Roberto Bolaño is a poet of dread, trafficking in those pregnant moments from our nightmares that find us edging ever closer to some mysterious object that radiates horror. He is a master of the numinous, the glimpsed, the whispered; what his characters do, more than anything else, is disappear. Even the picaresque romp of his breakthrough novel, The Savage Detectives, which trembles with exuberant life, is racked with sudden violence, ominous portents, and inexplicable disappearances—and it’s all the more dreadful for the way the two tones are mixed, as youthful heedlessness again and again comes jarringly up against casual brutality. The world, he suggests, is a far more mysterious and dangerous place than we are generally willing to acknowledge, and we should never delude ourselves that the ground beneath our feet is anything like solid.
Bolaño’s final novel, 2666, represents a sort of apotheosis of that dread. An exceedingly strange and complicated book, it is divided into five distinct but interrelated parts (each of which could stand alone, though they would lose a lot of their power thereby) and centers on the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, a city that is the dark exemplar of globalization. Flooded by immigrant labor and riven by inequality, it is a place where human life is essentially valueless and where those presumed to be its guardians—the government, police, and even the church—are simultaneously too overwhelmed and too corrupt to act as any sort of check against human predation.
But that aspect of the book takes a while to emerge. The first section, “The Part about the Critics,” which tells of four literary scholars brought together by their interest in an elusive German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, is often lightly comic in its depiction of academic insularity and fannish devotion, and it’s hard not to imagine Bolaño using this section to gently tweak the cult that had already begun growing around his own work. The academics lead pampered lives, attending conferences and participating in recondite discussions about this author who hasn’t been seen for decades. Yet even here, at the (somewhat pointless) peak of intellectualism and civilization, violence is never far away. When two of the critics erupt in shockingly brutal fashion, their actions are made all the more horrifying by they way the men relatively quickly resume their ordinary lives, their savagery leaving barely a mark on their self-conception.
Ultimately the search for Archimboldi leads them to Santa Teresa, and from there the city takes center stage. Part One ends, as do so many stories in Bolaño’s work, abruptly and without conclusion; Part Two plunges us into the rapidly deteriorating psyche of Amalfitano, a professor of literature in Santa Teresa who played a minor role in the first part. Bolaño has demonstrated before his facility at depicting insanity, and his portrait of Amalfitano’s mix of obsessions, confusions, and cosmic intimations is chillingly compelling. Even as he feels his sanity slipping away, Amalfitano is worried about his teenage daughter doing the same; she teeters on the verge of a dangerous recklessness, and watching her father fight a losing battle to maintain focus long enough to help her is excruciating.
Throughout that section, we get hints that in Santa Teresa, the dangers lurking for young women like Amalitano’s daughter are far worse than those faced by the typical teen. When Amalfitano’s wife leaves him, for example, “The next day Amalfitano got up at six and turned on the radio to make sure no hitchhiker on any highway nearby had been murdered or raped.” For Santa Teresa is a thinly disguised portrait of the real-life Ciudad Juarez, where the murders of hundreds of women have gone unsolved over the past decade and a half; those murders become the focus of the book in the third part, “The Part about Fate.” Charles Fate, an African-American magazine writer, is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, where he is irritated and bored by the preparations for what is obviously an egregious mismatch. Instead, he gets involved with Amalfitano’s daughter, while at the same time finding himself intrigued by the casual, callous discussion of the raped and mutilated bodies that are regularly being found in and around the desert city. Realizing that these crimes have barely been noted in the United States, Fate is seduced both by a desire to break the story and a more inchoate fantasy of playing detective. As in so much of Bolaño’s work, however, the very idea that there might be an answer is a chimera, and Fate’s quest brings him far closer to death than it does to any pretense of truth.
In many ways the least successful of the book’s parts—there are odd stretches of flat prose and some relatively fruitless digressions—this section serves primarily to introduce us to the seamy, lawless underside of life in Santa Teresa, the sexual violence and exploitation that trail in the wake of money and power. But nothing can truly prepare the reader for section four, “The Part about the Crimes,” in which for nearly three hundred pages Bolaño tells about the dead women of Santa Teresa. He offers page after repetitive page of grim, flat, unsalacious detail of how the bodies were found, what had been done to the women, what they were wearing, and how the police—usually without any real investigation—filed the case away unsolved. “No one combed the crime scene, nor did anyone make casts of the numerous tracks around the site.” It is hard even to begin to convey how wearing the litany is. There is no prurience in Bolaño’s account, for there is no imagination: he deals here solely in facts, and they are simply brutal.
Even as he leavens this recounting with tales of living characters—some dedicated but ineffectual police officers, a fierce congresswoman, some journalists—and even an awkward love story, the mounting toll of violence is unrelenting, distressingly banal yet unbearable. At times I wanted nothing so much as to close the book and never pick it up again. So why did I keep reading? I continued at least in part because it seem Bolaño has issued us a moral challenge: if I have decided to care about the fates of the characters he’s fleshed out in the novel, then don’t I owe the same care to the forsaken dead whose lives he never got a chance to imagine—and, by extension, to the real-life victims who are their counterparts? Through his flat descriptions, Bolaño is reminding us not only that this violence is happening in our world, but that one of the reasons it can happen is that we ignore it. A suspect—a creepily affectless German named Klaus—is arrested, and police officials assure the public, “The serial killings of women have been successfully resolved. . . . Everything that happens from now on falls under the category of ordinary crimes, what you’d naturally find in a city in a constant state of growth and development. This is the end of the psychopaths.” But the killings continue. There is no solution, Bolaño seems to suggest, to this primal violence, abetted as it is by the excesses of late capitalism and human indifference. We are naive to expect an answer, never more hopelessly so than when we find ourselves believing along with the detectives that we might be on the verge of one. The end of the section arrives as jarringly as its beginning did, with one last addition to the bill of mortality, one more soul gone down unremarked.
