Picador £20 (912pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

2666, By Roberto Bolaño,trans Natasha Wimmer

Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is a difficult experience to shake off; it lingers in the unconscious like a sizzling psychotropic for days or weeks after reading. It is a novel both prodigious in scope and profound in implication, but a book ablaze with the furious passion of its own composition. At times, it reads like a race against death. At others, you can only wonder at the reach and raw intelligence of the writing.

Having received adulatory reviews in Spain four years ago, 2666 is now, in Natasha Wimmer's impressive translation, receiving the same kind of response in the English-speaking world. Bolaño himself is sadly not around to enjoy the celebrations. He died in 2003, awaiting a liver transplant, at the age of 50. He had only recently been acclaimed as the pre-eminent figure of new Latin American writing, after years of obscurity.

Chilean by birth, but a post-nationalist if ever there was one, he led the life of a nomad, much of it on the edges of society, doing menial jobs as a nightwatchman, a dishwasher, an agricultural labourer, until his last decade, when he settled in the nondescript Catalan resort of Blanes and published a book a year, as well as a clutch of short stories and poetry, and some incendiary criticism. The story of his early life, his arrest in Chile after the Pinochet coup, his career as a proto-punk poet in Mexico City, his marginal lifestyle, have all contributed to the legend.

To attempt a summary of 2666 seems almost an impertinence. To begin with, it is five discrete but subtly interlinked novels, and within each Bolaño follows a strategy reminiscent of the films of David Lynch. He provides numerous trails and digressions which may or may not have relevance to any expected outcome but which, cumulatively, keep the reader pinioned inside its shifting structure: something akin to a monumental pressure-cooker, in which what is being cooked are the internal organs of the late 20th century.

The novel is ostensibly concerned with the quest for a lost author, a recurring theme with Bolaño. In 2666 this motif twists around the black hole at the centre of the book: the northern Mexican town of Santa Teresa, Bolaño's version of Ciudad Juarez, the site of hundreds of unsolved murders during the last decade of the millennium. In the first part, we follow the adventures of four scholarly friends, devotees of a reclusive German novelist with the improbable name of Benno von Archimboldi, around Europe's conference circuit. Possibly they are the ironic incarnations of the wild-eyed "visceral realists" familiar to readers of Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, now turned out to pasture as seedy academics. Believing that their hero has flown to Santa Teresa, three of the scholars attempt to track him down, but instead meet up with an exiled Chilean professor of philosophy, Amalfitano, a laconic, lyrical Bolaño-like figure, whose story is the focus of the second part of the book.

Part Three follows the visit to Santa Teresa of Oscar Fate, an African-American journalist from New York who is in the city to cover a boxing match, but winds up in suspect company and is entrusted by Amalfitano with the safe transportation of his young daughter away from Santa Teresa and the terrible crimes against women that are drawing a dragnet of fear around the city. In the fourth, and longest section, Bolaño recounts the discovery of the bodies of the murdered women in unremitting, forensic detail, the corpses left like sacks of rubbish in the dried-up streambeds that run through the surrounding desert, in alleyways and in illegal garbage dumps. One of these dumps, over a mile long, is called, with grim irony, El Chile.

Most of the victims, who are raped before they are killed, are employed at factories with names like Nip Mex, Key Corp and Interzone-Berny, the sweatshops of Santa Teresa, a city which increasingly resembles globalisation's charnel house. Bolaño evokes a landscape of "damp, fetid air, smelling of scorched oil," and the colour of mustard gas. The press and the police are not interested in this profligate violation and murder of women. "No one pays attention to these killings," Oscar Fate is told, "but the secret of the world is hidden in them." Santa Teresa is "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty, and constant, useless metamorphosis." Bolaño himself, in the last interview he gave before his death, said of the killings that they were "our curse and our mirror".

The fifth and final section is a cohesive, polyphonic masterpiece, never short of tenderness or humour, but neither abandoning the persistent shadow of horror. In the enigmatic German writer, Archimboldi, a veteran of the Eastern Front, Bolaño finds a foil for his own literary trajectory, as well as the perfect conduit for Europe's historical legacy of blood and fire. Archimboldi, as a writer, sounds not dissimilar to Bolaño: "the style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere." At times, Bolaño treats the reader as a co-conspirator in his cosmic uncertainty, such as when the philosopher Amalfitano, who appears to be losing his mind, falls asleep in his chair: "Maybe he dreamed something. Something short. Maybe he dreamed about his childhood. Maybe not". What these maybes do is reinforce the sense that what we are being offered is a version of things, a semblance, which, ironically, only writing of the most supreme assurance can afford.

The uncertainty and the loose flaps, the digressions and the rare unfoldings, the borrowing or pastiche of different genres, the blazing curtains of prose, the frequently hilarious non-sequiturs, together create an effect of startling anarchic grace, no less magnificent for being swallowed up in the novel's own encircling silence.

2666 is a book in which the devil drives, each narrative searing its path among others, each eventually coursing a snake track through the Sonoran desert and around the stinking dumps of Santa Teresa, with accordion music and laughter on the wind. Much of the writing goes beyond any recognisable literary model and can only be approached on its own terms. As the Argentinian writer Rodrigo Fresá*has observed, "What is sought and achieved here is the Total Novel, placing the author of 2666 on the same team as Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Proust, Musil, and Pynchon." Like each of these titanic forebears, Bolaño has come close to re-imagining the novel.

Gone but never more alive: Bolaño

Born in 1953 in Santiago, a truck driver's son, Roberto Bolaño moved to Mexico City aged 15. He returned to Chile to help Allende's government and was detained after the Pinochet coup. After a spell as a bohemian poet in Mexico and elsewhere, he settled in Catalonia in 1977, where he wrote poetry and then fiction while doing odd jobs. He died, of liver failure, in 2003. His epic novels 'The Savage Detectives' and '2666' have made Bolaño a posthumous superstar, acclaimed around the world.

Richard Gwyn's novel 'Deep Hanging Out' is published by Snowbooks

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past