Thursday, 20 March 2014

Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolano

by Henry Cunnison

2666 is a long and, at times, difficult book. It is evident Chilean author Roberto Bolano, who died before the book was published, meant it to be his master work. Many critics believe he has achieved it. Some have gone as far to call it “a landmark in what’s possible for the novel.” While it is perhaps too soon to categorise a book of such complexity as a classic, it has certainly been the most affecting book I have ever read.
2666 is split into 5 parts: the part about the critics, about Amalfitano, about Fate, about the crimes and about Archimboldi. Although these parts do occasionally intersect, they are largely self-contained (Bolano wanted them published individually) and run concurrently. The stories are ultimately linked by the city of Santa Teresa, a faithful, though fictionalised, recreation of the Mexican border city Juarez. Santa Teresa is a city that on the surface appears to be booming: everyone has a job, factories are being developed etc. However, hundreds of women have been murdered in what is regarded as the worst serial killing spree in the world. And yet no one seems to care. Only the part about the crimes specifically charts the violence committed against women in this city, but the murders are a feature in all the other sections to some extent.

One way in which 2666 is so bewildering is that it has no real plot. Events happen, yet by the end of the book no decisive progress has been made. In many ways the reader is back to the beginning. It is not so much a novel as a series of scenes loosely linked. At some points 2666 descends into madness. This is especially true of the part about Amalfitano, as it follows the titular character as he loses his mind. Yet so many themes flow through the novel. Among these are: sexism and corruption in the Mexican state; racism; politics, from France to the USA; and, perhaps above all, the nature of a masterwork. On this final topic Bolano, through the character of Amalfitano, rages that too many are afraid to:
“take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown…They want to watch the great masters spar, but have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something… amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Bolano despairs that when people read Kafka, (he thinks) it is The Metamorphosis not The Trial and when they delve into Melville, it is never Moby Dick. Bolano clearly saw 2666 as great and imperfect, rather than short and well formed. This is what, he believed, made it his masterwork.

This book is a puzzle. It is hard to know if it has any real meaning at all. No one even knows what the title refers to. Yet it is rewarding to the highest degree. It explores so many cultures, so many cities. Bolano makes references to diverse sources: from Sade to Heraclitus, Saint-Simon to Saint Anselm. At times it seems all of world literature is contained within this one novel. If you can stomach the length, the violence, and the excesses, you should experience this book.

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