if to be woman is to warrant such a fate. The reader too starts to become as bored as the police seem to this endless, sordid situation. They have a job to do, but for what reason are we succumbed to having to absorb these hundreds of heinous crimes taking place in one city.
I was relieved when this part was behind me, all those murders in Santa Teresa, the inept investigations, the scapegoat, the media, the Congresswoman, the cause/effect of money.
Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi, in wartime Germany with a man named Hans Reiter. And finally we catch up with Bonno von Archimboldi, the writer pursued in Part 1.
Overall, it was a marathon read, that fatigued me, in a similar way to Orhan Pamuk’s lengthy novel of obsession The Museum of Innocence, a book that became a kind of effigy, that morphed into an actual museum displaying a collection of items evocative of everyday life and culture of Istanbul during the period in which the novel is set. Bolaño collected murders and experiences, Pamuk everyday objects and obsessions.
It is a novel highly regarded by many, however I would be reluctant to recommend it without the potential reader reading a variety of reviews to discern whether or not it is something that corresponds to their interest.
I chose to read it as my summer chunkster for 2015 and can relate to the following question raised in the Guardian review I’ve linked to below:
But why would you want to encounter “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” in the leisurely days of summer? Because you’ll have time to immerse yourself, for one thing. There’s never a bad time to read a great book, however dark, however dangerous.
Bravo to the late Roberto Bolaño, I believe he achieved his aim, to continue to support his family long after his own demise.
“Very long and very violent, this is a journey into the darkest parts of humanity. It’s hard going, but it is a truly great book”
By bringing scents of a Latin American culture more fitful, pop-savvy and suspicious of earthy machismo than that which it succeeds, Bolaño has been taken as a kind of reset button on our deplorably sporadic appetite for international writing, standing in relation to the generation of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes as, say, David Foster Wallace does to Mailer, Updike and Roth.