Book review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño's extraordinary epic lives up to the hype, says Daniel Miller
Roberto Bolaño is the man of the moment. Eight years after his death, and only one year after the translation of his first novel The Savage Detectives, the American release of Bolaño's second large book, 2666, was met in the fall by more-or-less universal acclaim. A publishing industry Bolaño machine, similar in operation to previous Tupac and Jacques Derrida machines, now looks to capitalise: two previously unknown manuscripts were found amongst Bolaño's belongings recently, and now are set to be added to the English translations of three novels and four collections of stories schedule to appear for the end of 2011.
This situation breeds suspicion in sceptical minds, and there is now a growing feeling from some quarters that Bolaño might be overhyped. This feeling is fuelled by the fact that, for some reason, nobody seems able to say what exactly is so good about him.
The explanation for this dilemma is actually relatively simple, and gets to the heart of why Bolaño will likely withstand any putative backlash. Bluntly stated, 2666 is a book about Everything. Ranging across the whole of the twentieth century, and including innumerable characters, from Mexican prostitutes to Wehrmacht soldiers, the book is a nine-hundred page, three-volume monster of unboundable vastness and scope. This is as true of its themes as it is of its sheer bulk: the book deals with friendship and madness, justice and murder, sex and war, and everything else.
This scale of ambition sets 2666 apart from the current literary climate, dominated as it is by well-appointed books about Something. It also establishes its brotherhood with the great big books of the 20th century, from A Man Without Qualities, through Berlin Alexanderplatz and In Search of Lost Time.
Bolaño is conscious of this, and 2666 refers repeatedly to the gulf separating these two camps. At one point in the novel, a literature lecturer based in Barcelona is upset to discover that his local night pharmacy worker is slowly working his way through only the minor works of great authors, rather than their magnum opuses. Bartleby the Scrivener, as opposed to Moby Dick, Metamorphosis as opposed to The Trial. "'What a sad paradox,' thought Amalfitano, 'now even bookish pharmacists 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 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.'" This passage provides the best single description of 2666 itself.
Bolaño completed 2666 in the shadow of death, out of a concern to provide for his children, and he passed away from liver failure shortly after delivering the manuscript. The novel is redolent with death's omnipresence. The difficult middle-volume describes, in cold forensic detail, the sequential discovery of a seemingly endless procession of corpses in the Mexican city of Santa Teresa. Another section describes the crucifixion of a Nazi general by his own soldiers, as the Wehrmacht retreats in the face of the resurgent Red Army. But death can also be a great liberation, and this is the case here. 2666 is a work almost entirely free of pretension and bullshit.
Every great writer finds a way of condensing their philosophy into a style. The engine of Bolaño's own prose is the simile, and especially the two little words, "as if", which recur again and again through this book, rich with arresting surprise like an ambush in the night. For example: "One night she met an ex-student of her husband's who recognized her at once as if in his university days he had been in love with her." Or elsewhere: "And yes, in fact, they went to the lamb barbecue and their movements were measured and cautious as if they were three astronauts recently arrived on a planet about which nothing was known for sure."
What Bolaño appreciates is the way in which experience is always reformatting itself into fictions, slotting itself into other experiences, and thus revealing the presence of stories, bubbling under the surface of gestures and statements.
The tale of an unfulfilled love affair, expressed in a glance of immediate recognition. A '50s science-fiction story, set at a barbecue. Fiction bleeds into the world, and the world bleeds back into stories. Everything refers back to everything else. This understanding works itself out in this book on a larger scale, as digression piles on digression, plots keep forever tumbling into other plots. By the end of 2666, the novel has become a book which somehow contains all the other books, like the lost items department of all the world's train stations.
Bolaño provides the best summary of the logic of this style himself. Near the end of 2666, he supplies a description, filtered through one of his characters, of a book by his cipherous novellist protagonist Benno Von Archimboldi. "The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent but the way the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbours, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely."
There is real humility here, appropriate to a man who once described his children as "his only true homeland" which belies this novel's length and breadth. "One of these nights," Bolaño wrote to his old friend Mario Santiago, the fictionalised co-protagonist of The Savage Detectives, shortly before Santiago's death in 1998, "when my money situation improves, I may show up at your place. And if not, it doesn't matter. The stretch we travelled together is already history in some sense, and it endures." The novel is nothing, and everything else is nothing as well, beyond a great patience and irony and a sort of savage joy.
In the last section of 2666 Bolaño wheels around to focus on the beginnings of the literary career of Archimboldi, a man who has remained an elusive presence throughout the preceding sections. Having just had his first novel accepted for publication, his young, sick wife tells him before leaving for work "You're sure you'll be famous." Bolaño writes: "Until that moment Archimboldi had never thought about fame. Hitler was famous. Goring was famous. The people he loved and remembered fondly weren't famous, they just satisfied certain needs. Döblin was his consolation. Ansky was his strength. Ingeborg was his joy." When I read this I burst into tears.
2666 is published by Picador