2666 by Roberto Bolaño, who was born on this day in 1953 and who died 16 years ago, has been the most enjoyable reading experience of 2019 for me so far. It may be matched, but I don’t think it’ll be topped. Bolaño’s body of work has been cracked open for me like a door into a new world, which is not an experience you expect to have all that often as a reader, especially as you get older and your literary polestars have been set in place for years.
What is 2666 about? Primarily, hell. It riffles through reality’s thick dusty grognardian deck of hells: the hell of love, of jealousy, the hell of war and war crime, the hell of violence, the hell of ineptitude, capitalist hell, fascistic hell, hells of forgetting and of being forgotten – and maybe most of all the hell that is our final erasure in death, the only thing, ultimately, to which our ragged souls are inescapably contracted.
In more practical terms: 2666 is about a dozen or so central characters – critics, reporters, detectives, writers – who are drawn, for reasons arcane and straightforward, to Santa Teresa, Sonora, Mexico, a city cursed with a terrifying crime wave during which hundreds of women are being raped and murdered: primarily young, primarily lower class. Many were workers in the maquiladoras, factories built by foreign corporations that have metastasized across Santa Teresa like cancers and have come to both define and poison the city’s growth. The life and works of a mysterious, elusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi are also an ongoing concern.
It’s also about burned books:
What would those who lived in the tenth dimension, that is, those who perceived ten dimensions, think of music, for example? What would Beethoven mean to them? What would Mozart mean to them? What would Bach mean to them? Probably, the young Reiter answered himself, music would just be noise, noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books.
At this point the conductor raised a hand and said or rather whispered confidentially:
“Don’t speak of burned books, my dear young man.”
To which Hans responded:
“Everything is a burned book, my dear maestro. Music, the tenth dimension, the fourth dimension, cradles, the production of bullets and rifles, Westerns: all burned books.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the director.
“I was just stating my opinion,” said Hans.
“An opinion like any other,” said Halder, doing his best to end the conversation on a humorous note, one that would leave them all on good terms, he and the conductor and Hans and the conductor, “a typically adolescent pronouncement.”
“No, no, no,” said the conductor, “What do you mean by Westerns?”
“Cowboy novels,” said Hans.
This declaration seemed to relieve the director, who, after exchanging a few friendly words with them, soon took his leave. Later, he would tell his hostess that Halder and the Japanese man seemed like decent people, but Halder’s young friend was a time bomb, no question about it: an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected. Which was untrue. (Page 666)
The novel is divided into five parts, best thought of as a series of five full-length mirrors. The first mirror is classically clear, perfectly appointed in a tasteful gilt rococo frame; but if you look closer you notice that the subject matter of the carvings on the frame is odd: no oak leaves tastefully curved like ladies’ wrists, but malformed claws holding the edges of the mirror for dear life; and instead of cherubs, knobby-kneed demons laboring gleefully under grotesque humpbacks peek at you from the frame’s corners. The second mirror has a dull sheen to it, but tracks its reflected images faithfully enough. Its frame is dingy and utilitarian, made of nicked-up plastic gone cloudy with finger oil from much handling, as if it has been moved from room to room; it’s the kind of mirror you might buy from Wal-Mart or another minor hell, trying to furnish your apartment on the cheap. The third mirror has no frame at all, just an angled chamfer around its perimeter to designate an edge. Its serene surface is disturbed by a big star-shaped shatterpoint, splayed out from a fist-sized center on the mirror’s right side, about at chest level, like somebody tried to punch whoever they saw there in the heart. There is no fourth mirror. The fifth mirror’s frame is workmanlike, made from unremarkable but sturdy pieces of wood, covered with a lacquer that makes it dark and glossy. And while the frame is clean the mirror itself is filthy, water-stained, with dark unerasable smudges and running topographies of permanent grime, as if it has been recovered from a shipwreck after decades in some cold northern sea’s embrace. It smells briny.
2666 is also about the utter fuckedness of dragging yourself through reality every day, how human life is at the mercy of things we have named but do not understand: fate, fear, hate, love, oblivion. All the bigguns that baffle us until the day we die.
These five mirrors are set up to form a star or pentagram, each corresponding to one of the shape’s five points. In the center of the pentagram there’s a dark hole, big enough to climb down into. So depending on where you stand and where you look, each mirror will reflect portions of the other four mirrors, the spaces between the mirrors, yourself, and the hole, in proportions you can alter by walking right or left, or by crouching or standing on the tips of your toes, like you’re calibrating a tint on a color wheel.
2666 is the kind of book that makes you want to address it in metaphors and indirection, like a Heian lover; and that’s not only because it is dizzyingly good but also because it is the most haunted fucking book you have ever read.
To that end: is also about Horror, and horror.
Everything in 2666 eventually feeds into the enormity of the Santa Teresa murders, which are Bolaño’s white whale, his Rocket, his Judge Holden. They rise like a bad dream, gnawing at the edges of the scenery throughout Parts 1 – 3. In part 4, “The Part About The Crimes,” Bolaño plunges right into the eye of the storm, cataloging a large swathe of the murders in detail, from their “beginnings” in 1993 up until 1997. They don’t stop then, and ‘97 isn’t even 2666’s ‘present,’ but by then the sheer number of deaths has reached some kind of horrible apotheosis and moved beyond the scope of human comprehension, and although one potential suspect has been apprehended and others named, it is too late, far too late. Indeed, Bolaño presents the murders as having reached a horrible immortality, as being metaphysically unsolvable, an unstakeable Dracula, not only because the Santa Teresa cops are deeply corrupt and inept, nor because the companies behind the maquiladoras interfered with the investigations, nor even because the Mexican cartel seems involved, but because – I think – the central thesis of 2666 is that it has actually been too late ever since mortality first punctured the frail human dream. Too late for all of us, but also these lost women in particular.
