2666 and Authorial Legacy

Readers, I made a mistake. In the open to my review of Netherland, I talked of the novel’s declaring its own eulogy “in the grand tradition of Louis XIV.” The facts are right; the wording isn’t. Substitute “epitaph” for “eulogy,” understand that in both cases it was accidental, and perhaps I’ll have a shred of credibility left after this week’s introduction.

It is impossible to read Roberto Bolaño’s massive masterpiece, 2666, and not immediately think of the circumstances surrounding his writing of it. Bolaño penned 2666 during the last five years of his life, suffering from the liver disease that he knew would ultimately kill him, as it did July 15, 2003.

As a result, 2666, an 898-page tome of a novel that Kirkus Reviews called “unquestionably the finest novel of the present century—and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now,” is nothing short of Bolaño’s preemptive and fully conscious attempt to crash his funeral and deliver a eulogy not looking back on his life, but rather looking forward to his legacy.

Bolaño’s preferred subject has always (and here, I mean in his fiction; I am unfamiliar with his poetry) been the writer. His novels and novellas have, hitherto without exception, been told by writers and about writers. Whereas his other major work, The Savage Detectives, explored the lives of writers, 2666 deals in their deaths. The novel is, quite simply, enamored with death and its (non-corporal) consequences.

The questions posed by the perverse ubiquity of death in the novel surround what we leave behind us when we die. Bolaño is concerned not with a spiritual afterlife, but rather an earthly one. How are we remembered, and just as importantly, how are we forgotten?

Its title, as discussed in an earlier work, Amulet, implies as much:

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.

2666, then, is Bolaño’s attempt to have a tombstone in that cemetery, some remnant of his life still lingering in the cultural memory, something that cannot easily be forgotten.

And 2666 is largely unforgettable. Bolaño’s style is vaguely reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s (at least, reading both in translation). Its beauty lay in short spasms rather than extended scenes or descriptions, and it relies more on realistic dialogue than prosaic contemplation (see: Netherland). It’s also a bit unedited, a bit run-on, and very thorough. Minor characters get major backstories, and the novel has a more comprehensive worldview because of it.

Bolaño isn’t about creating characters as much as creating a world in Santa Teresa—one that is populated by writers and critics, journalists and detectives, killers and victims. The characters are all loosely connected through Santa Teresa and the crimes, which upon their introduction in Part I become entrenched in the narrative. The critics of Part I chase the specter of Benno von Archimboldi, the focus of Part V. While searching for him in Santa Teresa, they work with another author, Amalfitano, the subject of Part II. They learn about the crimes (Part IV). Amalfitano later becomes tangled with a journalist subtly named Oscar Fate, the center of Part III.

Ubiquitous within this world—one described in pages that range in style from the natural lyricism of Camus’s travel essays to the tight-lipped economy of Chandler’s early noir—are both the imminence of death and the transcendence of legacy. The critics have never met, or even seen, Archimboldi, and yet it can easily be argued that he is the one driving force in all of their lives: The study of Archimboldi is the basis of their careers, and the impetus for their friendships—and sometimes more than friendships—with one another.

Through Archimboldi, then, Bolaño affirms the potency of the author—even one that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. Archimboldi may as well be dead to the critics, who never quite catch him, but that doesn’t mean his influence ever stops. The same can be said for Ansky and Ivanov, the two writers who influence a young Hans Reiter (pseudonym Archimboldi). At one point in the novel, Archimboldi reads the notes of Ansky commenting on his own reading of Ivanov; throw in that we are reading this, and you get four layers of an artistic cascade. Ivanov and Ansky are dead, Archimboldi is to become a recluse further read and interpreted by Amalfitano and the critics. There is a constant mediation between writer and reader, and yet the channel of influence remains unblocked. Through the impact these writers have on one another, they remain, in all clichéd senses, alive.

But can the same be said for the female corpses that litter the terrain of Santa Teresa and 2666? The Part about the Crimes* is, as you may expect, more difficult to read than the others. It is the longest of the sections, and it describes in all their grisly detail the murders of women in Santa Teresa. The knowledge that these murders, which usually involve sexual assault, are based on the real-life murders in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, only makes the section’s brutality more resonant.

*Bolaño’s parts are named in the same manner as Friends’ episodes: The Part about the Critics, The Part about Amalfitano, The Part about Fate, The Part about the Crimes, and The Part about Archimboldi. This is the novel’s biggest flaw.

And this is, in many ways, Bolaño’s point. Death is very real to him, and he makes that abundantly clear in Part IV–near 300 pages of fiction that are as realistic (even real), as intricate, and as morbid as Gustave Moreau’s “Jupiter and Semele,” the painting that comprises 2666‘s book jacket.  As a reader, your initial attempt to distinguish between the various victims—all women, most workers in maquiladoras, or factories—is overwhelmed by sheer quantity. Bolaño here seems to echo Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

Bolaño’s goal wasn’t to make this easy on the reader. He has Amalfitano say as much in Part II, when the writer comments on the reading habits of the local pharmacist:

[T]here 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.

It is here that we get perhaps Bolaño’s clearest statement of 2666’s intentions. For it seems clear that he looks upon his own work as an example of a major one, as great, as imperfect, and as torrential, as one that blazes a path into the unknown. In 2666, Bolaño comes face to face with death; he does not spar with it, but rather combats this thing that terrifies us all.

And now, six years after his death, we can now comprehend what exactly Bolaño accomplished. Like a star in the distance, his light has finally reached us:

“All this light is dead,” said Ingeborg. “All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It’s the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn’t exist, life on Earth didn’t exist, even Earth didn’t exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It’s the past, we’re surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can’t do anything to stop it.”

“An old book is the past, too,” said Archimboldi, “a book written and published in 1789 is the past, its author no longer exists, neither does its printer or the ones who read it first or the time when it was written, but the book, the first edition of that book, is still here. Like the pyramids or the Aztecs,” said Archimboldi.

2666 is here, and it will be for a long time.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] start on decade-in-review countdowns, ranking the best novels of the last 10 years. For those who, like us, enjoyed Roberto Bolano’s 2666, No. 4 on The Millions’ list, they offer a complete […]

    Reply

  2. […] counting The Wire), 2666 affords Bolaño the posthumous chance to opine on death in all its forms: from the corporeal to the metaphysical. His characters are deep even when they are fleeting, and his style (in Natasha Wimmer’s […]

    Reply

  3. […] you’ve read Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (like we did) or simply enjoy following violent drug wars, John Murray’s ongoing series about the […]

    Reply

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