jeremy's Reviews > 2666

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
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's review
Oct 28, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: translation, fiction
Read in July, 2008

if, as roberto bolaño surmised in his speech accepting the prestigious premio rómulo gallegos prize (for the savage detectives), literature is indeed “a dangerous occupation,” then 2666 is certainly his attestation. completed shortly before his death in 2003 (though left partially unedited), 2666 is a monumental work of consummate achievement, one deserving of the most exalted acclaim. epic in scope and epitomizing the “total novel,” the late chilean writer’s masterpiece fuses many different genres and styles, yet is comparable to no other novel in modern literature. 2666 comprises an entire world, perhaps the entire world. divided into five distinct, yet synthesizing, parts, bolaño’s novel stands not only as the enviable acme of literary creation, but also as an act of utmost tenacity and courage.

with the threat of his own mortality looming (on account of an ongoing liver ailment that he’d eventually succumb to), bolaño wrote voraciously throughout the last decade of his life, and with a more fervid aplomb. as he writes in part five of 2666, “the words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy.” yet, despite the resolve that enabled bolaño to continue writing so prolifically, he appears to have been no stranger to the distress which often accompanies literary pursuit, for in the same portion of the book he writes, “it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives. fear of being no good. also fear of being overlooked. but above all, fear of being no good. fear that one’s efforts and striving come to nothing. fear of the step that leaves no trace. fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. fear of dining alone and unnoticed. fear of going unrecognized. fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. but above all, fear of being no good. fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers.”

bolaño, in spite of fears that may have plagued him while confronting an inevitable fate, was able craft a novel of immense proportions. it is as if being able to finish his final and most important work were a panacea to the destiny he knew he could not escape. “but everything collapses in the end... everything collapses in pain. all eloquence springs from pain,” a character utters late in the book. bolaño was well aware that 2666 was to be his ultimate offering, yet was able to transfigure his apprehensions into the devastating intrepidity required to write a book of such remarkable breadth.

2666, at its nucleus, is based on the vicious murders of hundreds of young women throughout ciudad juárez (reimagined as aanta teresa in the novel) that began in 1993 and to-date remain largely unsolved. in the fourth part of 2666, “the part about the crimes,” bolaño chronicles these deaths in horrific and exacting detail. spanning nearly three hundred pages, this may be some of the most haunting, harrowing writing in modern literature, as bolaño’s descriptions of murder, rape, and mutilation are all the more unsparing in their effect per the clinical, detached tone he employs. “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them,” a character asserts. incomprehensible in their brutality, it seems even bolaño was at a loss to make sense of the (still) ongoing “feminicidios.” later in part four, “…the inspector told him he shouldn’t try to find a logical explanation for the crimes. it’s fucked up, that’s the only explanation.”

despite its excruciating crux, there is considerable beauty and humor to be found throughout 2666. as readers of bolaño’s other works know well, his writing often dealt with the lives of writers themselves, their often frustrating and fruitless pursuits, and the place of literature in a culture that seems to ever increasingly forsake both the story and the storyteller. bolaño devoted much of his life to writing, and, thus, it is of no surprise that he believed deeply in the myriad gifts offered by books and reading (for both the devout and the casual). in part three, “the part about fate,” bolaño writes, “but i read and read anyway, sometimes so fast that even i was surprised, and sometimes so very slowly, as if each sentence or word was something good for my whole body, not just my brain. and i could read like that for hours, not caring whether i was tired and not dwelling on the inarguable fact that i was in prison because i had stood up for my brothers, most of whom couldn’t care less whether i rotted or not. i knew i was doing something useful... something useful no matter how you look at it. reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.”

bolaño’s knowledge of the literary world was immense, and he regularly enriched his stories with references to writers living and deceased, popular and obscure. near the beginning of 2666, bolaño alludes to his friend and colleague rodrigo fresán, the argentine novelist whose only work in translation is the stunning, kaleidoscopic novel kensington gardens. though even the most ardent student of literature is unlikely to gain much from these subtle intimations, they do affirm bolaño understood his craft well. the savage detectives focused (somewhat arguably) on the lives of two questing and itinerant poets, and while 2666 too has characters that are writers, critics, and scholars, they are largely secondary to the ever-increasing severity of the novel’s plot, and to the looming, however unnamed, monstrosity which is always threatening from nearby (or rather, perhaps from within). “but someone worse than me and worse than the killer is coming to this motherfucking city. do you hear his footsteps getting closer? do you?”

it appears bolaño had given particular thought to what writing so monumental a novel would mean to his readership, and it seems he also realized that many would forego a reading if only on account of the books daunting length (some 1,200 pages in the original spanish edition). in one revealing passage at the end of the second part, one of bolaño’s characters offers his estimation (his indictment?) of the state of literary affairs: “one night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like the metamorphosis, bartleby, a simple heart, a christmas carol. and then he said that he was reading capote’s breakfast at tiffany’s. leaving aside the fact that a simple heart and a christmas carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose the metamorphosis over the trial, he chose bartleby over moby-dick, he chose a simple heart over bouvard and pécuchet, and a christmas carol over a tale of two cities or the pickwick papers. what a sad paradox, thought amalfitano. now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. they choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

2666 is, without exception, one of the most important novels of the past fifty years. it not only marks the pinnacle of a sadly truncated literary career, but it serves also as a momentous occasion for all literature in translation (2666 was adeptly translated by natasha wimmer, who also rendered the savage detectives from the spanish). too long have american publishers shunned non-english authors, and so perhaps bolaño’s masterwork, if nothing else, will serve to remind american readers that some of the world’s finest novels are being written from without our borders.

to be sure, reading bolaño’s 2666 is no easy task. unlike many latin american writers that rose to fame during the boom of the 1960’s, bolaño asks us not to suspend belief, but rather to confront it head-on. reading 2666 forces us to allay our own moral trepidation long enough that we may consider “that something that terrifies us all.” bolaño chose part of baudelaire’s poem “the voyage” for the book’s epigram, “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom,” and 2666 makes plain the aridity and ennui in which much of modern civilization subsists while a young, troubled, horrific century unfurls before us all. and so, if literature is, indeed, “a dangerous occupation”, perhaps it is as much so for the one writing the story as it is for the one daring to read it.

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06/05 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Oriana (new)

Oriana Good lord, Jeremy, what a spectacular review.

message 2: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto If I created a comic book version of this with vampires, do you think the soul of Roberto Bolano would be offended?

jeremy i can't speak for roberto, but i know i would be.

message 4: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto Erudite vampires...

Stephen P I realize you read this book and wrote this review some time ago but it simply needs to be said that this is one of the very best reviews I have seen on GR.

jeremy thanks stephen, that's very kind of you to say! bolaño is one of my favorites and 2666 is an exceptional, unforgettable masterpiece.

message 7: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Vinogradus I was worried that 2666 might be a disappointment after The Savage Detectives, but I'm not any more. This is a stunning review. You need not fear that you have left shallow footprints behind you.

jeremy it'll be anything but disappointment. 2666 and the savage detectives are very different novels, of course, but both are marked by bolaño's trademark style.

thank you for your kind words. what did you mean by shallow footprints, however?

message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Vinogradus jeremy wrote: "what did you mean by shallow footprints, however?"

It's a quote from Bolano in your review. Your footprints are deep and I will be able to follow your path.

jeremy oh, indeed. it's been a while since i've read the review (or the book for that matter). i hope the path is a rewarding one.

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