Roberto Bolaño had come to the notice of the English-speaking “world literature” canon just a few scant years before the publication of 2666 in English translation. Some have noted that the novel was lauded as a masterpiece (by English language periodicals) long before the translation had appeared, but if this is the case I am unaware of where such lauding actually occurred. Nonetheless, it is absolutely true that the English language press stumbled over themselves in praise of it. The New York Review of Books called it a “tour de force,” others an “undisputed masterpiece.” It is despite this flood of praise that I must, with all due respect to the critical community, dispute the position this novel has been afforded in the literary canon.
It is first necessary to acknowledge why Bolaño’s novel might have been accepted as a “masterpiece” even before it appeared. The author was already in the grave when the book appeared in print in its original Spanish and the timing could not have been more perfect for his “masterpiece” to appear. He had already entered the canon on the strength of his other novels—sideways, perhaps, but still definitely in it—and here was 1000 pages of experimental novel, written while death loomed over him, no less. How could we not love it? It was like the tragedy of all great Spanish literature wrapped into one monumental book.
“Monumental” is the right word here too, for the novel itself is beastly in length, and size certainly does matter when we consider the greatness, the masterpieceness, the tour de forceness of literary works. If an author is established, is it not the “big book” that is finally granted “masterpiece” status (at least at first). Is that not why we champion The Magic Mountain, for example? Or The Gulag Archipelago? Great books, to be sure, but the absolute best writing by Mann, or Solzhenitsyn, or whoever? Perhaps so, but in critical discourse it at times feels that it is the length of the novel–its page count of physical weight–that tilts us into the category of “masterpiece.”
The reviews of the novel are problematic because of this very acceptance. “One of the cornerstones that define an entire literature,” writes Ródenas for a Barcelona paper. If by cornerstone, this critical means that it is heavy enough to act as a physical cornerstone for an archway, then perhaps he is correct. The problem here is that so little of the reviews grapple with the most important question about 2666, namely what, if anything, is the novel about? What is important about this novel and why should anyone care?
The bare bones are these: The novel is divided into five barely-related sections, each with its own narrative and, largely, its own set of characters. Occasionally one or two characters will traipse into another section but they are self-contained pieces and lack any real sense of continuity. The most problematic section is the fourth, “The Part About the Killings,” a practically endless catalog of the bodies of murdered women found in Santa Teresa, a barely-fictionalized Juarez.
“The Part About the Killings” is indicative of much of the novel. Here, Bolaño focuses on short declarations of fact throughout the novel (with the exception of the final section) and this is nowhere more apparent in “The Part About the Killings.” In describing the murdered women, one might expect Bolaño to humanize them, to offer something of their lives, their histories, their voices, but then there is none of this in the novel: not here and, until the final section of the novel, not anywhere. What he does is tell us again and again that the women were “vaginally and anally raped,” a phrase that becomes mantra-like in this section, but ultimately he takes the banality of the crimes and makes them even more banal by forcing his readers to read, over and over again, that phrase until it loses all meaning. Interspersed with these police reports are walk-ons with various detectives, experts, police officers, and accused perpetrators, none of them offer a sense of depth or seem particularly interested in solving the crimes. I suppose that the end result is to make us feel like the crimes continue because no one cares, but Bolaño does nothing to change that. The dead women, in the end, are as anonymous to us as they were before we picked up the book in the beginning.
The anonymous quality of the dead women extends to many characters and moments in the book, some of which are well-written and memorable. Take, for example, the lengthy sermon by a blind chef and former Black Panther member in the third section. The sermon is funny to be sure, but it adds nothing whatsoever to the novel as a whole, unless it is to add to the ultimate sense of meaninglessness. There are many such moments: biographies of various characters that occupy many pages of the novel but ultimately do not add up to much of anything. I kept wondering if Bolaño had, in his haste to finish a “big book” had simply thrown in everything he had left over.
