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2666: A Novel Paperback – September 1, 2009
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Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008: It was one thing to read Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives last year and have your mind thrilled and expanded by a sexy, meandering masterpiece born whole into the English language. It was still another to read it and know, from the advance reports of Spanish readers, that Bolaño's true masterpiece was still to come. And here it is: 2666, the 898-page novel he sprinted to finish before his early death in 2003, again showing Bolaño's mesmerizing ability to spin out tale after tale that balance on the edge between happy-go-lucky hilarity and creeping dread. But where the motion of The Savage Detectives is outward, expanding in wider and wider orbit to collect everything about our lonely world, 2666, while every bit as omnivorous, ratchets relentlessly toward a dark center: the hundreds of mostly unsolved murders of women in the desert borderlands of maquiladoras and la migra in northern Mexico. He takes his time getting there--he tells three often charming book-length tales before arriving at the murders--but when he does, in a brutal and quietly strange landscape where neither David Lynch nor Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurh would feel out of place, he writes with a horror that is both haunting and deeply humane. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Last year's The Savage Detectives by the late Chilean-Mexican novelist Bolaño (1953–2003) garnered extraordinary sales and critical plaudits for a complex novel in translation, and quickly became the object of a literary cult. This brilliant behemoth is grander in scope, ambition and sheer page count, and translator Wimmer has again done a masterful job. The novel is divided into five parts (Bolaño originally imagined it being published as five books) and begins with the adventures and love affairs of a small group of scholars dedicated to the work of Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German novelist. They trace the writer to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (read: Juarez), but there the trail runs dry, and it isn't until the final section that readers learn about Benno and why he went to Santa Teresa. The heart of the novel comes in the three middle parts: in The Part About Amalfitano, a professor from Spain moves to Santa Teresa with his beautiful daughter, Rosa, and begins to hear voices. The Part About Fate, the novel's weakest section, concerns Quincy Fate Williams, a black American reporter who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight and ends up rescuing Rosa from her gun-toting ex-boyfriend. The Part About the Crimes, the longest and most haunting section, operates on a number of levels: it is a tormented catalogue of women murdered and raped in Santa Teresa; a panorama of the power system that is either covering up for the real criminals with its implausible story that the crimes were all connected to a German national, or too incompetent to find them (or maybe both); and it is a collection of the stories of journalists, cops, murderers, vengeful husbands, prisoners and tourists, among others, presided over by an old woman seer. It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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2666 is a difficult book to explain, and therefore to review. I'm sure I've not yet understood everything there is to know within its pages.
The novel is really five individual books or novelettes, loosely connected by some similar characters, locations, and interwoven thematic material. They are, however, somewhat stylistically different.
The first, THE PART ABOUT THE CRITICS, follows a disparate group of European literary scholars as they try to track down the mysterious and reclusive German author Benno van Archimboldi. Ultimately, in their quest to find their literary hero, they are led to the northern Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, where they meet a Chilean professor, Amalfitano, who in 1974 translated one of Archimboldi's novels. But was Archimboldi really in Santa Teresa? If so, what on earth would have brought him there?
Part two, THE PART ABOUT AMALFITANO, tells the story of philosophy professor Amalfitano, his wife Lola, and his daughter, Rosa, about how they came to Santa Teresa, and what happened there.
In part three, THE PART ABOUT FATE, we're introduced to a new character, Oscar Fate, an art reporter for a New York newspaper who is sent to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa, Mexico.
Part four, and longest of the five, THE PART ABOUT THE CRIMES, is brutal and relentless. For nearly 300 pages, Bolaño dispassionately catalogs dozens upon dozens of rapes and murders of women in Santa Teresa through the eyes of local law enforcement who believe they have one or more serial killers in their midst. This was the most difficult of the sections to finish. As the crimes and clinical descriptions pile up, one after another after another, you become numb, and the horror turns to mere tedium. I'm sure it's the exact effect the author had in mind.
Finally, part five, THE PART ABOUT ARCHIMBOLDI, and the novel turns finally to the mysterious German author, the focus of the search from part one, and the reason for being in Santa Teresa in the first place.
While it is easy to summarize the sections, it is not so easy to dig deeper and capture the real spirit of the novel in a review like this. I'm not exactly sure how Bolaño does it, but he writes in a way that mesmerizes the reader. While his prose is beautiful, it treats everything, even the horrific, in a prosaic, deadening manner. It has a strange dulling of the senses effect, but keeps you reading, turning the pages.
Bolaño often goes on extended digressions, sometimes many pages long to the point that you forget the original point. He peppers the novel with strange and sometimes humorous non sequiturs.
It had been very long since Lotte thought about her brother and Klaus's question came as something of a surprise. Around this time Lotte and Werner had gotten involved in real estate, which neither of them knew anything about, and they were afraid of losing money. So Lotte's answer was vague: she told him that his uncle was ten years older than she was, more or less, and that the way he made a living wasn't exactly a model for young people, more or less, and that it had been a long time since the family had news of him, because he had disappeared from the face of the earth, more or less. 
