by Roberto Bolano
892 pages, Picador
Review by Marc Nash
A writer pens 900 pages without hobbits or generations of undead, then he's asking for a huge investment from his readers. A literary work of this length can't rely on the established tropes of genre like vampire lore or fantasy world to speed the reader through sections of the opus, rather we have to work for every scintilla there is to be had.
The note to the first edition mentions that there was serious debate with the dying author whether to release it as 5 novellas, or to keep the integrity of a 900 page novel. However, for the purposes of review, it is useful to break up each of the 5 parts and then see how successfully they are brought together within the whole. Part 1 sees a menage a trois et demi (one is wheelchair bound) of literary academics across four European countries pursuing an elusive German author. The writing is deft, sly and charming as the ivory tower academics are gently picked apart in their inadequacies. We are introduced to the author through their various paths towards the obscure author, but increasingly they reach out towards each other, so that conventions and plenaries come to matter less than their time spent in each other's company. Finally they raise their noses from books enough to start making some observations about each other, but in doing so relinquish their hold on the literature. It's not exactly cutting edge as far as themes go, but it is so delightfully done: (on searching for whores during a break in the menage) "Espinoza found them by reading the sex ads in El Pais , which provided a much more reliable and practical service than the newspaper's arts pages". Literary snark.
Part 2 takes a minor character from Part 1, the host academic who receives three of the academics in the increasingly crux locus of the book, Santa Teresa on the Mexican side of the border with the US. The town is ravaged by an unending series of sexual murders on women and this is the backdrop for the host's fears about his own daughter falling victim. However, the chapter first focuses on his estranged wife who goes off with her best friend around Europe in search of a poet, whom they find in an asylum. (Asylums appear as a recurring motif, in Part 1 it was an artist who chopped off his own creative hand, who was consigned). It is touching in places, but she succumbs to a slow death from AIDS. Then we return to the host academic and apart from some ramblings on philosophers through history and an active recreation of a Duchamp piece hanging a book on a washing line so that it is assailed by the elements, there really isn't a lot going for this section.
Part 3 starts off with a Mersault "Mother died today" moment as journalist 'Oscar' Fate has to deal with bereavement even as he takes up a new post within his Afro-American newspaper. He is dispatched to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match with a hot hope American boxer. The whole piece is him hanging out with the locals in a place he doesn't know and in a state of detachment presumably caused by his dislocation both emotional and physical. here lies the problem with this section. It drifts aimlessly to reflect his own purposelessness killing time before the fight. Lots of themes are offered, all left hanging. Be it a history of Marxism and the Black Panther movement, a book by a British Victorian colonialist, the start of a Jerry Springer-like programme which was well rendered but without denouement and snatches of overheard conversation which Fate describes more than once as 'interesting' but moves out of earshot. At one point I thought even the boxing match wasn't going to be resolved, but in fact it was over in the blink of a camera flash. Fate latches on to the murders in the city, but his editor refuses him permission to cover the story. He returns to the US. I found this section the least believable as well. Bolano was trying I believe to reference the American literary tradition, but I just didn't buy it. fate I found hugely uninvolving a character and I just don't think Bolano's forays into American history, such as the Black Panthers, just didn't convince me he was in full control of his material. No asylums here though.
And on to Part 4. The murders. At one point I thought the title "2666" was going to refer to the bodycount. A litany of dead women, names in some cases, clothes, wounds and whether there had been forced sexual activity. Though some of the cases get pinned on lovers and husbands, most are unsolved and closed, because as a page of Mexican male chauvinist jokes makes clear, this is the status women have in such a society. Despite being interspersed with vignettes on the people involved in the investigation, such as policemen, politicians, a US sheriff, the prime suspect and an asylum boss, the chapter reads like the first 10 minutes of every single CSI one after the other. We don't get to read about the other 50 minutes. Now my sources tell me that the Mexico depicted by Bolano is pretty much spot on. The pull of globalisation immediately to the North, has furnished human trafficking (both across the border and the sex trade), drugs and the whole amoral panoply of modern urban life. The delicate trade off between Aztec and Catholic inheritances portrayed beautifully by Octavio Paz, has been swept away by modernity. Magical Realism is dead, long live desultory realism. Bolano offers us an updated version of Latin American literary tradition. Now while this comes through loud and clear, I'm not sure I want to waded through all the murdered women to get there.
And to Part 5. And back to the light touch and charm even though this is set during World War 2 and through the eyes of a German soldier. I didn't always buy the logic of the character, even though I quickly guessed who he was in relation to the earlier parts of the book; for example, how does a boy who barely employs language, end up being moved by all things literary? But I was enchanted by the quirky observations and in answer to if they were 5 discrete novellas, I would buy 1 and 5, but not the intervening 3.
Does the whole thing hang together? There are lots of metaphors for the modern world; death, sex and madness being the obvious ones. In that sense, the book reminded me of Elias Canetti's "Auto Da Fe". But I expected this book from its hype to be the first real breakaway novel of the new century and it ain't. Like Canetti, the book is primarily about books and literature. Well that debate is raging on Twitter and blogs. Bolano clearly wants to present an epic sweep between European, American and Latin American literary traditions, but I think he lets slip his own frustrations, when Archimboldi is described by a critic as German in style and yet also not German, maybe Indochinese, maybe Persian - areas Bolano can't offer insight and commentary on.
I don't know when Bolano conceived this book if he knew he was dying. But certainly in the race against time to complete it, he was concerned with his legacy; 6 pages from the end "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; all that was left were the children, the parents... in the end all that was really left was nature." Bolano in his other books seems obsessed with vanished artists, artists who take on new identities, artists in asylums, artists who steal the work of others and make careers (there is a chain of 3 authors to get to Archimboldi's published works). This is all very ho hum, especially when you consider Sam Shepherd did all this in a much more accessible way with the central image of his play "Suicide In B-Flat", wherein all a musician had to do to disappear, or for a lay person to become an artist, was to lie down in the chalk outline of a suicided rock musician and imagine themselves into the relevant identity. It didn't take 900 pages...