A few days ago, I finally finished the second half of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. I'd begun it way back in February or March, right around the time I was applying to/frantically writing stories for the Clarion workshop, and I'd got about halfway through it by the time I was accepted (you can read my thoughts about it then here). I put it down at that point, partly because it was pretty overwhelming as a work of fiction, but mostly because I suddenly had a lot of reading to do in order to prepare for the workshop. After it was over (and I'd finished reading The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I read for fun at Clarion (you know, in all my spare time), and which I really enjoyed, and will hopefully remember to write about sometime), and I had returned home, I decided to pick it back up again.
As I recollect, I'd blown through the first of the five books, The Part About the Critics, very quickly, getting lost in the intertwinings of the the professional (and personal) lives of a group of Eurpoean academics whose scholarly work revolved around the books of a German author named Benno Von Archimboldi. Archimboldi bookends 2666, as the subject of scholarly interest in his work in the first book, and as the protagonist or at least the subject of the fifth. One can only assume that his (tenuous, ambiguous, possbily illusory) connection to the three middle books, which deal with the imaginary Mexican city of Santa Teresa (modeled, I have it on good authority, on Ciudad Juarez), comprises the mystery that Bolaño invites the reader to... well, not really solve, but perhaps explore, since it seems to be one of Bolaño's central artistic tenets (at least so far as 2666 is concerned) not to solve any mysteries, but merely to present them in all their ineffable squalor and glory, that the reader may contemplate and engage with them on his or her own.
Certain parallels suggest themselves in the two books about Archimboldi (whose connection with Santa Teresa smacks of the sort of random arbitrariness found more often in real life than in literature). In both he is something of a cipher. In The Part About the Critics, Archimoldi the man is the central mystery of the academics' lives, at least professionally, although the reader's sense is that the actual central mystery of most of their lives is which of her two lovers the Englishwoman will eventually choose. The interplay between the personal and the professional is telling, since we are first introduced to Santa Teresa through the eyes of the critics, who have followed the thread of hints about Archimboldi's lived existence (about which nothing is known; only his work as a novelist is extant) there. And though they sense that this is as close as any of them will ever actually come to finding him, there's very little urgency to the endeavor as far as the critics are concerned: they have their own dynamic, which takes the opportunity of the venue change to play itself out, somewhat dramatically. In a certain sense, The Part About the Critics sets up the question of Archimboldi, which is engaged with, but not actually answered, at the end, in The Part About Archimboldi, in which we discover that he is in many ways an unremarkable man, a product of his times who drifts along on the currents of history until history ceases to pull him along, and then takes up writing novels, for reasons that are never really made obvious or sensible to the reader.
Archimboldi writes because he cannot not write, which is, perhaps, a statement about the Artist as trope or phenomenon, that he (or she, of course) will by default create because some strange compulsion that is, if not actually inexplicable, then at least not interested in explanations. That his talent should arise in the ruins of postwar Germany (and in the person of a soldier of the German infantry) is perhaps meant as a sort of gesture of redemption from the unflagging horror of the latter half of the book (more on that below). I couldn't say for sure. There seems also to be some trouble taken to disconnect the art from the artist, although where that fits in to Bolaño's underlying constellation of meaning isn't entirely clear.
As may be apparent, there's a great deal to digest in 2666. It is a work of great ambition, which, if it doesn't always grasp what it reaches for, nonetheless reaches for some pretty amazing stuff.
The main body of the book (The Part About Amalfitano, The Part About Fate, and The Part About the Crimes) seems in a certain sense to bear only the most tenuous relationship to the more European subjects and sensibilites of its outer edges. It's here that the book becomes more overtly Mexican, and not only the setting, but the tone (of the prose, and of the characters' lives) changes dramatically. In the Archimboldi bookends, even the latter, in which Archimboldi manages to survive the vicissitudes of the Eastern Front, death is always at a distance. Even when his comrades-in-arms die, it rarely rates more than a simple declarative sentence; the horrors of war and mortality are offstage (with the exception of the Romanian general's crucifixion, although one presumes Bolaño has some purpose in the comparison and contrast of the general's considerable penis pre- and post-war). But with The Part About Amalfitano we begin our descent into the miasma of life in Santa Teresa. Amalfitano is a minor character in The Part About the Critics, a Chilean scholar whom the critics are somewhat amazed to find at Santa Teresa's backwater university (by way of Barcelona). Amalfitano seems somewhat surprised to be there himself, and as the background hum that is the the regular and brutal murders of young women from the colonias rises in pitch (or comes more to the foreground, as our POV shifts from the tourist to the local, albeit still with the academic's refined sensibilities), his fear for his daughter Rosa's life and well-being seems to begin the process of driving him mad, though the possibility remains that the process was already begun.
There's a certain dropoff, to be honest, in The Part About Amalfitano and The Part About Fate. If any of 2666 has a certain, shall we say, sloggish character, it would be these two slimmest of its volumes. The Part About Fate, in particular, is difficult, because Fate himself (a magazine writer from New York, whose mother has just died) seems such a cipher, a leaf afloat on larger currents (much like Archimboldi, later on). But now that I've read the whole volume, their purpose begins to seem clearer to me, and I think I understand not only where they fit, but their necessity to the work as a whole. Their purpose is to be the stairway for our descent into the latter half of the work.
What lies at the center of 2666, so far as I can tell from my present vantage (and I suspect that this is a book that would reward multiple readings) is the creeping sense of inexplicable and inescapable horror that pervades life in contemporary northern Mexico, the breakdown, if it ever even existed, of the compact on which human society is built. Which brings us to The Part About the Crimes, which is both the book's heart and also its strongest, most compelling section.
