Saturday, July 10, 2010

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Imagine a whale – a great blue whale – then imagine examining every cell of the body of that whale. Following the whale is a 20 pound striped bass. Every once in a while, the striper passes near the eye of the whale, but it is hardly noticed. As we approach the tale of the whale, the striper appears and accompanies us during the last of the examination. That striper is the end of 2666. Furthermore, there are all sorts of threads and lines trailing off from the whale. These all lead to other novels by Bolaño.

This massive – 900 page – work is a puzzle of the first order. It begins with the story of four literature professors. Three of them hail from Turin, Italy, Paris, France, and Madrid, Spain. All independently discover and become obsessed with Benno von Archimboldi. They begin to appear at conferences, and slowly gather a tight-knit yet enthusiastic group of followers. Liz Norton, from London England, joins the obsession and becomes a close friend of all three.

Benno von Archimboldi disappears, but remains in contact with his publisher. Eventually, he becomes wealthy and is shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The professors decide to try and track down Archimboldi. They end up visiting a mysterious German in a Mexican prison accused of the murders of six women. This is part one (of five) of the novel.

Part two involves the life story of a Mexican pharmacist who is a book collector and also obsessed with Archimboldi. He appears briefly in part one to help the three critics. This book is his life story.

Part three is about a man named Fate. It details the death of his mother, and his confusion and lack of concern parallels Camus’ The Stranger. I am not sure how this part fits into the overall novel. I will have to read 2666 a second time, and take much more detailed notes. I think this book is an allegory for the whole novel and a philosophical discourse on fate – lower case.

Part four is a catalogue of crimes committed in the fictional town of Santa Theresa, Mexico. During the 1990s, 343 women were strangled, stabbed, raped, and mutilated their bodies dumped in various places around Santa Theresa – actually a stand-in for Juárez, Mexico near the US Border -- where 300 plus actual murders took place. Only a handful were ever solved, largely due to the incompetence, corruption, and lack of concern of the police. This part was difficult to read, and I kept asking myself why I was reading all this horror. However, I could not stop, even though I felt I would only read one more case.

Part five, entitled “The Part about Archimboldi,” details the life of Hans Reiter, born in Germany in 1920, Wehrmacht soldier on the eastern front, who survives the war and becomes a writer. He changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi because he believes the American and German police are looking for him. “Reiter” in German means “riddle.” Archimboldi, Hans Reiter, and Klaus Haas – the prisoner in Mexico -- are all described as tall, blue-eyed, blond Germans.

All these threads are carefully and cleverly woven into a thick, thick hawser that ties this story together. The novel is a gigantic puzzle, and will require at least one more reading to get a full grasp of its true meaning.

Roberto Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. He frantically tried to finish the novel before he died. He considered it his masterpiece. The prose is engaging and the book is difficult to put down. The hyper detail Bolaño employs in his story is also curious. Sometimes he will use three words or phrases to describe something. For example, when Archimboldi began his search for a publisher, he notes one

“in Cologne, a house that from time to time published some novel or volume of poetry or history, but whose catalog mainly consisted of practical manuals that might just as easily provide instruction on the proper care of a garden as on the correct administration of first aid or the reconstruction of the shells of destroyed houses” (793).

The story has many, many digressions that seem to trail off the main story line, but the purpose of some became clear when I finished the novel. One digression is the story of a “shadowy Swabian writer…who knew quite a bit about contemporary German Literature” (18-22). He tells the four professors about meeting Archimboldi. The story is five pages, with only commas for punctuation. Bolaño wrote this in the style of someone trying to piece together the memory of an event he knows is of supreme importance to the listeners. Some of the other digressions trail off into art, literature, mathematics, and even Greek mythology. One interesting digression involves Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th-century painter known for his bizarre portraits entirely formed by fruit, vegetables, plant material, and the occasional insect.

The characters also dream – all of them, all the time. A dissertation might be the best place to explore the significance of these dreams to the story line. Here is a fragment of one of the shorter dreams. Florita Almada is a television psychic who has visions of some of the murders:

“Sometimes she dreamed she was a schoolteacher and she lived in the country. Her school was at the top of a hill with a view of the town, the brown and white houses, the dusky yellow roofs where the old folks sometimes settled to gaze down on the dirt streets. From the schoolyard she could see the girls on their way to class. Black hair gathered in ponytails or held back with bands. Dark-skinned faces and white smiles. In the distance, the peasants worked on the land, reaped fruit from the desert, tended flocks of goats.” (456)

This truly is an epic masterpiece. It ranks up there with Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, incidentally by a reclusive writer who only contacts his publisher by mail. I want to read more of Bolaño, but I will need a seriously long break before I dive into more of his work. Ten stars out of five.

--Chiron, 7/10/10

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