Throughout the novel, Bolaño tosses in seemingly extraneous details, bits of information, which, in the end, really do turn out to be extraneous. Characters come and go, never to be seen again. 2666 is a slice of life – it's messy, many mysteries are left unexplained. There is no tidy bow. And, more than anything, the deaths in Santa Teresa haunt everything in the book. If there is anything that ties the five sections together, it's the mystery of the killings of Santa Teresa, and the constant threat of death.
And I know I say this a lot, but: the book will not be to everyone's liking. Definitely not a summer beach book. And, no, the title is never explained.
The line is from Charles Baudelaire and it manages to sum up the novel in a single sentence. The poet T.S. Eliot believed that Charles Baudelaire's depictions of ennui, and the horrors of modern life, were like the photographic negatives of a more positive, mystical, and beatific vision. In his essay on Baudelaire Eliot writes "the sense of Evil implies the sense of good" and "such suffering as Baudelaire's implies the possibility of a positive state of beatitude". In past ages the beatific vision was presented directly and in positive terms. Writers celebrated the signs of God's Providence in nature and history. The whole world seemed to sing the praises of God and provide evidence of His Glory. T.S. Eliot was as aware as anyone that the time for such positive visions was over. The modern world that Eliot himself depicts in his poems is a wasteland and the negative vision is all we have left of the mystical after the "death of God". We no longer see the providence of God in the indifference and violence of nature, and even if there is progress in history, something that is doubtful to say the least, the progress comes at the price of a great deal of waste and human suffering. Countless innocent lives are sacrificed to the march of history, some of them are sacrificed nobly on behalf of great causes, but many are simply the victims of the mundane realities of city life and mental illness.
There are a number of modern writers who seem to me to present the reader with a negative vision of a God-forsaken world, a kind of modern day mystical vision, or substitute for the old visions of God's grandeur. What the writers I am thinking of have in common is not simply the unflinching portrayal of the darker side of life but the belief that an honest look at the darker side of life is capable of providing some metaphysical insight into the nature of reality. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy, is a novel that presents such a vision and, it seems to me, 2666 is another. 2666 does not have a unified narrative structure, but the novel is centered around a series of rapes and murders that take place in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa and, the narrator claims, even though "no one pays attention to these killings...the secret of the world is hidden in them". The brutal and senseless murders that are the focal point of Bolano's novel are the aperture through which the metaphysical nature of reality is revealed, just as, in previous ages, writer's believed they could read the secrets of God's Providence from the interlocking purposes of nature.
The novel itself is long, at times frustrating, and composed of five separate, but interrelated, movements. 'The Part About the Critics' tells the story of four literary critics devoted to the work of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi. After hearing a rumor that Archimboldi has been spotted in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa three of the critics set off in pursuit. 'The Part About Amalfitano' follows the story of a philosophy professor, who lives in Santa Teresa with his daughter Rosa, and is slowly losing his mind. 'The Part About Fate' is about a newspaper reporter who is in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but winds up becoming interested in the murders taking place in the city. 'The Part About the Murders' interweaves the stories of a number of Santa Teresa detectives with endless newspaper like reports of the murders. 'The Part About Archimboldi' moves back in time to tell the life story of the German author Benno von Archimboldi, whose real name is Hans Reiter, including his experiences in World War II as a soldier for the German army.
The five parts of the novel are related through what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called "family resemblances". Just as the facial resemblances between family members pass from a similar nose here, to a similar chin there, without there being a single facial feature that is common to all members of the same family, so too, the parts of this novel are related through a recurring character here, and a different recurring character or setting there, without there being a single unifying story to tie them all together into a whole. There is no Ur-story or meta-narrative operating in Bolano's world, perhaps another sign of our Godless post-modern condition. The first section is related to the second through the character of Amalfitano, who appears in both, and to the fifth through the character of Archimboldi. The second is related to the third through Rosa, and the fourth section is related to all of the others through the town of Santa Teresa. The fifth is connected to the first through Archimboldi, and the third and fourth through Klaus Haas. If beauty is the perception of form, or integral wholeness, then there is no beauty in Bolano's 2666, but, it seems to me to be another distinguishing characteristic of modern writing to try to find beauty in what is ugly, senseless, and disjointed, and, I think, Bolano is as successful as any other modern writer in doing so.
Like a Mandlebrot set, the same fracture that is present in the novel as a whole is also present in the parts, though to a lesser degree. Each individual section is unified by the presence of a dominant story line and cast of characters but Bolano is fond of the digression. He spends pages introducing minor characters, giving their life histories, and then never returns to them again. Along the way we meet a painter who cuts off his own hand and includes it as part of one of his paintings, a mad poet who lives in an insane asylum, and a Romanian Jew who goes to fight for the Bolsheviks, and then, presumably, is killed by the Nazis. Those are just a few of the interesting characters that people Bolano's tome. When, late in the novel, a character says, referring to the writings of Archimboldi, "The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way that the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere", it is pretty clear that this is a self-conscious and self-referential literary gesture on Bolano's part. Bolano is a skilled writer, he is skilled at creating full blooded characters with the stroke of a pen, and skilled at creating interesting back stories that generally hold the reader's attention, but the digressions, after almost 900 pages, get a bit tedious.
