These days it seems that almost everyone sees the apocalypse bearing down
This is the age of Kali Yag and the oncoming rapture, the arrival of the triumphant Mehdi, of catastrophic climate change and resource shortage. This is the age in which Beduin compete to build the taller towers, in which fog appears above cities as a sign of their evil.
‘2666’ is a vast apocalypse-in-motion novel set in the 1990s. It was written by a poet who turned to novel writing in his forties only in order to support his young family. He died at 50.
Roberto Bolano wrote ‘2666’ in five books. Before he died he asked that each book be published separately, because he believed that would leave more cash for his loved ones. His publishers decided to ignore this directive, for each book feeds thematically and by plot tangent into the others.
The novel has a cumulative, total effect. The first book – effortlessly cosmopolitan, densely detailed, persistently digressive – centres on a menage a trois between three European academics who also share an obsession with a reclusive German writer called Archimboldi. When a British-Pakistani cab driver expresses his outrage at the academics’ unorthodox relationship, the two men of the trio beat him to a pulp. Afterwards, “they were convinced that it was the Pakistani who was the real reactionary and misogynist, the violent one, the intolerant and offensive one, that the Pakistani had asked for it a thousand times over.”
Almost in passing, the episode diagnoses a very contemporary European disease, but also contributes to some of the novel’s central themes, of violence, anonoymity, senselessness and the failure of imagination.
The novel’s heart, and the longest book, is the fourth, The Part About The Crimes. Here Bolano mixes fact and fiction in a form hitherto unventured. His source material is the real-life murder of over 400 women and girls in Cuidad Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the 90s.
In a style at once informal, poetic, savage, clipped and forensic, Bolano sets up a stark mirror to reality. His city is Santa Teresa, also on the US border, a zone of nightclubs and brothels, deserts and industrial zones, luxury villas and unlit shanty towns. Not an underworld, just the world. The poor suffer disproportionately. The victims work in the factories, or are prostitutes, or are on their way to imagined success in the north. Many victims are anonymous, their corpses unclaimed. Patterns in the murders arise and dissolve. Some of the bodies are chaotically mutilated; some are mutilated distinctively, to leave a psychopath’s tag; some are dressed again after being raped and tortured; some are not.
In this section alone there must be thousands of characters, most with walk-on parts (or wheel-on parts, as most are dead when we meet them), including: the murderees, sometimes their family members, friends and co-workers, sometimes the neighbours and boyfriends of the coworkers, plus the police, a psychiatrist, a medical examiner, a (perhaps) falsely accused German, his fellow prisoners, his jailors, a medium, journalists, TV presenters, a senator. In one digression, Bolano follows a family tree consisting of women called Maria Exposito who have been raped in every generation to give birth to the next. The name game is reminiscent of all the ‘Aurelianos’ in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, but Bolano is much grimmer, much more tragically contemporary than Marquez.
The fourth book, brilliant and multi-layered as it is, can be hard to read for two reasons: sometimes because the details of the torture and sadism are difficult in themselves, more often because you grow tired of the detail, can’t remember all these girls, their names and appearances and histories, if they own any. Sometimes you feel Bolano is having a laugh at your expense (churning it out as he sat dying, each barely necessary episode clocking up another dollar in his brain); more often you feel he’s punishing you for being part of such an obscene world, for lacking heart and brain and memory, for being a clod. He holds your nose to it.
The Part About Archimboldi, the fifth book, which a little like Italo Calvino vibrates between realism and a tone of magical folklore, was the most satisfying for me. This may be because the elusive writer (Archimboldi) is finally in focus, and because several connections are made to characters from the earlier books, tying up loose ends. But it may simply reflect my slow conversion to Bolano’s method. Great writers are seldom easy to read right away. They challenge the reader, gradually educating him into a new way of reading.
Bolano demonstrates an almost supernatural mastery of moods, texts and genres, from three continents. He must have been influenced by Saramago – who in ‘Blindness’ focussed coldly on the relentless degeneration of human community to a dark and bitter base – as well as South American writing, especially Borges, but also no doubt by north American antecedents.
The third book, The Part About Fate, pays homage to pulp fiction and film noir (and the Black Panthers). The fourth book shares the recording urge and unashamed social analysis of John Dos Passos or E.L. Doctorow. The vast canvas of the whole, and the implied interpretive oscillation between paranoia and entropy, suggests Thomas Pynchon, whose writerly persona may be one model for the reclusive Archimboldi (but Bolano is better than Pynchon at his best, who anyway has sadly fallen.
In his last book, ‘Inherent Vice’, experimentalism finally stutters into wheezy, dope-raddled incoherence). ‘Moby Dick’ is a useful comparison. ‘2666’ is Melvillean in length, ambition, in its long pirouettes of sentence, as well as its thematic interest in evil. Indeed, the novel is better described by theme than by plot because it contains as much plot as real life, which is either an infinite amount or none at all, as you choose to interpret it.
Its deepest themes are also characteristics of Bolano’s writing: complexity, density, interconnection but also sudden rupture, a mix of illumination and silence which creates a kind of epiphanal incomprehension to mirror any switched-on human being’s most alive moments. The writing is beautiful. For this reason, even on the occasions when you suspect Bolano is wasting your time, you don’t mind. The prose is exuberant, cerebral and visceral at once, funny, utterly unpredictable, thickly textured, pacy, filmic, elegant, and given to astounding metaphorical bursts. The metaphor is so unrestrained, so astonishing, so fluent, it reminds you there’s no activity worth engaging in like writing.
It also torments you with the knowledge that you will never write as densely and expansively as this. It shuts you up and sets you flowing, both at once. It cows you and spurs you on. Like life itself. Subtly, not noisily, self-referential (though crowded with textual games and literary allusions, it is the least ‘precious’ book you could imagine), ‘2666’ speaks a great deal for itself. One character rants against Mexican intellectuals: “They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they strive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only a deafening and hopeless silence. They say cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal.” Well then. This book dares to imagine both the animal and its absence.
Somewhere else the novel complains about people who prefer minor works, ‘Bartleby’ instead of ‘Moby Dick’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ instead of ‘Hard Times’, because “they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” 2666 is real combat.
2666 by Roberto Bolano. translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Picador 2009 London Review by Robin Yassin-Kassab. Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel published by Penguin. He co-edits www.pulsemedia.org and blogs at www.qunfuz.com.