I received Roberto Bolano’s posthumous novel 2666 from my mom for Xmas (she would have exploded into a fine mist if she hadn’t bought me anything). And I just finished it this week. It was very good but very dense. I needed to keep on taking breaks to let things seep. Happily, the organization of the book lent itself well to that. There are five parts, each of which could stand alone (though in my opinion each would suffer for it), but which all circle the same area. So, my review.
The Part About The Critics. This section feels like an Umberto Eco novel in some ways. Mostly because it’s about European literary academics who are all specialists on this obscure German writer, Archimboldi. There are four of them, three men and a woman, and it charts how they came to their field and became acquaintances allies and lovers, because of this writer. They decide they have to find him and head to Santa Teresa, Mexico where there are rumours he might be. They go and visit with academics there, do some lectures, but really they’re looking for Archimboldi. In Santa Teresa there have been many murders of women, spoken of like a curse. Supposedly a very tall gringo (Archimboldi was very tall) had been arrested for the crimes. Stuff happens and the story ends with resolution on some fronts but none at all on others. This part was 160ish pages.
The Part About Amalfitano. Now, Amalfitano is an academic who lives in Santa Teresa, and he was the guide for the academics in the first part of the book. This part tells the story of him, his daughter, his wife who abandoned them and a geometry book which he has no recollection of obtaining. The academics don’t show up here, but the whispers of all the murders surround the story. This is a story about sadness, and has a different texture than the part about the academics. While you kind of felt the narrator was treating the academics lightly, as slightly silly people in a world they didn’t really take too seriously, Amalfitano’s part is heavy. Despondent almost. It’s only about 70 pages long, and was my least favourite part of the book.
The Part About Fate. Bolano was clever, because going into this after experiencing the two different approaches of the first two parts, I expected something very abstract about fate and free will. But, Fate is the name of an American reporter who gets assigned to go to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight between an American and a Mexican. He’s not a sports journalist. He writes stories for a low-circulation black newspaper. The first part of the story is about him going to a church to hear a motivational speaker give his talk about what life is all about. Then he goes to Mexico and tries to learn about the fight. He hangs out with Mexican journalists and cringes at the Americans. It’s interesting because he notes on the race of everyone. He’s the only black reporter covering the fight. There’s a black sparring partner for the Mexican boxer. This section feels Hemingway-ish. Maybe that’s because of the manly subject matter and the journalistic short-sentence style. When he’s in Santa Teresa he hears about the murders and he tries to pitch doing a story on the murders to his editor back in New York, but they don’t care about that. The fight itself lasts three sentences, this tiny little point the rest of the (120 page) section balances on. It was perfect.
The Part About The Crimes. And now we hit the part of the book that made me go wow. This part is 280 pages long (so just short of the length of the three previous parts put together), and it is relentless. There are police officers and narcos and gangsters and crime after crime after crime. Over a four year stretch there are dozens of women who are killed. Most of them are raped. Most of the bodies are found in the desert. There’s also a man pissing in churhces and he has an enormous bladder, but he’s a sideshow. The thing is that these crimes are described in little police-report-esque things. It’s very clinical. Stuff like: “She was found by the side of the road fully dressed. A fractured hyoid bone suggested strangulation but she was also stabbed five times. Swabs showed that she’d been raped vaginally and anally.” And it happens again and again. And again. At first I got sick of reading these paragraphs with all their sordid little details and couldn’t wait to get back to a “story” bit with one of the cops or the reporters who’d been trying to find out what was going on, but as I got further in I realized just how horrible this sheer number of crimes was. Not all of them are connected, but every woman whose murder in Santa Teresa might have been over these years, has their death reported. The relentlessness of the crimes (and the dispassionate recounting) and the inability to put a reason or a person behind them is terrifying. Was there a serial killer? They capture a German-American man and put him in jail, saying he was behind it all, but the crimes keep happening. Things go on and on. In the previous part Fate had met up with a Mexican journalist and they’d gone to the prison where the German-American man was being held to interview him. This was the hardest part of the book to read, the part I was happiest to get through, but also the part that makes the whole thing hang together.
The Part About Archimboldi. The last (260 page) part of the book deals with the life of the German writer those critics from the first part had dedicated their careers to. It’s a story of art and war. Archimboldi had a different name as a young German man, and fought in World War 2 on the German side. This part of the story keeps on digressing into other people’s stories. The story of the Russian science-fiction writer who didn’t write the books that got him purged. The story of Archimboldi’s younger sister. The story of the German who mistakenly received a traincar full of Jews and was told no train would come pick them up so he was to deal with them himself. There are echoes of all the parts of the stories we’ve already heard through the book. The killing of the Jews and the murders of the women and the raping of the Indians by the Spanish all become sort of one in your experience of the book. Archimboldi vanishes from his own story after he starts publishing his books, and we follow his younger sister and her life. In the end, stuff happens, and the whole thing was quite an excellent experience.
So yes, this is a positive review. I approve of it winning awards (even though that doesn’t mean anyone who reads this’ll like it).