2666 is Roberto Bolano’s master statement. Published a year after his death and translated into English a few more years later, it is an enormous book that defies summary. The novel’s core is the violent killings of women in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, a town that parallels the Mexican border town Ciudad Juarez. Revolving around these murders are literary scholars in search of a reclusive cult writer, a professor who struggles to maintain his sanity, a journalist sent to the town to cover a boxing match, and the cult writer himself. Written with prose that is all at once riveting, insightful, humorous, deadening, and resonant, it is that kind of death defying novel that only few writers can come up with.
Last year, I chose this as my first read of 2012 with a fellow blogger. We do not know how to approach this. We were wishing ourselves loads of good luck because we were intimidated by the sheer length of the book, not to mention the preconceived notions I had for it. I imagined it to be a long, tough, and boring read. Long is undeniable; the latter two are dubious.
The book turned out to be very entertaining. It helped that the first part, The Part About the Critics, is about four scholars who talk nonstop about their literary careers with people within their circle. These four are all interested in the works of the German writer Archimboldi, a writer whose shadow they have never seen and who is even a worse recluse than Thomas Pynchon. When rumors of his appearance in a Mexican town reach them, they set out to look for him, and the reader never hears of these scholars again.
Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, and incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.
This book is composed of five parts supposed to be published separately, which is what the writer instructed his inheritors. However, this was not fulfilled due to practical considerations and respect for the entirety of the five books. Although these five are not even tightly connected with each other, I agree with the decision to put them all together into a single volume. Yes, the parts could possibly stand alone on their own, but their disconnectedness links them all together in a mysterious way.
[What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.]
This disconnectedness is immediately felt as one proceeds with the next parts, The Part About Amalfitano and The Part About Fate. These two are people (yes, Fate is a person) who have nothing to do with the first part. These are equally good, although I have to say that the former felt incomplete, which could be deliberate given the tendencies to madness that Amalfitano has.
The main course is The Part About the Crimes. Here, the reader is immersed into hundreds of terrifying forensic reports of women killed, and either thrown or buried all around the deserts of Santa Teresa. These reports resemble news clippings gathered from different tabloids and broadsheets. By the 50th case, one must be too desensitized to feel nauseous about the gruesome details of the decaying bodies’ states. Perhaps this is the intention. The writer must have had a vision of a nearly apocalyptic world so filled with violence that killing has become a mundane activity.
[On December 10, some workers at the ranch La Perdicion informed the police of the discovery of some bones at the edge of the ranch, around mile fifteen of the Casas Negras highway. At first they thought it was an animal, but when they found the skull they realized their mistake. According to the forensic report, it was a woman, and the cause of death, due to the time elapsed, remained undetermined. Some three yards from the body a pair of leggings and a pair of tennis shoes were found.]
The murders are not real and yet they give one a visceral sensation given their matter-of-fact descriptions. Nonfiction is employed to create a fictional world as opposed to the nonfiction novel claimed to be popularized by Truman Capote. It is like a documentary based on imaginary events, and reading through this part will make one convinced that these are the ones that really took place and not the ones that were recorded in the real life Ciudad Juarez.
The final part, The Part About Archimboldi, tells us, finally, the life story of the writer who wouldn’t show himself. Although it is not proper to call it The Part That Would Sum Up 2666, it unconsciously justifies that alternate title. Archimboldi’s musings on his writing, violence, and the connection between the two are intuited here, but only in mercurial fashion.
So to catch the slow susurrus of Bolano’s statement, submit yourself to all parts of the novel. Do not make a deliberate attempt to dissect the novel. Do not expect anything. Do not fear. But do prepare to be overwhelmed.
Dates Read: January 2 to 21, 2012
No. of Pages: 898
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars