With his death in 2003, Roberto Bolano left behind a draft of his second major novel, 2666, a startling, if sometimes overwhelming, 900-page work with the traces of death written all over it. It’s rare for a book as uneven and incomplete as this to receive such unanimous praise, but in this case, the praise is deserved. Obsessed with the struggle against dying as Bolano was, it is only natural that his final book, a five-part account of the lives of characters so close to death, literally and metaphorically, that one can only feel depressed after putting it down, should deal with violence, failed relationships, mindless sex and art; these are the things, the novel implies over and over again, that keep us alive while bringing us ever closer to oblivion. Nothing surprising, of course – Bolano made a career out of such ideas. What is perhaps a little more baffling is why it took so long for the English-speaking world to catch on to his greatness.
Written in a highly casual style, 2666 is nevertheless not a casual read. It documents more deaths, rapes and beatings than any novel I can remember. At its center – if the novel has a center – is Santa Teresa, based on the real-life city of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, where hundreds of women have over the years been killed in what is one of modern history’s most inexplicable crime sprees. Most of these women, both in the novel and in real life, come from poor backgrounds. They are usually, in those haunting words the narrator of 2666 repeats ad nauseam, “anally and vaginally raped”, and many go permanently unidentified – and unavenged. Against this backdrop, a cast of unhappy characters wander in and out of risky situations, often discovering things about themselves they didn’t want to know. Army generals are crucified, taxi drivers are brutally punished for their insolence, hearts get broken all over the place, and many, many books are written by a reclusive German author to whom the final and best section of 2666 is devoted.
Something’s gone awfully wrong in the world Bolano depicts, though his world is essentially ours. In the first part of the novel, an uneasy half-parody of academic life, four literary critics share fluids, stories and theories about the identity of Benno von Archimboldi, an obscure author whose name appears periodically on the Swedish Academy’s list but whom nobody ever bothered to read until late in his life. On a possibly false tip, the critics travel to Santa Teresa in search of their idol. They never find him, but then nobody really finds what they seek in 2666. The real purpose of this first part, it becomes clear, is to introduce two of the novel’s protagonists: the city of Santa Teresa and Archimboldi himself. The critics never reappear in the story; nor is their presence very much missed, since they are barely developed and only one of them, a mild-mannered cripple, invokes any sympathy. Still, it’s a decent start to a novel that only gets better.
The next two parts focus on an academic who is probably going mad, and on a young black reporter who goes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. The link between these two characters is the academic’s daughter, Rosa, a strange and beautiful girl whose purpose is never made entirely evident. She is at once arrogant and naïve, strong-willed and, by the end of part three, implicated in a murder. Archimboldi is not mentioned in this chapter, but the series of killings in Santa Teresa take on an increasingly menacing proximity.
The killings are the focus of section four, titled “The Part About the Crimes”. There is nothing pleasant about the story told here. The longest part of the novel, “The Part About the Crimes” is unflinching, violent and almost unbearable. Bolano does not describe the murders themselves; he merely tells us what the detectives find at the crime scenes. This is perhaps the book’s most problematic, and most memorable, section, for two reasons: first, because it will depress even the most callous, and second, because despite its emotional impact, it is not the best-written chapter, nor the one with the most vivid characters, and in such an otherwise well-written work, this flaw stands out. Maybe that’s the point – to offer a glimpse into the darkest possible side of urban life, where even though the names of the victims are often given, they really just merge together and become a single nameless entity. The repetitiveness of the chapter becomes annoying, and the relationships between the various law enforcement officers on the case aren’t particularly compelling. It may be better than most fiction out there, but in a whole that is remarkably good, this slice feels like a letdown. One wonders how things would have turned out if Bolano had lived to complete his so-called magnum opus.
After the unevenness of part four, the final part, in which we return to the German author Archimboldi, is, to my mind, the absolute highlight of the novel. Here we see Bolano do what only the most confident writers seem capable of: he writes simply, beautifully, mixing humour with pathos, digressing without boring us, and concluding the novel with one big metaphorical question mark that leaves us indignant and elated. Bolano is dead; the book will never be completed, and although “The Part About Archimboldi” is by far the most perfect of the five chapters, it is still only one piece of an enormous puzzle. 2666 is a mystery, and in the great tradition started by Pynchon and company, not everything will make sense on a first reading. And yet that’s why the book, in the end, leaves me so satisfied: it seems endless, and one is lucky to have peeked at the terrible eternity contained within it. There will always be murder, love and art, so 2666 should be relevant for a while yet. And if for some reason the novel is ever forgotten, that’s probably something Bolano, and especially his creation, Benno von Archimboldi, would not have minded.