Now that I (Ben) have finally finished 2666 (see The Year in Books), I’ve been scouring through any and all reviews I can find to make sense of it. The idea of a book that requires even more reading to understand it may sound awful to you, but — in this particular case — I have found it thrilling.
First, a quick summary, as much as one can summarize 2666. It was the last thing the Chilean exile Roberto Bolaño wrote before he died of liver failure in 2003, and there is debate as to whether or not he actually finished it before his death. It may unsettle you to hear that, in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter after 898 pages whether he “officially” finished it or not. By then, I had long ago resigned myself to many unanswered questions.
Adam Kirsch (in Slate) compares the five parts within 2666 to planets “orbiting the same sun,” which is an apt metaphor. The sun of 2666 is the fictional town of Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juárez (just south of the border from El Paso) where for the past decade there have been serial murders of over 400 women. Those murders remain unsolved, and part four ( “The Part About the Crimes”) is easily the book’s most gruesome, numbing passage to navigate. Here Bolaño invites just one of countless tensions into the story: We’re accustomed to fiction and popular entertainment that resolve tragedies like this — you know at 9:50 that Law & Order has exactly six or seven minutes to wrap it all up — but, true to life, no one solves the murders in 2666. One suspect is arrested, but the murders continue even with him behind bars. Police and detectives try to prevent further deaths, but they are either incompetent or complicit, while family members of the dead labor alone, with minimal or no resources, trying (to borrow an image Bolaño uses in part five) like Sisyphus to push the boulder uphill.
The other four parts orbit around the same sun, but some in only the most cryptic and tangential fashion. Part one is about four European academics who become obsessed with a reclusive German author named Benno Von Archimboldi. It ends with two of them following a lead that Archimboldi was spotted in Santa Teresa, and the end of part one is when we first learn of the murders. The most baffling stretch of the novel, part two, is from the perspective of a literature professor named Amalfitano, who lives in Santa Teresa and translated one of Achimboldi’s novels. In the corners of his story you gather a few more details about the murders (as Sarah Kerr puts it, “potent implications reside in unremarked details” throughout the novel), but only obliquely, and with the feeling you zoned out for a few or 20 pages and should go back and reread them. (Don’t. Just keep going.) Part three follows a journalist named Oscar Fate who travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but once he’s there he too becomes engrossed in the murders and wants to write a story about them instead. In part five Benno Von Archimboldi himself steps into the picture, except instead of placing Archimboldi in present day Santa Teresa, where the reader has (with blood and tears) languished for 300 pages and desperately wants to see the pieces come together, Bolaño begins with Archimboldi’s birth and weaves his way through 200 pages of 20th century European history, traversing the fallout from World War II and how it shaped Archimboldi and his family (notably his sister, who abruptly takes center stage at the novel’s end), until — finally — the novel shifts back to Santa Teresa just 26 pages from the finish line. (A more astute reader than I will recognize the connection right away. I made it five pages later, then immediately reread them.) Here Bolaño offers something like an epiphany, although what it means is not exactly clear. You feel as if, having crawled through your own Sonoran desert for days, you reach it and think you’ve discovered a sprawling oasis when really it’s merely a puddle. (But what a refreshing puddle it is!)
The obvious question first: What does 2666 stand for? In his note to the first edition, Ignacio Echevarría points out that the number (year?) has shown up before in Bolaño’s Amulet, when three characters walk to Colonia Guerrero in Mexico City and are overcome with a sense of foreboding. As the narrator says,
We walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.
In the Financial Times, Henry Hitchings suggests it could be “because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation,” but quickly adds, “Bolaño may simply be indulging his enthusiasm for misdirection. One of his abiding themes is that crucial facts are forever passing unnoticed: another is that we are continually – in our lives as in our reading – suckered into heading down blind alleys.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Lethem said with trademark hyperbole, “Perhaps 2666 is the year human memory will need to attain in order to bear the knowledge in 2666.”
No matter. The riddle of the title gives way to the riddle of the book, which is suffused with characters describing their dreams or long, digressive passages which take on a dream-like quality. Bolaño only turned to fiction writing in his 40s, and his prose has a chaotic, beautiful musicality to it — Lethem astutely draws a comparison to Denis Johnson. The most lyrical passages tend to congregate in part five: two lovers sit at a window to watch a Venice snowfall; two more lovers stare at the heavens as one observes, “All this light is dead. … When these stars cast their light, we didn’t exist”; a Romanian general, killed by his deserting troops, is crucified on a cross with a box of old, wet fireworks at the foot of it, emitting “a little puff of blue smoke that soon rose up to the sky and disappeared.”
Whatever 2666 “means” — as a meditation on memory and history, on violence and death, on language and meaning — feels secondary to the experience of reading it. Like any epic, it is both sweeping and particular, beautiful and terrible, thrilling and mundane. A minor character in part three says of the Santa Teresa murders, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” What is the secret of the world? What is the secret of 2666? Bolaño offers no answers, but I have been haunted by the book, as I was reading it and after I have finally put it down. I wonder how long it will be before I feel compelled to pick it up again.
One final recommendation: while I am generally a hardcover man, buy 2666 in the boxed, three-volume paperback set if you read in bed but prefer not to have your windpipe crushed should you doze off (which you will, trust me). Also, reading it in this format offers the satisfaction of “finishing” a book when in fact you’ve only read one-third of it. A minor psychic victory, but take them where you can get them.