Una noche Amalfitano le preguntó, por decir algo mientras el joven buscaba en las estanterías, qué libros le gustaban y qué libro era aquel que en ese momento estaba leyendo. El farmacéutico le contestó, sin volverse, que le gustaban los libros del tipo de La metamorfosis, Bartleby, Un corazón simple, Un cuento de Navidad. Y luego le dijo que estaba leyendo Desayuno en Tiffanys, de Capote. Dejando de lado que Un corazón simple y Un cuento de Navidad eran, como el nombre de este último indicaba, cuentos y no libros, resultaba revelador el gusto de este joven farmacéutico ilustrado, que tal vez en otra vida fue Trakl o que tal vez en ésta aún le estaba deparado escribir poemas tan desesperados como su lejano colega austriaco, que prefería claramente, sin discusión, la obra menor a la obra mayor. Escogía La metamorfosis en lugar de El proceso, escogía Bartleby en lugar de Moby Dick, escogía Un corazón simple en lugar de Bouvard y Pécuchet, y Un cuento de Navidad en lugar de Historia de dos ciudades o de El Club Pickwick. Qué triste paradoja, pensó Amalfitano. Ya ni los farmacéuticos ilustrados se atreven con las grandes obras, imperfectas, torrenciales, las que abren camino en lo desconocido. Escogen los ejercicios perfectos de los grandes maestros. O lo que es lo mismo: quieren ver a los grandes maestros en sesiones de esgrima de entrenamiento, pero no quieren saber nada de los combates de verdad, en donde los grandes maestros luchan contra aquello, ese aquello que nos atemoriza a todos, ese aquello que acoquina y encacha, y hay sangre y heridas mortales y fetidez. (p. 289-290)
Ever since I read Los detectives salvajes in 2005, Roberto Bolaño's prose (and occasionally, his poetry) has enchanted me. Yet I never have dared to write reviews of his two most well-known works, the above-mentioned 1998 release and the 2004 posthumous, unfinished 2666. I found it daunting to try to analyze works in my native language that I read in my second language but which I experienced in a third, more primal, emotional paralanguage that uses other means to communicate the power contained within that piece. Yet I will attempt to translate into my native English that tertiary language, while only paraphrasing what I read in Spanish.
Bolaño's sprawling 1120+ page novel (the edition I read is pictured above) is divided into five parts, each of which at first seems to be independent of others. From four academicians whose lives ultimately revolve around the enigmatic Beno von Archimboldi and the mysteries that involve the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa (Juarez City is the model) to Amalfitano (a recurring bit character in some of Bolaño's earlier writings)'s self-identity being on the verge of disintegration to the gruesome murders in Santa Teresa to the person who became Archimboldi, each of these five parts tells, retells, constructs, deconstructs those fragments which, when meshed together, form a civilization and which, when pulled apart, create a symbolic vortex of (dis)associations that then crash into the reader's mind, leaving in its wake a profound sense of awe and discomfort.
When on his death bed, Bolaño urged his friend and literary executor Ignacio Echevarría to split 2666 into five separate novels in order to maximize revenue for his wife and children. Wisely, Echevarría disobeyed this command, as the five parts, although each is largely independent of the others plot-wise, overlap thematically, creating a complex web of events and character interactions that make the whole stronger than the individual parts. Although the novel's title is never explained in this story, there are connections with Bolaño's earlier works, such as Amuleto/Amulet, where the "2666" is referenced, either in context to the biblical exodus or to a future cemetery; both capture the dual sense of release and doom.
This foreboding feeling looms large throughout the parts of the story. Each part focuses on dissolution, whether it be of the relationships explored in the first part, Amalfitano's personality, life in Santa Teresa after the long line of prostitute murders begins to the origins of the author who became Archimboldi. Bolaño explores these iterations of dissolution in a variety of ways. Some, like that found in the crucial fourth part that deals with the Santa Teresa murders, is told in a brutally direct style that does not skimp on the horrors; reading short biography after biography on each of the victims and how the undiscovered murderer raped them in certain fashions before killing them can be sickening to read, not just because of the murders themselves but how these murders combine tell something more chilling about our global society and its impending dissolution. In a less direct but no less powerful way, he explores this through his characters' interactions, whether it be caustic observations about the self-deceits that we weave about ourselves (such an observation hinted at in the quote above, which deals with what works we choose to extoll their virtues without considering the struggles against which those works were conceived, or our own failure to comprehend the totality of the apocalypse that lurks around the corner.
It is no accident that Bolaño's works feature writers, poets, and other vagabonds who wander in, through, and out of deserts. Although he does not make a direct appearance in 2666, alter ego Arturo Belano's presence is sensed in several passages. He is a witness in so many of Bolaño's other works and apparently it was Bolaño's intention to have Belano be the narrator of these five parts. This unfulfilled intent, noted in the afterword to the Spanish edition, brings full circle so many of Bolaño's earlier works. In many regards, 2666 is not a work to be read in isolation, but rather is best served to be a capstone reading experience for Bolaño's previous writings. Having read all but one of his published works (and that one, released posthumously earlier this year in Spain, I hope to have in my possession in the next week), 2666 becomes a final, epic exclamation point on a series of explorations into human society and our literatures that began a quarter-century before. It is fitting that Bolaño's suggested ending for 2666, spoken by Arturo Belano, close this appreciation for his work:
«Y esto es todo, amigos. Todo lo he hecho, todo lo he vivido. Si tuviera fuerzas, me pondría a llorar. Se despide de ustedes, Arturo Belano.»
"And that is all, friends. All that I have done, all that I have lived. If I had the strength, it would make me cry. Taking leave of you, Arturo Belano."