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