The Part About the Crimes eschews nearly every literary convention you can think of. Characters come and go, plots and sub-plots arise and fade into the aether seemingly at random. The only constant is the steady drip of women's bodies, sometimes several per month. Their murders are brutal. Most have been raped repeatedly. Some of the bodies have been mutilated. The reports of their discovery, and the often cursory investigations, comprise the bulk of The Part About the Crimes, presented in the most straightforward, almost journalistic prose, in contrast to those parts dealing with the living, in which Bolaño's prose becomes more playful, more literary.
At first blush, it seems there must be some serial murderer, and indeed it seems eventually that there is, though whoever he is, it seems obvious that he is only one of many murderers, that the bugaboo of Santa Teresa is something so much greater than one man might comprise.
Some of the murders are quickly solved, crimes of passion in which the culprits are obvious, and often confess. Some seem obviously the work of a serial killer, with a signature killing style having to do with mutilation of the women's breasts. But the vast majority of the killings fall into neither of these categories, and though Bolaño gives the reader enough clues to make at least a solid guess as to who the murderers are, this is no whodunit, and there is no inspector in the study, unmasking the murderer for all to see.
The Part About the Crimes is only tangentially about the crimes, of course. They are the framework on which Bolaño hangs the artistic statement which is his purpose (at least so far as this reader is able to tell), which is not so much a plot as a place and a time, the northern Mexico of the twenty-first century, in the borderlands where narcotraficantes flourish and the lives of the maquiladora girls are so cheap that many of the victims are never even positively identified. There is more here than murder and mystery, of course. Even amidst such horrors as these, life goes on. From Amalfitano, whose sole concern is the safety of his daughter, to Fate, for whom his time in Santa Teresa is a surreal journey through an inexplicable social and cultural landscape, to the police detectives, reporters, suspects, and sundry others who populate and visit Santa Teresa in The Part About the Crimes. And indeed, despite the horror of it all, we are given to see that even the murders are part of life going on here, that the powerlessness of the people and the powers-that-be is part and parcel of the place and the time, and that that's the point, really.
Those seeking closure will find none here. As has been mentioned, the reader is given enough information to if not solve the crimes, at least get an inkling of their nature and the nature of those who commit the majority of them, but as in life, nothing resolves neatly, and the one person who comes closest to finding out what is actually going on (an American sherriff investigating one of the victims, who was American herself, which I imagine to be significant in Bolaño's mind) disappears himself, in a not so amgibuous fashion.
Contrast this to The Part About Archimboldi, in which a relatively brief sketch of the writer's biography is presented, presumably as a sort of more civilized and European contrast to the sort of Mexiacn style of incipient horror and arbitrary death, at least in those sections regarding Archimboldi's military service during WWII as a German light infantryman. Although more widespread and well, industrial, the horror and death of WWII happens nearly all offstage. There are a few vignettes, mostly presented as a means of framing Archimboldi as something of a Holy Fool (not unlike his beloved Parzifal), whose madness presumably protects him in some subtle way from the vicissitudes of war and the dangers of flying bullets (though he is, to Bolaño's credit, wounded somewhat severely as a result of his foolhardiness). But the sense of horror is tamped severely down here.
Redolent of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (a volume with which I am intimately familiar), The Part About Archimboldi recalls the peregrinations of another guileless parzifal, Tyrone Slothrop, albeit in a more restrained and less paranoid fashion. For whereas Slothrop was the target of an active conspiracy (albeit a rather absurd one), Archimboldi is simply adrift in the chaos of war and its aftermath. And while both pull a disappearing act, the contrast between the two is telling. Slothrop simply fades, lost in the undertow of the currents of history, his relevance briefly eulogized and that's that. Archimboldi, on the other hand, engages in a more willful obscurity, a protective layer of obfuscation that separates Archimboldi the man from Archimboldi the author, whose greatness is luckily recognized by a publisher of the old school, a man willing to take a loss on Archimboldi's early editions until the world catches up to the particularity of his genius.
One wonders somewhat at Bolaño's refusal to present word one of Archimboldi's oeuvre, either in The Part About the Critics or The Part About Archimboldi. I suppose it's beside the point. What's important, so far as I can tell, is not so much what he writes, but that he writes, that the author and the artistic impulse are able to arise from the ashes of a devastated Europe to redeem (at least insofar as is possible) the horror and devastation of the war. Whether this is meant as a commentary on Bolaño himself (as the author who arises from the slow burn of contemporary Mexico) remains obscure. Perhaps it is significant that no such redemptive figure arises (at least not within 2666) from the horrors of Santa Teresa, whose character and banality stands in contrast to Archimboldi's own crucible, although the breakdowns in the social compact have some resonances.
In all, 2666 is a vast and sprawling masterpiece. A flawed masterpiece, no doubt, and there is little doubt, in my mind at least, that Bolaño would have worked on it further had he lived to. I haven't read enough of his work to know whether 2666 is his crowning acheivement, or merely a reaching that exceeded his ability to grasp, or possibly both. But wheresoever it fits into his oeuvre as a writer, 2666 is one of those massive books that more than justifies its word-count, a book that pushes the limits of what novels are for and what they can do, that blows open a space for itself, not only in Literature but in the reader's mind, as well. To some extent, I'm still reeling from it. It's one of those rare books that, once I had finished it, I had to wait a couple of days before I could start a new one, while my hindbrain attempted to assimilate what I had just fed it. I'm still not sure I've fully absorbed it, although writing the present treatment has definitely helped certain things to crystallize in my mind. There's so much in there, so much to absorb, that I can't help but think I'll have to read it again before I really get it. Lucky for me, it'll totally be worth it.