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Philip Hensher

An unlikely bestseller

2666, by Roberto Bola&ntilde;o<br /> <br type="_moz" />

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Roberto Bola

Picador, pp. 898, £

2666, by Roberto Bolaño

Not every writer would write a novel in the form of a completely invented encyclopaedia of imaginary writers and call the result Nazi Literature in the Americas. Not everyone, either, would write a novel in two paragraphs, the second less than 12 words long, or produce a novel about a torturer-poet who writes his work in jet-trails in the sky. As soon as Roberto Bolaño came to the attention of the world, it was clear that, however extraordinary his work seemed in formal design and subject, he might have something even more extraordinary under wraps. After his death in 2003, word emerged from the Spanish-speaking world of a gigantic novel called 2666. A previous large-scale novel, The Savage Detectives, has been a major word-of-mouth success among writers, with its wild, elegiac portrait of 1970s circles of Central American radical poets in their garrets, invading the mansions of patrons, or tearing up the roads. 2666 has still bigger goals in its sights, and though the mind shrinks from parts of it, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by its ambition, and much of its achievement.

Bolaño was Chilean by birth, and one of the defining moments of his imaginative life was his attempt, in 1973, to join Allende’s cause. After Pinochet’s coming to power, he was imprisoned and tortured for eight days, an experience which frequently enters his fiction. He fled Chile for Mexico, El Salvador, France and Spain, living in near-destitution, writing poetry with no success; it has been suggested that he went through a period of heroin addiction during this period, something his estate and family denies. In middle age, he turned to writing fiction, much of which is concerned with the lives of radical poets, extreme violence in a political context, and impassioned late-night debate. He was awarded the Romulo Gallegos prize in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, and died of hepatitis in 2003. 2666 which, despite its enormous length, is probably unfinished, came out in Spanish in 2004 and in English (in America) in 2007, seizing control of the literary agenda with both hands.

At the centre of a gigantic, spiralling, episodic plot lies a sequence of horrible murders of women in the provincial Mexican town of Santa Teresa, and a cryptic, reclusive German writer who calls himself Benno von Archimboldi. The life of the writer and the sequence of murders are eventually brought into some sort of proximity, but the narrative deliberately postpones any kind of revelation of these events, and ways in which the different topics of the novel might be related, to near its end, and perhaps beyond.

Much of the novel remains unexplained. It offers no clue whatsoever to its title, which has to be elucidated by a footnote from another Bolaño novel, Amulet. Some notes left behind on Bolaño’s desk suggest that the narrator of 2666 — the novel once drops into an alarming first person, forcing a reconsideration of the 800 pages preceding — is Bolaño’s alter ego from the collection Last Evenings on Earth, Arturo Belaño, a figure who plays no part at all in 2666. There is no real explanation, or suggestion of an explanation, of who might be behind the killings, and indeed it seems unlikely that they are the work of a single individual or unified group. These cryptic features are highly characteristic of Bolaño’s work, and the structure of the novel is designed to set the reader adrift in a world of chaos.

It is a work in five books; Bolaño wished it to be published in five successive episodes, an injunction which his heirs have wisely ignored. It opens with a brilliantly engaging but small-scale account of the love affairs between four literary critics, all experts on the work of Archimboldi. The effect is of a narrative beginning at the most remote possible part of a huge spiral, before moving inwards. The second is a short episode about a Santa Teresa academic, connected to the international critics and terrified, on his daughter’s behalf, of the violence in the city. The third concerns itself with an African-American sports writer who, covering a boxing match, gets caught up with the Santa Teresa underworld and emerges with some sort of triumph.

So far, the English reader will feel confident that he knows what sort of book this is. We have become accustomed, in recent years, to books which take the reader through a succession of episodes, each attached to another by only the thinnest of narrative connections. Before you start to think, however, that this is a sort of long-winded Hispanic parallel to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, Bolaño sets off on something I don’t believe any English novelist would contemplate, and the fourth book is a monumental, terrifying, unprecedented stretch. It sets out, in simple sequence, the Santa Teresa murders, and the panicked attempts of the police to do anything about them: it is unadorned by any of the usual blandishments of fiction, and it comes down on the reader like a block of granite falling from the sky. Once you set the book down it is difficult to pick it up again, to face the furious rain of blood, flesh and sex-murders: on the other hand, Bolaño now has the reader firmly in his evil gaze, and it is hard to put it down in the first place.

The fifth book, about the childhood and upbringing of Archimboldi, offers some explanations, though not many. I think, too, that there are some signs of authorial exhaustion towards the end, as though Bolaño was racing against time.

This is an unlikely bestseller, I must say: it is often very hard-going, deliberately frustrates the reader’s wish to discover, and challenges his ability to recall the details of plot and character at every point. It begins with a student buying a novel by chance, and ends with the descendant of an inventor of an ice-cream sundae. In between, Bolaño asks us to sup full of horrors, and then some. Does he have enough subject-matter to sustain his huge fictional design, or is he one of those writers who turn to exhibitions of the extreme to disguise a fundamental poverty of observed human experience? The question goes unanswered, but I will say that the wild chaos of 2666 held me from beginning to end — reminding me, above all, of The Man Without Qualities — and sent me back to read all Bolaño’s other novels. You will want to experience this one.