I hardly know where to begin reviewing this massive opus. But I know I am not alone because most of the people who have read the thing just rate it with stars to indicate how well they liked it and leave it at that. I don’t even think the star rating system works well when considering this novel.
2666 might almost be thought of as fictional nonfiction in that it reads like remembered thought, something like a memoir, though it is broken into “books” and many people are central rather than a single narrator. It crosses several continents, and takes in pieces of people’s lives that we later discover intersect. Or, more precisely perhaps, their paths cross paths, like meteors leaving trace. This is ‘Life’ writ large: the work is so bulky one can barely see from one end of it to another, one loses one’s way. One makes connections but too late or too slowly sometimes and even then what does it matter? What control did we really have? Could we have made a difference, a difference to us or to everyone else? Ach!
The work is comprised of five Books which Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, tells us were meant to be published separately. Echevarría decided, however, that the parts were better off coming together because of their linked quality, which is not apparent until Book Five. Bolaño was first a poet but he thought he’d make more money in novels (publishers and writers will no doubt laugh at this, though this author was probably right in his own case) and there were many times during this opus that I thought he’d have done better to stick to poetry. I was not being facetious. He throws in the kitchen sink, gathering like a vacuum factoids and sidelines from people’s lives that don’t really seem to fit or be at all relevant.
However, in the end, if you can get to the end (and again, I am not being facetious—this takes stamina and stomach) there is something here which is difficult to articulate. It is sorrow, it is appetite, it is fullness, it is all, including the bad bits. At the end we can say we’ve seen it all, experienced it all. If you cling to life in old age or sickness with the idea that somehow tomorrow will be better, put that aside for Life is not especially kind. It has good bits but there is plenty of bad, too, and you can’t have one without the other.
Book One begins with academics following the work of an obscure German writer. They admire his style and tout it successfully enough that the man is mentioned in the same breath as The Nobel Prize. They are curious about his life and where he lives and how he writes. The second book, “The Part about Amalfitano” is about a Chilean transplant to Mexico and appears to be Bolaño’s musings about life, death, love, art, sexuality, and reality. He ranges from “this shithole has no future” to “ Poetry is the only thing that isn’t contaminated…only poetry…isn’t shit.” This section may well contain explanations to the rest of the novel—why Bolaño wrote it, how he felt when he began, and what he intended.
Book Three, The Book about Fate, is a linking book, connecting forgotten and overlooked people whose lives, like threads, nevertheless intersect and overlap others in the ball of string that is life, and move us unfathomably in a direction that appears to be no direction at all. We, each of us, could write a section like this about our lives when we stepped off into the unknowingness of the wider world and played an infinitesimal part in events that occur in the future without our knowledge or consent. This book links directly to Book Four, though we don’t understand the link until Book Five.
Book Four, The Part about the Crimes, is one of the most horrific litanies of rape, murder and torture that I have ever heard, for I listened on audio and the narrator’s deadpan voice did not inflect no matter the nature of the material he recited. A spate (how trivial a word to describe a tidal wave of such proportions) of murders of women was taking place across a section of Mexico. By the end I had concluded that one man couldn’t possibly have done this if he worked full-time at killing, so it was a crime that spawned crime, and crime done with similar hatred and method. I looked in the paper copy of the book to see if the deaths were listed, like they sounded on audio (1,2,3…). But no, Bolaño writes in paragraphs: one’s eyes skim the size and shape of the words on the page and the horror is not revealed until it is spoken or read aloud in an endless, truly agonizing Reading of the Names.
In Book Five, we learn of one killer at least. And we see that elusive author from Book One, Archimboldi, again. It finishes with Bolaño writing to his publishers, friends and readers” “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you goodbye.” Bolaño died a matter of months after he finished the book. One senses he knew what he was leaving behind, both in terms of life and in terms of legacy. It is a very difficult work, and one doesn’t need it to live. One cannot help but be awed, though, by the workings of one man’s mind, and enriched by his big, binocular vision of this world and its inhabitants.
The Farrar, Strauss & Giroux hardcover edition has a few really nice touches, besides being beautifully printed. The endpapers have black and white etchings of sea flora, possibly from Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region. The cover copy has a single sentence of introduction quoted here in full:
Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment, a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman--these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared."And a single sentence review from a NY Review of Books critic in the place where the author photo usually is: "An often shockingly raunchy and violent tour de force (though the phrase seems hardly adequate to describe the novel's narrative velocity, polyphonic range, inventiveness, and bravery) based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, in the Sonora Desert of Mexico." This is not praise, but has the exhaustive bluntness of belief. The literary world will be divided between those who read and those who did not read this book. This book was recommended to me by Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, from an interview he gave to Jill Owens of Powell's on his book tour.
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