Roberto Bolaño’s long last novel 2666 repays the reader for staying the course

2666 by Roberto BolañoWhen reaching down a novel from the shelf and finding that it runs to nearly 900 pages, it prompts in me the silent prayer that it had better be good to justify the investment of time – time in which one could read four or five other books. In point of fact, 2666 might very well have been published as five separate books forming a series of interrelated stories. However, as a result of the author’s untimely death, aged only 50, and the courageous decision of his heirs and literary executor to countermand Bolaño’s wishes and go for literary integrity rather than possible financial benefit, the book appeared in its present form a year or so later. I have been reading the excellent English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

Bolaño specified the order in which the five stories should appear and therefore be read. The final section, ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, spans the whole range of time of the other four books, but the earlier parts set the reader up to enjoy the full richness of the final story as well as each being fascinating and satisfying in its own right. So, we first read ‘The Part about the Critics’. It might sound like the beginning of a shaggy dog story but it opens in the 1980s with a Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard and an Englishwoman discovering, as part of their studies of German literature, the works of an obscure, yet highly regarded, German writer with the fanciful nom de plume of Benno von Archimboldi.

All four go on to academic careers and, as specialists tend to Roberto Bolañodo in those circles, meet up at conferences and seminars: and, as people sometimes do at international conferences, finish up in bed with the attractive Englishwoman. All of them try, as their appreciation and admiration for Archimboldi grows, to find out all about him and to track him down. Each translates some of their hero’s novels into their own languages and this involves contact with the Hamburg publisher, Bubis, now run by the elderly widow of its founder and only patron of Archimboldi. They discover that the author, though getting on in years, is still alive but forever on the move. Towards the end of the part about the critics, they receive seemingly convincing evidence that Archimboldi is currently in the fictional Santa Teresa, a Mexican city on the American border (mirroring the factual Ciudad Juárez) and so they all travel there. They are welcomed there by the local university and by a book-loving pharmacist; a Chilean (like Bolaño); called Óscar Amalfitano. They feel sure that Archimboldi is in Santa Teresa but their search is fruitless. The story is told by peeling of layer after layer off the literary onion but occaisonally the narrator slices deep. The style is discursive and, irresistibly reminds one of Proust, not least in length.

In the second part, ‘The Part about Amalfitano’, we meet the book-loving pharmacist again, this time as the central character.

I don’t know what I am doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he had been living in the city for about a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

This part is mostly narrated from the perspective of Amalfitano and his various book-related obsessions and dreams. He likes doodling and often cannot quite recall what prompted him to draw the shapes in his notebook and label them with, for example, the names of nine different philosophers. But this is also the section where we find more detailed mention of the seemingly endless series of murders of young women whose bodies keep turning up on waste ground. They are often workers in the mostly American-owned maquiladoras, factories or assembly plants, that use the cheap Mexican labour on the border with the USA. Poor, sad Amaltifano has vivid nightmares which are recounted in detail.

Then Boris Yeltsin looked at Amalfitano with curiosity, as if it were Amalfitano who had invaded his dream, not the other way round. […] And then he disappeared, swallowed up by the crater streaked with red or by the latrine streaked by red, and Amalfitano was left alone and didn’t dare look down the hole, which meant he had no choice but to wake.

In ‘The Part about Fate’ we meet not Fate itself but Fate himself; a black American journalist, who starts off this ‘part’ called Quincy Williams but everybody at work knows him as Oscar Fate. His editor calls him in to say their regular sports writer has been killed in Chicago and the magazine wants him to fly to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match; not his normal beat. This leads Fate, as a by-product of being in the city to cover the match and interview the protagonists, to discover the gruesome story of the many murders of young women that, in the main, are unsolved. This becomes the story he really wants to write about but his editor is not interested and his rejection of the project is couched in blatantly racist terms. The story of the fight and the narrative of the murders intertwine as ‘The Part about Fate’ progresses. Rosa, the errant daughter of Amalfitano from the previous part, has a role to play and makes another link between the five texts. For a while, she becomes the central character, carrying the story forward; and still the murders continue. Fate is allowed into the prison to talk with the current chief suspect, a giant of a man who speaks English, Spanish and German; which is where that story ends.

The next part is ‘The Story about the Crimes’ and at its core is a seemingly relentless catalogue of the murders of women in and around Santa Teresa together with the ineffectual investigations and that air of indifference to suffering that such an excess of it can generate. Sometimes the murders are swiftly and justly resolved by the various detectives allocated to the cases but the reader senses that they solve the easy crimes and stay away from anything politically complicated. The local politicos and the police chief seem to be in cahoots; no surprise there. A mysterious man starts desecrating the city’s churches and, for a while, this achieves more notoriety than the murders. A mysterious American, Harry Magaña, shows up trying to track down a suspect and using violence where persuasion fails to work quickly enough. A dubious medium starts making predictions on a local TV show.

The relentless catalogue of murders seems to provide the unifying theme for these disparate strands of the story. One of the policemen begins to suspect a tall gringo with canary yellow hair who runs a computer store and is known as Klaus Haas. He is soon arrested and taken to the local jail but is of sufficient ‘importance’ to be put in a private cell from where he maintains cell-phone contact with the outside world; even holding a press conference! Despite having a principal suspect in custody, the murders of women continue. [I hope you are following this because I had to read the whole book to be able to tell you this.] Finally, the Santa Teresa authorities invite a former FBI agent, Albert Kessler, an expert in profiling serial killers and an internationally reputed consultant and lecturer, to come to Mexico and investigate. But, by the end of this long part, we are no nearer a resolution than we were at the beginning. However, we have reached the final part of the book, ‘The Part about Archimboldi’.

To say too much about this part would be like a plot-spoiler. Suffice to say, we start to read the life story of a young German, Hans Reiter, with a one-eyed mother and a one-legged father, who eventually is sent to fight on the Russian Front during the Second World War. The fascinating account of his war, his survival, and his connections with the Baroness von Zumpe which extend over the whole of his life, are all part of a completely engrossing novel which not only comes to its natural conclusion but manages at the same time to unify all five parts into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you have the stamina, and if you have a yen for Latin American fiction of the highest calibre, then I do recommend you tackle 2666.

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