2666 (Bolano)

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Roberto Bolano, trans., Natasha Wimmer, 2004
Macmillan Picador
912 pp.
ISBN-13:  9780312429218

In Brief 
Winner, 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award

Composed in the last years of Roberto Bolano’s life, 2666 was greeted across Europe and Latin America as his highest achievement, surpassing even his previous work in its strangeness, beauty, and scope. Its throng of unforgettable characters includes academics and convicts, an American sportswriter, an elusive German novelist, and a teenage student and her widowed, mentally unstable father. Their lives intersect in the urban sprawl of Santa Teresa—a fictional Juárez—on the U.S.-Mexico border, where hundreds of young factory workers, in the novel as in life, have disappeared (From the publisher.)

Roberto Bolano is a master of digression. Among the countless stories that he tells in 2666, his 900-page cinderblock of a novel, there is not one that feels incomplete. (Considering that Bolano died in 2003 before he finished the final book of the five-part sequence, that’s quite a feat.) In his hands, narrative tangents, followed to their logical (or illogical, as the case may be) conclusions, fill in the spaces opened up by the boundlessly layered story lines.

To call 2666 ambitious is to understate its scale. Comprising five almost autonomous books, the novel is a chronicle of the 20th century, unafraid to confront its more gruesome turns in its sweep across history. The binding link, insofar as there is one, is the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, modeled on Ciudad Juárez, where for the better part of the 1990s there were hundreds of brutal murders, with the bodies of young women turning up in dumps and deserts at the city’s margin. The fourth, and longest, of the books takes up the matter of the murders directly, taking readers sequentially through each of the killings, along with the sexual abuse, mutilation, and police incompetence that accompanied them. They vary in their specifics, but the broad template is the same. Bolano writes with the blank neutrality of a police report:

In September, the body of Ana Muñoz Sanjuán was found behind some trash cans on Calle Javier Paredes, between Colonia Félix Gómez and Colonia Centro. The body was completely naked and showed evidence of strangulation and rape, which would later be confirmed by the medical examiner.

(From Barnes & Noble Review.)

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About the Author 

Birth—April 28, 1953
Where—Santiago, Chile
Reared—in Chile and Mexico City, Mexico
Died—July 15, 2003
Where—Blanes, Spain
Awards—Herralde Prize, Romulo Gallegos Prize (both for
  Savage Detectives, 1998)

Bolano was born in Chile and raised in Mexico. He later emigrated to Spain, where he died aged 50. His early years were spent in southern and coastal Chile; by his own account he was a skinny, nearsighted and bookish but unpromising child. He suffered from dyslexia as a child, and was often bullied at school, where he felt an outsider. As a teenager, though, he moved with his family to Mexico, dropped out of school, worked as a journalist and became active in left-wing political causes.

He returned to Chile just before the 1973 coup that installed Gen. Augusto Pinochet in power, and, like many others of his age and background, was jailed.

For most of his youth, Bolano was a vagabond, living at one time or another in Chile, Mexico, El Salvador, France and Spain, where he finally settled down in the early 1980s in the small Catalan beach town of Blanes.

Bolano was a heroin addict in his youth and died of chronic hepatitis, caused by Hepatitis C, with which he was infected as a result of sharing needles during his "mainlining" days. He had suffered from liver failure and was on a transplant list.

He was survived by his Spanish wife and their two children, whom he once called "my only motherland." (In his last interview, published by the Mexican edition of Playboy magazine, Bolano said he regarded himself as a Latin American, adding that "my only country is my two children and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces or books that are in me.") Bolano named his only son Lautaro, after the Mapuche leader Lautaro, who resisted the Spanish conquest of Chile, as related in the sixteenth-century epic La araucana.

A key episode in Bolano's life, mentioned in different forms in several of his works, occurred in 1973, when he left Mexico for Chile to "help build the revolution." After Augusto Pinochet's coup against Salvador Allende, Bolano was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and spent eight days in custody. He was rescued by two former classmates who had become prison guards. Bolano describes his experience in the story "Dance Card." According to the version of events he provides in this story, he was neither tortured nor killed, as he had expected, but...