Because the murders are also not Bolaño’s at all. For all its cosmological dread and dark reverberation, 2666 is never deaf to the particular unfairness of these deaths, of all this specific loss of life which has a very real corollary in the reality, the more than 300 female homicides in Ciudad Juárez. Part 4 is often described as being clinical, removed, sterile, like a police report. But it reads to me as an act of humane documentation. Bolaño, unlike many true crime writers, never succumbs to breathless fascination with the violence itself, or a fanatic obsession with the (possible) killers, who are presented as terrifying ciphers, nor even as a sentimentalized empyrean to these women, pretending to know more than he can about who they were. It memorializes the inhumanity of their death, the mystery of it, and the mystery of their individual lives all at once. Part 4 is a monument as much as it is a metaphor.
The whole of 2666 is fixated on memorializing, on making obsessively sure that every character who walks on stage gets his share of humanity, a suitable end to his minor story. You already know this, but Bolaño didn’t quite “finish” 2666 before he died. According to those in charge of his estate he came damn close, and I believe that. But I also believe that if Bolaño had his way, 2666 would have just kept growing, like Leaves of Grass, with more characters, more voices, more stories. The novel isn’t so much digressive as it is all-embracing, desperately human. There’s always time for another tale from another far-traveled stranger, and in its dark profusion 2666 isn’t afraid to deliver some of its most beautiful moments in these ancillary/not-ancillary tales. Consider the sad end of the Soviet science fiction writer Efraim Ivanov, who is actually a character in the journal of a another character, a journal that a third character finds long after the journal-keeper himself has died:
In 1937 Ivanov was arrested.
Once again he was subjected to a long interrogation and then they left him in a dark cell and forgot about him. His interrogator didn’t know a thing about literature. His principal interest was finding out whether Ivanov had met with members of the Trotskyist opposition.
During his time in the cell, Ivanov made friends with a rat he called Nikita. At night, when the rat came out, Ivanov held long conversations with her. As one might imagine, they didn’t talk about literature, and certainly not about politics, but about their respective childhoods. Ivanov told the rat about his mother, who was often in his thoughts, and his siblings, but he avoided talking about his father. The rat, whose Russian was scarcely a whisper, talked in turn about the Moscow sewers and the sky in the sewers, where because of the blossoming of certain debris or an inexplicable phosphorescent process, there were always stars. She also talked to him about her mother’s warmth and her sisters’ foolish capers, how she had laughed at those capers, even now as she remembered them they brought a smile to her narrow rat’s face. Sometimes Ivanov let himself succumb to despair and he rested his cheek on his palm and asked Nikita what would become of them.
Then the rat looked at him with sad, perplexed eyes and her look told Ivanov that she was even more innocent than he was. A week after he had been locked in the cell (although for Ivanov it seemed more like a year) he was interrogated again and no one had to hit him to make him sign various papers and documents. He wasn’t returned to his cell. They took him straight out to a courtyard where he was shot in the back of the head and his body tossed on the bed of a truck. (Pages 727 – 728)
Not a word, not a word is out of place here. Ivanov, with the tender ego of all bookpeople, notices his interrogator “didn’t know a thing about literature.” A talking rat is introduced with no fanfare, no pretense or posing. And I want to be clear about this: the correct reading of this scene is that Ivanov meets a real talking rat whose name is Nikita. He doesn’t hallucinate a rat, or hallucinate that a rat talks to him; the way this section is written makes it clear that Nikita is real. Bolaño brings us right into her world with the perfect, uncanny, inimitable discussion of the way the ceiling of a moldering Moscow city sewer can have a sky, to a rat who looks up. Nikita, is as sad as Ivanov with rattish innocence. And that we never see or hear of her again after Ivanov dies…
*Breathless, slamming my podium with open preacher’s palm* I mean, I mean, I mean, brethren, sistren, othren, allren, this is an ending worthy to conclude an entire fucking novel with, and yet in 2666 it is just one of many such moments, each as exactingly, as achingly realized as this’un. The desperation of connection, 2666 indicates, is the only antidote to death. And it’s not an antidote.
But-but-but 2666 is also about the hell that is your world, the day- and nightlit ugliness you move through everyday: look at the desiccated houses, the sun-baked roads knocking your car’s alignment out of joint, the streetlights exuding their orange pollution like halitosis into the charmless humid evening air; or those cigarette butt nights of sleeplessness or drunkenness that bring you to some struggling lonely 24 hour diner, the only place with lights still on, uglier and sadder than they ever look in the movies, lit up like a malign jewel in the night’s fat velvet palm.
It also contains an extended vampire sequence.
In tone, in theme, in style and concerns, in ambition and achievement, 2666 is my kinda poison. I like it a lot, and I’d like it lot even if it fell short of true greatness. And I need longer to digest it, but 2666 is only one of two novels I can think of off the top of my head published after 2000 (the other being Against the Day, natch, which I haven’t read all the way through) that is immediately a genuine contender for that capital-G Greatness.
It’s also about how Art runs through the falseness of our lives like a river of blood. If that matters to you, go read 2666.
Image Credit: Various versions of Die Toteninsel by Alfred Stieglitz; from top to bottom: Third Version, Basel Version, New York Version, Sixth Version.