2666, By Roberto Bolaño, trs Natasha Wimmer

All human life is here in this new gargantua of Latin American fiction – and a lot of deaths too
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Patience and good eyesight are what you need to finish this 900-page gargantua of Latin American fiction. But it's well worth persevering: 2666 has the power to mesmerise, and was justifiably hailed as a masterwork on its publication in Spanish in 2004. The author, Roberto Bolaño, had died one year earlier, at the age of 50, while waiting for a liver transplant in a hospital in Spain. His stock has risen since his death in 2003, and he is now recognised as a modern master. Born in Chile in 1953, he chose to reject the "magical realism" associated with Garcia Marquez in Colombia, and fashion a darker, more astringent fiction. Nazi Literature in the Americas, his bleakest novel, found a lugubrious comedy in human failings. By Night in Chile, his most accessible work, was set partly during the 1973-1990 junta under General Pinochet.

2666 is composed of a bewildering multiplicity of half-finished novels, anecdotes, life stories and Tristram Shandy-like digressions, each contained within another like Russian dolls. At the book's centre is an elusive (fictional) German writer called Benno von Archimboldi. Virtually nothing is known about him, other than that he is Nobel Prize material. Where he lives, what he looks like, remain a mystery. He has become the subject of literary conferences, though, and attracted legions of academic admirers. The literary and sexual escapades of three "Archimbolidans" (French, Italian and Spanish respectively) and their English admirer constitute the opening sections of 2666. On a whim, the four journey to Mexico in search of Archimboldi (there have been sightings of him in the desert borderlands near Arizona). They fail to find their quarry and, after a few pages, disappear from view.

With a few deft strokes, Bolaño conjures a sense of dread as he chronicles next the descent into madness of a Chilean professor of literature, Oscar Amalfitano, who lives with his teenage daughter Rosa in the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa. The city is modelled on Ciudad Juárez, made infamous during the 1990s for a series of unsolved sex crimes. As in Juárez, the bodies of hundreds of women are found dumped in the municipal rubbish tips and industrial parks on Santa Teresa's outskirts. They'd been "anally and vaginally" raped, notes Bolaño, evidently fascinated. Drawn by the serial killings, a black American sports journalist called Oscar Faith arrives in Santa Teresa. One night at a party he gets caught up in the city's underbelly of narco crime, nightclubs and murder, and saves Rosa from likely rape or worse.

An air of mystery drives the book forward. In the final section, "The Part of Archimboldi", details at last emerge of the writer's life. He was born in Prussia to Jew-hating parents of humble birth. During the war he served in the Wehrmacht as Hans Reiter, adopting his Italianate pseudonym on deciding to become a writer. When, finally, we return to the "horrible city" of Santa Teresa, the identity of the chief suspect in the killings is revealed to us as a 40-year-old German drifter and computer expert named Klaus Haas...

The disparate strands of the novel now cohere, yet the Santa Teresa murders are not resolved conclusively. 2666, a detective novel without a solution, contains much dark philosophical humour, wickedly effective pastiche and pages of gutsy, irreverent boisterousness (not to mention peculiar sex). Along the way, Bolaño indulges a wide range of interests from hip-hop to Marcel Duchamp, snuff movies and the cinema of David Lynch. These digressions are only rarely tedious. Among other things, 2666 offers an apology for the novel as a vast network that links all things, no matter how trivial or disparate. It is a marvellous gallimaufry of the funny, fabulist and, at times, oddly beautiful. All human life is contained in these burning pages, and Natasha Wimmer deserves a medal for her fluent translation.

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