In the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn't sleep and there was nothing to read except a magazine in English that someone had left behind. The only interesting article in it was about a house that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas.... I got out of that hole thanks to a pair of detectives who had been at high school with me in Los Angeles.

In the 1970s, Bolano became a Trotskyist and a founding member of infrarrealismo, a minor poetic movement. Although deep down he always felt like a poet, in the vein of his beloved Nicanor Parra, his reputation ultimately rests on his novels, novellas and short story collections.

After an interlude in El Salvador, spent in the company of the poet Roque Dalton and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, Bolano returned to Mexico, living as a bohemian poet and literary enfant terrible—a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody, bursting into literary presentations and readings, his editor, Jorge Herralde, recalled. His erratic behaviour had as much to do with his leftist ideology as with his chaotic, heroin-addicted lifestyle.

Bolano finally made his way to Spain, where he married and settled on the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona, working as a dishwasher, a campground custodian, bellhop and garbage collector—working during the day and writing at night.

In an interview Bolano stated that his decision to shift to fiction at the age of 40 was because he felt responsible for the future financial well-being of his family, which he knew he could never secure from the earnings of a poet. He continued to think of himself primarily as a poet, and a 20-year collection of his verse was published in 2000 under the title The Romantic Dogs.

As regards his native country, which he visited just once after going into exile, Bolano had conflicted feelings. He was notorious in Chile for his fierce attacks on Isabel Allende and other members of the literary establishment. "He didn't fit into Chile, and the rejection that he experienced left him free to say whatever he wanted, which can be a good thing for a writer," said the Chilean novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman.

Six weeks before he died, Bolano's fellow Latin American novelists hailed him as the most important figure of his generation at an international conference he attended in Seville. He counted among his closest friends novelists Rodrigo Fresan and Enrique Vila-Matas. According to Fresan:

Roberto emerged as a writer at a time when Latin America no longer believed in utopias, when paradise had become hell, and that sense of monstrousness and waking nightmares and constant flight from something horrid permeates 2666 and all his work. His books are political, but in a way that is more personal than militant or demagogic, that is closer to the mystique of the beatniks than the Boom.

Bolano was extraordinarily prolific, but Jorge Herralde reports that not much remains unpublished: a volume of poetry tentatively called The Unknown University and one more collection of short stories.

Bolano joked about the "posthumous", saying the word "sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, one who is undefeated", and he would no doubt be amused to see how his stock has risen now that he is dead.

Rodrigo Fresan has observed that "Roberto was one of a kind, a writer who worked without a net, who went all out, with no brakes, and in doing so, created a new way to be a great Latin American writer."

Although Bolano espoused the lifestyle of a bohemian poet and enfant terrible writer all his life, he only began publishing fiction regularly in the late 1990s, after he quit his addiction to heroin. He immediately became a widely respected figure in Spanish and Latin American letters. In rapid succession, he published a widely acclaimed series of works, the most important of which are the novel Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), the novella Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile), and, posthumously, the novel 2666. His two collections of short stories Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas were awarded literary prizes. (From Wikipedia.)

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Critics Say . . . 
Make no mistake, 2666 is a work of huge importance ... a complex literary experience, in which the author seeks to set down his nightmares while he feels time running out. Bolano inspires passion, even when his material, his era, and his volume seem overwhelming. This could only be published in a single volume, and it can only be read as one.
El Mundo

Think of David Lynch, Marcel Duchamp (both explicitly invoked here) and the Bob Dylan of "Highway 61 Revisited," all at the peak of their lucid yet hallucinatory powers. Bolano's references were sufficiently global to encompass all that, and to interweave both stuffy academia and tawdry gumshoe fiction into this book's monumentally inclusive mix.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

2666 is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolano won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what's possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world.... By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world's disasters, Bolano has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable.
Jonathan Lethem - New York Times Book Review