The final section—which can’t help but come as a relief—brings back Benno von Archimboldi, the mysterious German author who was the subject of the critics’ search in the first part. But this time we get his actual life story rather than the speculations built around his work and his reclusiveness. The scope of this section is incredibly broad—in duration, geography, emotion, and technique—but it feels somewhat sketchy, its language lacking Bolaño’s customary richness. It may be unfair to speculate, but perhaps this concluding section would have received substantial polishing had Bolaño lived. Archimboldi’s life spans the twentieth century and all of Europe, but the center of his story is World War II and the atrocities thereof. In a series of overlapping, fragmented, often unfinished stories of the war and its aftermath, Bolaño reminds us that even when guilt can be established, justice can be elusive, unsatisfying, even inappropriate. We are back in the realm of political violence, organized brutality, that has so often lurked behind Bolaño’s work in the past; the latent human brutality of the previous section is here shown in its just as horrifying official form, its eruptions compartmentalized, even pardoned, by society as aberrations stemming from the madness of war. Eventually, however, Bolaño returns our focus to Santa Teresa (via a surprising connection) and the murders, suggesting, at least tentatively, a genealogy of violence that civilization would prefer to deny.
This section, too, ends abruptly, without resolution—if there is any constant to Bolaño’s work, it is that there will be no resolution. We close the book wrung out, strained, confused. And what are we left with? What, after all, is this novel? On the one hand it is, as I’ve described above, an investigation of violence, and specifically of male violence, bound up as it often is with another primal force, sex; it is about the hiding places we offer for savagery within our societies and ourselves, the veneer of civilization that only hides the horror because we are complicit in its deceit. And, like The Savage Detectives, it is about the tenuousness of human life—about how the only thing we can be sure of is that all those we love will some day disappear, and whether it’s into the wider world or into the void we may never even learn.
At the same time, 2666 is another iteration of Bolaño’s increasingly baroque, cryptic, and mystical personal vision of the world, revealed obliquely by his recurrent symbols, images, and tropes. There is something secret, horrible, and cosmic afoot, centered around Santa Teresa (and possibly culminating in the mystical year of the book’s title, a date that is referred to in passing in The Savage Detectives as well). We can at most glimpse it, in those uncanny moments when the world seems wrong—”The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain”—or when the characters succumb to dark dreams, like the vague horror animating this dream from one of the critics:
When Pelletier opened his eyes he thought about the bathers’ behavior. It was clear they were waiting for something, but you couldn’t say there was anything desperate in their waiting. Every once in a while they’d simply look more alert, their eyes scanning the horizon for a second or two, and then they would once again become part of the flow of time on the beach, fluidly, without a moment of hesitation.”
Perhaps this whole universe is a nightmare—a worker in the maquiladoras of Santa Teresa imagines the world as “an endless shipwreck,” while Bolaño describes the city’s policemen as “soldiers trapped in a time warp who march over and over again to the same defeat”—and 2666 is when we will awake? Will we awake to a greater horror, or to some ultimate expiation? Or maybe there is no answer as clear as that: if there is a system underlying Bolaño’s fictional universe, in which characters and symbols recur across multiple volumes, it is one that we can only intuit, one whose meaning seems always to be turning the corner just ahead of us. The hermetic qualities of Bolaño’s work bear some of the false coherence of the insane; perhaps this novel’s meaning is ultimately singular, fully penetrable only by the author himself.
Whatever the ultimate meaning of Bolaño’s oeuvre, it is obvious that Santa Teresa has haunted him for a long time—it is in the desert around the city that Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the Moriarty and Paradise Quixotes of The Savage Detectives endure their violent dark night of the soul. “No one pays attention to these killings,” says a character in passing, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” In 2666 Bolaño succeeds in making the killings, and their city, haunt us, Santa Teresa’spredators and prey slithering through our dreams, reminding us of the incalculable costs of our easy lives. We want to turn away; with this novel, Bolaño demands that we not do so. 2666 lacks the brio, the bawdiness, and most of the comedy of The Savage Detectives—both a symptom and a consequence of its being more ambitious and self-declaredly serious—and thus I don’t expect it to reach quite such a large and enthusiastic audience. But it is a book that, though I dread the thought, I will re-read, and that I’ll be wrestling with and discussing for years to come. Perhaps the best way to describe its effect is via one of Bolaño’s own chilling metaphors. In the following scene, one of the critics from the first section has just woken another from a deep sleep:
“Pelletier,” shouted Espinoza and he sat down beside him and shook him by the shoulders.
Then Pelletier opened his eyes and asked what was going on.
“We thought you were dead,” said Espinoza.
“No,” said Pelletier, “I was dreaming I was on vacation in the Greek islands and I rented a boat and I met a boy who spent the whole day diving.
“It was a beautiful dream,” he said.
“It sure does sound relaxing,” said the clerk.
“The strangest part of the dream,” said Pelletier, “was that the water was alive.”
When I first read that, I actually gasped aloud in horror at the image. And that’s how 2666 feels as you’re reading it: you are trapped, wrapped inescapably in something horrifying and uncanny, yet somehow impossibly beautiful and alive.
Reviewed by Levi Stahl
In two editions:
Posted in Reviews