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2666 by Roberto Bolaño

July 14, 2010

I need to finally shelve this book. I’ve written several short essays covering various aspects of it: the femicides in Santa Teresa, the symbolism of water, and the role of suffering in 2666 (which might be its central theme). I could go on with this book for a year. I would like to take a class on it if one were offered. There are so many layers and aspects of it, and as much as I’ve thought about it I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. To try to write a review that encapsulates the whole thing seems absurd. I realize that sounds melodramatic.

2666 is made up of five stories that overlap somewhat. I was happy with the subtlety with which the threads were woven together, but if you prefer plots where everything is neatly hemmed, you may be frustrated and unsatisfied. Some overlap more than others, but they’re more like distant cousins with thematic similarities than interdependent stories.

Part 1: The Part About The Critics. This is the most light-hearted of the five parts. We follow four academics who all specialize in the literary output of one obscure, reclusive German author: Benno von Archimboldi. They travel around Europe, giving talks, sitting on panels, attending conferences, chasing clues as to Archimbaldi’s whereabouts—they are a farce of academia, little more than hyper-literary fanboys, and Bolaño has some fun at their expense. But even in this section, there is an overlay of darkness—much time is spent describing their dreams, which are often cryptic and ominous. And as they carry on soap-operatic relationships with each other, there is a boiling point at which the comedy is shattered with a disturbingly violent act. As we begin to tire of them, they receive a clue that takes them to Santa Teresa, Mexico—the physical and thematic nexus of the entire novel—hot on the trail (or so they think) of their hero, Archimbaldi.

Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano “I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa,” is the first line in this part. Indeed, Amalfitano, the Chilean professor and protagonist of Part 2, is about as lost as one can be. We met him briefly in Part 1, but in Part 2 we see that he is falling apart. We begin to feel the weight of his paranoia. His daughter Rosa lives with him, and although he (and we) are somewhat oblivious to the immediate danger that surrounds her, we all know that something bad is closing in, and something is very wrong. Wrong with Santa Teresa, and wrong with Amalfitano.  He literally doesn’t know how he got to be where he now lives. He hangs books on the clothesline in the back yard as a weird symbolic gesture. He is involved with a woman who delights in telling him of her sexual encounters with various artists. There are strange black cars outside his house at weird times of day and night and he does not know what to make of them. And he draws cryptic geometric diagrams, writing in the names of philosophers at various points on the diagram, as if he is mapping the world of meaning. Amalfitano is a mess, a mystery. He is losing his mind.

Part 3: The Part About Fate. I was relieved when I read the first few paragraphs and realize this part was not about fate as in destiny, but rather about a man named Oscar Fate. When we first meet fate, his mother has just passed away. He is not stable, but he seems to be one of the most level-headed characters we will encounter. Fate is a New York reporter who has been asked to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa. An American is fighting a Mexican. He is not a sports reporter, but the sports reporter has just been “whacked.” So Fate is asked to cover the case. At first, as a part of a different story, he travels to Detroit to do a piece on a thinly-veiled Bobby Seal character (named Barry Seaman), barbecue sauce and all. We get a spectacular speech by Seaman, something I’ve read parallels the opening speech in Moby Dick, though I haven’t looked into it. But the subjects of the speech are DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, and USEFULNESS. It is wild.

Then Fate is off to cover the boxing match, which is really nothing worth reporting on. However, while in Santa Teresa, he learns of the serial killings there, the femicides—hundreds of women and girls who have been murdered, usually brutally, in recent years. He wants to cover this story. This is a real story. He meets Amalfitano’s daughter and becomes entangled in some really dangerous stuff. “The Part About Fate” falls somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Ralph Ellison. It is absurd in its own way, but also pulls us straight into the real treachery of Santa Teresa. It has as close to a happy ending as we are going to get, and we almost feel like we’re going to make it out of here okay. Then comes Part 4.

Part 4: The Part About the Crimes. Imagine a stone skipping along a dark lake. That’s what we’ve been so far, with each part a single skip. We skip, skip, skip along, just touching the surface of Santa Teresa, and then in Part 4 we hit the water and plunge right down into the darkness. I haven’t read anything as unmercifully brutal as “The Part About the Crimes.” It is an unflinching 300-page recounting of the murders of Juarez, in the cold, clinical manner of a police report. It is a story of a city discarded, forgotten, located geographically as near the United States as possible, but on the far end of the spectrum of opportunity. The people of Santa Teresa are no match for the powers they’re up against: the geopolitics of the global economy, the drug trade, the institutionalized corruption of the Mexican officialdom. It as if all the shit of the world has run downhill and here we are seeing the people choking on it. These are Jesus’s people—the people at the bottom. It is brutal. It is exploitative. It is suffering in the form of a city. And the worst part of it all is that it is true. These murders are based on the real murders in Juarez, a place that has become more dangerous than Baghdad, where murder is the primary cause of death ahead of diabetes.

Interspersed with the killings, as if for relief, are intertwined stories of police officers (good, bad and indifferent), snuff films, corruption, prostitution, gangs, an American politician searching for her missing white friend, a madman who desecrates churches, police raids, murdered reporters, a television psychic and a terrifying German man named Klaus Haas who is arrested for the murders. We follow Haas into the prison system of Santa Teresa, and if you thought the rapes and murders and decapitations and mutilations on the outside were violent, just wait.

What is the point of all this? That’s what you are forced to ask if you can get through this part. Why is Bolaño doing this? There’s no moral to this story. But because it’s based on fact, on truth, the question becomes more why is this happening? Not in the book, but in reality. How can this be happening? What have we done here in Santa Teresa?

Part 5: The Part About Archimbaldi. He is a boy who loves the water. His mother is blind in one eye and his father has one leg. He likes to sketch seaweed. In Part 5, we finally meet the character, Hans Reiter, who will take the name Benno von Archimbaldi (it’s no surprise that he does—it’s the title of the chapter). Part 5 follows Archimbaldi’s life from childhood, through his education, his time in the Nazi military, his development as a writer, and his relationship to the crimes in Santa Teresa. He is a goofy but likeable character. In the end, he travels to Mexico and we are left with an image of him walking into the distance of the Sonoran desert.

2666 is as unconventional a story as they come. At times it is brutal, with no neat endings, let alone happy ones. But it never felt as daunting as I thought it would, and I never considered giving up on it. The writing is that good and the imagery is that compelling. Bolaño’s themes are messy and enigmatic, and each dark stairway leads to more dark rooms and dreams and messed up characters and weird places. His writing as a whole is dreamlike, with small expressionistic strokes rather than an entire painting. But when you step back and take it all in, the result is overwhelming.  To all of that, add that this is the magnum opus of a dying man—a man who was suffering from a terminal liver condition and literally racing to finish this book while he could. So while it is an investigation into the nature of a decaying society and the depths of human depravity, it is also a dying man shining a light on the dark corners of his own soul, perhaps looking for clues or hope, as he prepares to cross over into the true unknown.


Here’s a great post on (the reading group I followed) by Matt Hunte.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 15, 2010 11:55 pm

    I just finished 2666. At first its vague nature was maddening, especially in the 4th section in which the murders are painstakingly described. In the end I loved the fact that everything was unresloved. It’s like life, rich, complicated, and uncertain.

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