Last year's The Savage Detectives by the late Chilean-Mexican novelist Bolano (1953-2003) garnered extraordinary sales and critical plaudits for a complex novel in translation, and quickly became the object of a literary cult. This brilliant behemoth is grander in scope, ambition and sheer page count, and translator Wimmer has again done a masterful job. The novel is divided into five parts (Bolano originally imagined it being published as five books) and begins with the adventures and love affairs of a small group of scholars dedicated to the work of Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German novelist. They trace the writer to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (read: Juarez), but there the trail runs dry, and it isn't until the final section that readers learn about Benno and why he went to Santa Teresa. The heart of the novel comes in the three middle parts: in "The Part About Amalfitano," a professor from Spain moves to Santa Teresa with his beautiful daughter, Rosa, and begins to hear voices. "The Part About Fate," the novel's weakest section, concerns Quincy "Fate" Williams, a black American reporter who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight and ends up rescuing Rosa from her gun-toting ex-boyfriend. "The Part About the Crimes," the longest and most haunting section, operates on a number of levels: it is a tormented catalogue of women murdered and raped in Santa Teresa; a panorama of the power system that is either covering up for the real criminals with its implausible story that the crimes were all connected to a German national, or too incompetent to find them (or maybe both); and it is a collection of the stories of journalists, cops, murderers, vengeful husbands, prisoners and tourists, among others, presided over by an old woman seer. It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one.
Publishers Weekly

This sprawling, digressive, Jamesian "loose, baggy monster" reads like five independent but interrelated novels, connected by a common link to an actual series of mostly unresolved murders of female factory workers in the area of Ciudad Juárez (here called Santa Teresa), a topic also addressed in Margorie Agosín's Secrets in the Sand. The first part follows four literary critics who wind up in Mexico in pursuit of the obscure (and imaginary) German writer Benno von Archimboldi, a scenario that recalls Bolano's The Savage Detectives. The second and third parts, respectively, focus on Professor Almafitano and African American reporter Quincy Williams (also called Oscar Fate), whose attempts to expose the murders are thwarted. The fourth, and by far the longest, section consists mostly of detached accounts of the hundreds of murders; culled from newspaper and police reports, they offer a relentless onslaught of the gruesome details and become increasingly tedious. The last section returns to Archimboldi. Boasting Bolano's trademark devices—ambiguity, open endings, characters that assume different names, and an enigmatic title, along with splashes of humor—this posthumously published work is consistently masterful until the last half of the final part, which shows some haste. The book is rightly praised as Bolano's masterpiece, but owing to its unorthodox length it will likely find greater favor among critics than among general readers. In fact, before he died, the author asked that it be published in five parts over just as many years; it's a pity his relatives refused to honor his request.
Lawrence Olszewski - Library Journal

Life and art, death and transfiguration reverberate with protean intensity in the late (1953–2003) Chilean author's final work: a mystery and quest novel of unparalleled richness. Published posthumously in a single volume, despite its author's instruction that it appear as five distinct novels, it's a symphonic envisioning of moral and societal collapse, which begins with a mordantly amusing account ("The Part About the Critics") of the efforts of four literary scholars to discover the obscured personal history and unknown present whereabouts of German novelist Benno von Archimboldi, an itinerant recluse rumored to be a likely Nobel laureate. Their searches lead them to northern Mexico, in a desert area notorious for the unsolved murders of hundreds of Mexican women presumably seeking freedom by crossing the U.S. border. In the novel's second book, a Spanish academic (Amalfitano) now living in Mexico fears a similar fate threatens his beautiful daughter Rosa. It's followed by the story of a black American journalist whom Rosa encounters, in a subplot only imperfectly related to the main narrative. Then, in "The Part About the Crimes," the stories of the murdered women and various people in their lives (which echo much of the content of Bolano's other late mega-novel The Savage Detectives) lead to a police investigation that gradually focuses on the fugitive Archimboldi. Finally, "The Part About Archimboldi" introduces the figure of Hans Reiter, an artistically inclined young German growing up in Hitler's shadow, living what amounts to an allegorical representation of German culture in extremis, and experiencing transformations that will send him halfway around the world; bring him literary success, consuming love and intolerable loss; and culminate in a destiny best understood by Reiter's weary, similarly bereaved and burdened sister Lotte: "He's stopped existing." Bolano's gripping, increasingly astonishing fiction echoes the world-encompassing masterpieces of Stendhal, Mann, Grass, Pynchon and Garcia Marquez, in a consummate display of literary virtuosity powered by an emotional thrust that can rip your heart out. Unquestionably the finest novel of the present century—and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now.
Kirkus Reviews

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