Tuesday, 13 October 2009

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Given that Bolaño devotes the first 150 pages or so of his novel to four characters it would be easy to assume that he wants us to identify and develop a relationship with them that will keep us engaged and care what happens to them over the 900 pages of this sprawling book. But when they exit at the end of Book One, that's it and we hear no more of them.
Not that the characters are particularly interesting. They are literary critics, a woman from London and three men from Paris, Madrid and Turin, who are all obsessed by a German novelist called Benne von Archimboldi.
They meet at conventions to discuss the German writer and establish a series of friendships and relationships. They travel to conferences in Europe, to each others' homes, have affairs and form varying degrees of friendship with one another.
Archimboldi, is just a rumour in Book One. He is often name-checked, and his various novels are referred to. The critics meet people who have met him, or claim they have, and arrive at a conference where it is reported that he will appear but fails to do so.
Eventually three of them travel to a (fictional) city in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa, close to the border with the US, where it is reported that Archimboldi is living but they are unable to track him down.
They hear reports of a serial killer on the loose in Santa Teresa, said to be responsible for more than 100 murders.
In Book Two the story is taken up by Amalfitano, who appeared as a minor character in Book One. The Chilean academic lives in Barcelona and is abandoned by his wife to bring up their daughter alone.
The story veers off to cover the unbalanced wife for a while before coming back to Amalfitano who constantly seems on the verge of falling out of sanity. He moves to Santa Teresa with his daughter and once again reports of the numerous killings in the city begin to filter into the story.
Book Three seems as if it was intended to be an entirely different novel altogether and for the first 60 or 70 pages follows a black journalist called Fate around the US as he reports on former militant black activists and comes to terms with his mother's death.
Then Fate is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match (although he is not a sports writer) between a black US fighter and a Mexican. The series of killings in the city come more into focus and Fate can't understand why a serial killer whose body count is running into the hundreds has not been more widely reported.
Amalfitano, appears towards the end of the book and urges Fate to take his daughter out of Santa Teresa before she too becomes a victim.
The last 40 pages of this section are unbearably tense and the expectation of violence is constantly lingering.
Book Four focuses on Santa Teresa and the killings, dozens and dozens of them, one after another. It could be monotonous but Bolaño manages to give most of the victims a life story before their deaths, bringing the cast of this novel into the hundreds.
Detectives trying to investigate the killings are profiled and then sideline before making an appearance again 50 pages later.
A psychic, who can see all the killings, weaves in and out of the story as does a young cop called Lalo Cura. Cura means 'priest' in Spanish (in which Bolaño wrote) but the name Lalo Cura can be written using the same series of letters as La Locura (the madness).
A German is arrested and blamed for the killings, even as new bodies are found and more women and girls disappear.
Book Four is the longest but despite the seeming constant litany of woman's bodies turning up, often raped and mutilated, it is the most engaging of the first four books in 2666.
That is until you get to Book Five in which Archimboldi reappears 80 years earlier when he is born in Germany. In a fairly straightforward narrative we are told his life story from boyhood, through to his time in the German army during the Second World War and his career as a writer and decision to live as hermit despite his growing fame until his story catches up with the earlier stories in the mid 1990s.
The sections on the war are the strongest as Archimboldi advances through Romania and Ukraine with his unit before being driven back. Again we are subjected to endless death and destruction, threaded through with stories of lives lived to the full and people merely existing.
Themes reoccur throughout the five books in this novel, the mundane details of individual lives counterbalanced against great and horrendous events of the 20th century. Secrets are kept and buried, just like the bodies in Mexico and in Europe during the Second World War. Echoes of future events are dropped in - an artist in the 1940s whose paintings are full of dead women.
Santa Teresa is a machine in which millions of people have been caught working in cheap-labour factories churning out goods to feed their wealthy neighbours across the border. The brutal sexual assaults, torture and killings of hundreds of women could be seen as symbolic critique by Bolaño of capitalism - the system debases people, kills them and then dumps their bodies in a desert when they have finished with them and while voices of protest are raised no-one really cares.
Book Five maybe sets the context for what has gone before. The Second World War is within many people's living memory. The human condition that brought that about still exists. The scale may be smaller but humans are still capable of the most horrendous crimes against one another.
At the end you are left with the vague impression of a pattern and an understanding of what Bolaño was trying to achieve with his diverse and seemingly unrelated stories and characters.
It is like a huge piece of abstract art in which different sections of the canvas have unique motifs that link to those next to them but are vastly different from what is on the other side of the canavas. But when you stand back and look at the thing as whole it somehow seems to form a complete work and if you squint your eyes and tilt your head to the side a bit even seems to make sense.
Bolaño died in 2003 before he completed 2666 although a footnote at the end says the novel appears more or less as he intended it. There are a few clumsy links where presumably the editor is trying to make a leap from once section to another which Bolaño hadn't fully tidied up when he died.
There is the possibility of course that he might have tightened the whole thing up and made the various components less abstract from one another but for the most part it works as it stands.
This is truly one of those novels that does cause a shift in your perspective and when you have finished reading it you find yourself running at a slight tangent to where you were before.


Fionnchú said...

Thanks for a cogent take on a sprawling work, Tony. I look forward to reading it. I heard people confused about the title: I assume it refers to the number of dead women, but it's also neatly aligned with another route to an upcoming apocalypse, I suppose?

Tony Bailie said...

Apparently the title comes from a line in Bolano's previous novel Savage Detectives (which I have just started) –
"Guerreo, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else."