The final section, “The Part About Archimboldi,” is the most readable section of the novel, but it is also the least meaningful and the least connected to Northern Mexico, where all the other sections have a significant (if sometimes tenuous) stake. There is a sense of fairy tale here and it is compelling material even if it does not ultimately go anywhere. Archimboldi is a fictional novelist invented by Bolaño and his life story is interesting enough and, after the seeming endlessness (and plotlessness) of “The Part About the Killings,” it’s a breath of fresh air. What we are supposed to understand from Archimboldi’s story, though, remains a mystery, particularly as it has no real bearing on anything in the rest of the novel. When it is revealed that Klaus Haas, the suspected murderer, is Archimboldi’s nephew, our own reaction can be “so what,” because the connection seems to offer little understanding for us or for anyone.
In terms of possible recurrent themes, there is a sense of “bookishness” throughout—many characters are journalists, novelists, or literary critics, and in the second section one character is essentially driven mad by books, but what are we to make of that? Books will drive you crazy? I’m reminded here to Darren Aronovsky’s films, especially Pi, a film that is visually interesting but seems to have no intellectual core (math will drive you crazy?). Bolaño’s “books” are much the same here? They are a recurrent figure but hardly a symbol or even an image. Like everything else in the novel, they just are. This is an intellectual novel, then, without intelligence.
And there is one short paragraph towards the end of the novel that offers a kind of sum total of the novel as a whole. In describing one of fictional novelist Archimboldi’s works, Bolaño writes:
The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely. (887)
This is a fair and accurate (if metaphorical) description of 2666, for this novel, too, leads nowhere, the sections canceling each other out in such a way that we are left with nothing at all, not even a sense of plan, intelligence, or emotional inquiry. Bolaño’s work, then, lacks the intellectual center that Calvino, Borges, and Cortazar all had (not to mention Garcia Marquez). In the end it feels like he’s trying something but doesn’t really seem to know what or why. There’s a sense that he felt he really needed to write something both big and weird and so he did.
I’m reminded too of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog film where Klaus Kinski drags a riverboat up and over a mountain in the jungle with an eye toward making a resort in some distant jungle lake. It’s a fine image but there’s no concrete point to it so besides the “wow” of watching them do this thing there’s little to ponder. Kinski’s character is mad at the beginning of the film and more mad at the end so what does it mean? Human ambition with made a pretty crazy person even more crazy? Got it. Thanks. Andrei Tarkovsky does this same kind of thing successfully in his first full-length film, Andrei Rublev, with the casting of the church bell. That entire project is about the fragility and redemption of the human soul itself, the act of faith (in oneself, in God, in the work of one’s own hands and desires). I wish Bolaño’s work had this but I can find no evidence of it–in the end result, what is the book actually about? I don’t mean to suggest that all great novels need to have some kind of pedantic point, but I do think that they need to hold a spark of meaning and while many great books fail at this they do all (I think) have this in common.
Archimboldi’s story at the end is breathtakingly beautiful at times but it’s so fantastic a story (the village filled with chasms, the foot long cock in Dracula’s castle, Bubis’s wife being the Countess, etc.) that it’s clearly meant as a kind of fiction within the fiction. In other words, Bolaño doesn’t seem to want us to “believe” this story in the way he wants us to believe, say, Section 4. I makes it a very fun read–like reading a grown-up version of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates or something like that–but apart from being “fun” it too lacks any kind of core. It’s a shame that it was left with Fürst Pückler too–that’s just an embarrassing way to have to end your 1000 page epic–with Neopolitan ice cream. God’s just fucking with you then. If only he had died with the sister asking him if he’d take care of her son, his nephew. That’s not a satisfying ending either, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Fürst Pückler.
This leads to what may be the fundamental question of the text: How is 2666 even a novel? In fact, it is not a novel anymore than a collection of short stories is a novel. 2666 is five novellas, some more successful than others, and while it’s true that some of the characters appear throughout, that hardly makes it cohere into a novel, not even in terms of a “experiment” or “innovation,” for neither term applies here. Being compared to Borges or Calvino might be justification for some of his twists and turns but ultimately Bolaño has made no choices here, including everything rather than carefully crafting a cohesive piece of art. My advice is to skip to the final section about Archimboldi and to read that. It has a sense of coherence and magic utterly lacking from the rest of the novel, even if it is ultimately as intellectually hollow as the rest of the novel at least it strives to entertain. The rest of the novel attempts little and strives for less.