by Roberto Bolaño
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Early in 2007, the Colombian magazine Semana asked a panel of
experts to select the
100 best novels in Spanish published during the
last 25 years. Few were surprised to see Gabriel García Marquez take
the top honors with his
Love in the Time of Cholera. But who was
Roberto Bolaño, who, captured both third and fourth spots with his
The Savage Detectives and 2666?

How does one begin to describe this writer’s unconventional work to
the uninitiated? I am tempted to call him a Latin American Kerouac,
given his wandering bohemian protagonists with their idiosyncratic
literary ideals and often arbitrary itineraries. Yet at many junctures
will remind readers of the very different sensibility
of Cormac McCarthy, with his violent tales of the
US-Mexico borderlands. One critic has taken a
different tack, going so far as to proclaim this
book as the novel that Jorge Luis Borges might
have written. Yet none of these pigeonholes do
justice to the avant garde sensibility that often
lingers below the surface of Bolaño’s fiction, and
often threatens to take charge of the narrative.
The diversity of these descriptions is perhaps the
best indicator that Bolaño is his own man,
straddling many traditions without settling
comfortably into any one of them.

Bolaño, who died from liver failure at age 50 in 2003, was a wanderer
himself for much of his life. In his acceptance speech for the Rómulo
Gallegos Prize in 1999, Bolaño defended his unwillingness to give
complete allegiance to any one country, noting that “a writer’s country
is his language.” A vagabond, perhaps by nature, and a traveler by
either choice or necessity—he was born in Chile, raised partly in Mexico,
and spent decades in Spain— Bolaño sometimes saw the Spanish
language as his true homeland. Playing on this comparison, he
described the quality of his writing as his passport, and defined quality
in revealing terms: “to know how to thrust your head into the darkness,
know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is
basically a dangerous calling.”

All these elements play a role in
2666. This sprawling book takes place
in a half dozen or so countries and moves back and forth over a period
of some eight decades. And, yes, it is a leaping into the void, a thrust
into the darkness. As with
The Savage Detectives, the theme of
searching after the unknown looms large in the unfolding plot lines.
Sometimes the pursuit is an ardent vision quest, as in the opening
section during which several scholars attempt to track down Benno Von
Archimboldi, an enigmatic writer who makes Pynchon or Salinger look
gregarious by comparison. At other points, the seeking takes on darker
tones, as in the long penultimate section of the book, devoted to the
local authorities' attempt to identify and apprehend a serial killer who
murders dozens—or perhaps even hundreds—of women in northern
Mexico. The settings and situations constantly change in this
unconventional novel, but the sense of restlessness remains.

As he worked to complete this novel, Bolaño planned to publish it in five
separate books. His literary executor overrode this request, and as a
2666 sees light of day as a single long fiction, although in five
sections corresponding to the components the author would have
issued separately. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Bolaño merely
hoped to maximize the financial value of his final work, and decided that
five short books would earn more money for his estate than one very
long novel. The different sections do stand alone—and probably will be
published in isolation in the future—although they take on their greatest
resonance when juxtaposed and compared.

Indeed, this work circles in on itself, and each section undermines, to
various degrees, the narrative thrust of the remainder of
2666. For
example, the apparent meaning of the opening section, devoted to the
academics’ obsession with the elusive writer Archimboldi, is subverted
and refined by the final portion of the novel, which lays out in telling
details Archimboldi’s own story. The experience is almost like finding an
unpublished final act to Beckett’s famous play in which Godot shows up
and offers the audience a gripping soliloquy.

But the fourth and longest section of
2666, some 280 pages, threatens
to overwhelm the rest of the book. This is a peculiar crime story, in
which the author presents the details of the murders committed by a
serial killer in Santa Teresa (a slightly fictionalized version of Juárez) in
the maquiladora-dominated northern border area of Mexico. This is
much more than a murder mystery. The sheer number of victims is
overwhelming, and Bolaño almost numbs the readers’ sensibilities by
providing all the gritty specifics of several dozen corpses, crime scenes,
autopsies and related investigations.

Yet at various points in this bloody litany, Bolaño breaks off to interpose
some unexpected and almost avant garde digression. At one point, for
example, he offers a lengthy and eccentric discourse on the medicinal
properties of various plants; elsewhere he provides a retrospective look
at the fast-and-loose life story of a reformist congresswoman, or the
behind-the-scenes story of the making of an unsavory film. Then, in a
flash, the detour is over, and Bolaño returns to the murders, senseless
violence that haunts this whole novel and makes all of the previous
subplots—dealing with academic conferences or surrealist experiments
with geometry books—seem like mere frivolity by comparison.

In the final section of the novel, Bolaño has the opportunity to resolve
the many narratives he has set in motion, and to some extent he does.
But this life story of the author Archimboldi comes across more like the
beginning of
2666 than its conclusion. In fact, I wonder if this novel
would not be equally effective if one read the five sections in reverse
order. In
2666, Bolaño has created the literary equivalent of the snake
swallowing its own tail. Upon completing the book, you may feel
tempted to go back to the beginning and start all over again—a
remarkable claim for a work that approaches one thousand pages in
length. Yet Bolaño’s mastery is perhaps best demonstrated by precisely
this ability to pull readers into the orbit of his fictions with a gravitational
pull that resists their best efforts to break free.

This review was originally published on
At the time of the Semana survey, neither of
these novels had been made available in
English translation. Yet
The Savage
Detectives was published by Farrar, Straus
and Giroux a few days later to much
acclaim. (See my review
here.) And now
2666 appears, a nine hundred
page magnum opus that will no doubt
solidify this author’s posthumous reputation
as one of the leading—and most unsettling—
modern novelists.