I bought 2666 by Roberto Bolano in the discount bin at McNally Robinson based almost solely on the cover. I read the inside jacket to be sure that this was something I wanted to read, but that cover really was enough. It is a dense jumble of vaguely religious symbols that wouldn’t look out of place in a church or on the wall of a sanatarium. Bold colours and images piled on top of each other, almost seeming to fight for their place on the page, promised a dark, complex world. This did not disappoint. This is a novel where individual sections, or even single scenes, seem understandable, but the to take the work as a whole is too much, there will always be some unturned stone, some hidden cove unexplored.
If this seems like me reaching to explain this book, that’s exactly what this is. I wonder if even attempting to describe it is useful. I’m not saying that this book is somehow beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend, but that it has been built as a mystery, in the most profound sense of the term. The book is an attempt to detail the unexplainable, both on an individual and social levels.
Here, let me try a bit of a synopsis.
2666 is divided into five sections, each more or less standing on its own, subtlely connected to one another in ways that are important, or not. Two of these connecting points rise to a greater prominence than the others. One is the identity of elusive German writer with the ridiculously Italian name Benno Von Archimboldi. The second is the dark core of the book, pulling each character to it like a drain unstopped, the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. Here some three hundred women have been murdered during the last decade before the millennium.
The first section features a group of academics as they tour the European conference circuit, champion the work of Archimboldi and have affairs with one another. They hear of the writer being seen in Santa Teresa and make their way there, where the meet philosophy professor Amalfitano, who is the focus of the second section and is slowly loosing his mind.
The third section follows Oscar Fate, an American journalist who finds himself in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, something he knows little about. The dark clubs and night life of Santa Teresa take hold of him and he finds himself in company who may be dangerous and possibly falling in love with Amalfitano's daughter.
The breath taking and difficult fourth section is the books centrepiece and will test any readers patience. Bolano outlines almost all of the three hundred murders from 1993 to 1997 in near forensic detail. Page after page, Bolano describes what should be undescrible events almost as the book were a police report. Weaved through these passages are brief stories of the rabbit trails of police, press and political attempts at solving, understanding or ignoring what is happening. The effect of this is unsettling and will stay with anyone willing to keep with it. It is more than shock though, as the shear amount builds, and takes these crimes more seriously than any prime time procedural. More unsettling though is the inability, or at times lack of effort of anyone to do anything about these things.
The fifth and final section follows Hans Rieter from a small boy in Germany obsessed with the ocean to the Eastern Front to his emergence as Benno Von Archimboldi. A section full of amazing observation, humour and horror it is a beautifully human way to end the novel.
Through all of this one gets the sense that there is a point, or perhaps several points of meaning in this work, but the narrative swirls around them. It dodges in and out, sometimes coming at meaning sideways or from underneath, but never head on. For some this may be frustrating, but for others it is a more true attempt at understanding what seems impossible.
I suspect this book could be many things to many people, as there is so much in it. But what makes me think that it truly is a great book is that it takes evil seriously in a way often lacking in pop culture. Not as something to entertain us, but something to be questioned constantly, and never fully understood. The atrocities in this book have a profound effect on everything and everyone, whether they are explicitly connected with them or not. The Santa Teresa murders affect everything, as an act so monstrous would.
Yes this book is difficult to get through at times, but I felt it was worth my time and effort as few books are. Months later I felt compelled to write this as an attempt to make sense of what I read and why it was still lingering on my mind. I have not read many South American writers, but with those I have there have been an amazing respect given to those things in the world that cannot be explained. Whether it be the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the playful surrealism of Jorge Luis Borges a form of spirituality is accepted as part of the world, and in our postmodern age that is a refreshing thing indeed.