“2666” by Roberto Bolaño

The proverb, “Evil thoughts spring from the heart,” is presented in the preface to the epic novel, Don Quixote. In Roberto Bolaño’s ambitious novel 2666, we see the myriad embodiments of evil conjured and unleashed, sometimes subtly disguised as just a glitch of the human condition, barely perceptible and not easily named, and at other times with fury from the blackest hearts of men, politicians, criminals and countries working together as one monstrosity. 2666 is a long and divergent journey, one of such great distance and with so many intersections that at the end of it all, which is really no end at all, the reader must think hard to remember the first leg of the quest. In fact it would be necessary to look back to prior works to find its first stirrings. In Amulet we find mention of the ominous date–the cryptic title, which is never again mentioned in the body of 2666, making for the first mystery in a novel filled with difficult questions. The Savage Detectives, the novel for which Chilean born Bolaño won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1999, ends in Santa Teresa, the same city around which the narrative of 2666 revolves. Furthermore, in the afterword, we are told to consider 2666 as being written by one of the protagonists of The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano, largely considered to be Bolaño’s alter ego.* 2666* is a book to read in a state of urgency and anxiety, in much the same way we can imagine it being written; Bolaño was in a race against time and ultimately succumbed to liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50, with the novel almost complete.

The book is divided into five parts, entitled very simply: “The Part About the Critics,” “The Part About Amalfitano,” “The Part About Fate,” “The Part About the Crimes,” and “The Part About Archimboldi.” Five parts propelled by chance encounters, randomness and collisions between characters–all related, but not interdependent. The trajectory of the narrative is ambitious and at times elliptical, traversing Europe and the United States until, at the centre of it, the reader drops off into the abyss of the lawless border city of Santa Teresa, emerging, just barely, the journey only half over, before returning to the past and falling again into another abyss, that of WWII.

The story begins with four European professors of literature, who, joined by their passion for an enigmatic German novelist, embark on a journey to find him. Their search, guided largely by rumour, intuition and chance, brings three of the professors to the northern Mexican industrial city of Santa Teresa (a fictionalized Ciudad Juárez), the site of the continuing serial murders of hundreds of women and girls. Before the feminicidios are explored at length, the story stretches out laterally, one section dedicated to an extremely nervous Chilean professor of philosophy living in Santa Teresa, and another to a New York reporter covering a boxing match on assignment in this same city. These sections edge us closer and closer to the city’s black heart.

The last part is dedicated to the enigmatic author Benno von Archimboldi and is composed of stories exploding like gunshot out of other stories. It traces his transient life, beginning as an awkward boy more comfortable in the ocean than on land, his penchant for classifying seaweed like some juvenile taxonomist, his time served on the Eastern Front in WWII, and the development of his literary life. The character of Archimboldi, traverses the entire book, but at times disappears like a shadow at high noon in a sun so hot that it obliterates.

Throughout the apocalyptic adventure that is not without points of humour, nor tenderness, Bolaño guides us into dangerous places of life and of literature …

2666, Robert Bolano, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, hardcover, 912 pp, $30.

Volume 28, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #110, published June 2009.

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