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Roberto Bolaño: 2666

April 27, 2009
tags: ,


Roberto Bola$ntilde;o, or perhaps Bill Murray, hard to say.

I recently finished reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Before reading it, I was aware that a lot of the reviews of this book had described it as ‘the first great novel of the 21st century’. It was published posthumously, as the author died of hepatic liver failure in 2003, the eventual result of contracting Hepatitis C from sharing needles during a period of heroin addiction. A cynical observer might comment that this story fits nicely with the template for a certain type of ‘tragic genius’, and might have magnified the impact of the novel beyond its purely literary merits.

It is probably no accident, seeing as the author knew he was dying as he wrote this novel, that the relationship between art and artist is one of the many themes in 2666. In the first section of the novel, The Part About The Critics, a group of four literary critics attempt to uncover the identity of an elusive German author with the unlikely name of Benno von Archimboldi. In order to better understand his body of work, the critics attempt to track down Archimboldi, about whom little biographical information is known. Bolaño portrays the critical community as sophistic and faintly ridiculous, drawing battle lines along trivial differences between the interpretations of rival camps. Archimboldi is contrasted with an institutionalised former artist, whose work draws its power from the knowledge that he cut off his own hand in order to use it in a self-portrait.

The critics’ search eventually leads them to Santa Theresa, a fictionalised version of Ciudad Juárez, a city on the US/Mexican border which is plagued by the murders of young women. Here they are introduced to Oscar Amalfitano, a philosophy professor whose unraveling sanity  is chronicled in the second part of the novel. Amalfitano’s daughter provides the link to the third part of the novel, where she becomes involved with Oscar Fate, an American journalist sent to Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match. He soon becomes more interested in the unsolved murders, especially when his new lover appears to be at risk from the killer.

This serves as a lead-in to the crux of the novel; The Part About The Killings. The chronology of the murders, each described in flat prose and graphic detail, is interspersed within the story of their investigation by the Santa Theresa police, and the prosecution of a suspect, Klaus Haas. Klaus is a charismatic and engaging character whose guilt is never established, and his story is the most interesting aspect of the central chapter of the novel. The repetitive recurring reports of the victims is a neat formal touch, which effectively shows the horrifying metamorphosing into the mundane, with individual tragedies consumed into a grey, amorphous unease, treated with resignation rather than terror or anger. Unfortunately, they are also extremely tedious, and kill any narrative momentum in this part of the book.

The final section allows the reader access to the information that the critics so desperately craved;  the life story of Benno von Archimboldi, or Hans Reiter as he was born. Following him from childhood in Westphalia, through his experiences of war, to his years as an itinerant writer, he nevertheless remains a somewhat opaque and inscrutable character; despite having the one piece of the puzzle missed by the critics, we have no access to those that they hold – his works.

(Relatively) Early on in the novel, Amalfitano reflects on the general preference for short, perfectly formed and surgically precise novels over “great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown” and 2666 is clearly designed to fall into the latter category. It is a sprawling, unwieldy novel with many seeming unnecessary digressions. However, the title of the novel gives a clue to its resolution; the year 2666 acts as a “vanishing point”, and when viewed from this perspective the events of the novel will arrange themselves into that nebulous, ungraspable thing we describe as ‘History’.  If it doesn’t make sense that is because we are viewing it from from too close up. In its essence, 2666  is about two things, sex and death, but then again, what isn’t?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kenneth permalink
    May 17, 2009 5:59 pm

    Nick, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this, but this link is offered as a possibly related article:
    I think something has gone wrong somewhere.

    • nastyles permalink*
      May 17, 2009 7:40 pm

      Yeah, I’m not sure the software is working properly, either that or it is just matching words like ‘and’, ‘the’ and ‘a’. The only related article for my latest post is about a new reality TV show starring Ice Cube.

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