The murders that are the focal point of the story are narrated in a very matter of fact way. Facts are given about each killing including, the age and name of the victim, their occupation, the manner and approximate time of death. Sometimes Bolano fills in the back story a bit but, for the most part, we are given nothing but the bare facts of the case. By turning to the holocaust in the final section of the novel Bolano sets up a contrast that I think is important between the murders in Santa Teresa and the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. They are both examples of senseless violence but the holocaust has become a part of our grand historical narrative in a way that more everyday murders like those in Santa Teresa have not. We have monuments honoring the victims of the holocaust, history museums to keep their memories alive, and there are first person accounts documenting the horrors of the concentration camps. The stories that Bolano chooses to tell in this novel are stories that are rarely told. We do not have any monuments honoring the dead of Ciudad-Juarez, or any museums keeping their memory alive (the fictional city of Santa Teresa is based on Ciudad-Juarez).
Humans have a well documented affinity for narrative which seems to be rooted in our brains and nervous systems. Narrative seems to be one of the primary ways that we make sense of the world and, as senseless and horrific as the holocaust was, we seem to have succeeded in constructing a narrative about the holocaust that is capable of making some sense out of it. Even if the ultimate motivations driving the perpetrators of the holocaust remains a mystery as dark as any mystery in the universe, we at least know who to blame. The murders that Bolano's novel documents fall outside of history because they are deemed too unimportant and, therefore, they are never integrated into our sense making activities. They are also mostly unsolved which makes it difficult to assign blame. The murders remain genuinely senseless and unintegrated. We have no place for them in the stories we tell ourselves. In 2666 Bolano has attempted to make a novel, a form of writing that is tied essentially to narrative, out of something that resists our usual narrative activities. That fact, I think, goes a long way towards explaining the narrative fragmentation of the novel. It also explains why the murders are "the secret of the world" and are able to serve as an aperture, allowing us to see through the arbitrary nature of our standard, everyday cognitive constructs. The murders are just one more ignored hint that the meaning we impose on the world is secondary revision and rationalization through and through. Writers in past ages attempted to see through the seeming chaos of the world to perceive the divine order operating in it, while modern writers, Bolano included, attempt to see past the order that we impose on the world in order to perceive the senseless chaos underneath.
Madness is another recurring theme in the novel and it fits with this theme nicely. In our modern Godless world madness is, perhaps, the closest we get to hearing the voice of the divine, or at least the voice of something other than our banal reason. Madness also reveals to us the arbitrary nature of our standard cognitive constructs. Madness breaks through our standard sense making activities and shows us the chaos rumbling beneath our feet. It is also possible that madness is the appropriate response in a mad world where hundreds of brutal murders are considered business as usual. The artists in Bolano's novel almost invariably go mad and they all seem to be conspicuously devoid of any redeeming vision for humanity. It has been a common place among intellectuals to look to artists for salvation from our self-inflicted miseries but, in Bolano's world, the cries of the artists are as senseless as the world that created them. They are poisonous flowers blooming in the desert.
2666 is a well conceived artistic vision but, ultimately, it is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. There are at least three things that are responsible for the reader's frustration. First, the novel builds slowly to a climax in the fourth section. The murders are hinted at in the first three sections and then become the subject of the fourth. The reader is drawn into the mystery and is aching for some kind of resolution, preferably, one that would tie all the pieces of the novel together. The reader feels as if they are being led to a kind of climax for the first 600+ pages of the book, and then, suddenly, after the fourth section, the novel jumps back 70 years, and it never really gets back to where the story left off in the fourth section. The story of Hans Reiter is an interesting story, it would have made a fascinating stand alone novel, but it is marred by the fact that the reader is eager to get back to the killings in Santa Teresa, which take place in the 1990s, but is, instead, stuck back in the 1940s for most of the section. Second, the digressions get tedious for the same reason. All of the side stories that Bolano tells would be fascinating stories on their own, but the reader begins to feel like they are merely distractions from the central mystery. That makes reading the novel a chore at times. Third, there is, ultimately, no real resolution to the mystery. Bolano's novel, like life, leaves the reader face to face with the mystery of existence. That was the right choice on Bolano's part. Any "solution" to the mystery would seem puerile. Even if we were told who the perpetrators of the murders were would that make them any less mysterious? Would knowing who the perpetrators were silence our questions about the nature of evil or the senselessness of violence? Would assigning names to the murderers answer any of our questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life and death? There is no "solution", each local solution merely hides a more general problem, but knowing that fact does not make it any less frustrating.
If you can deal with the frustration, and you have time and emotional energy to devote to an ambitious novel, 2666 is worth a read.
It's more a novel that a reader experiences alongside the characters. It is like a snapshot of a point in time in which scary things happen in the real world, often with no explanation that is uncovered. In that sense, the novel mirrors everyday life.