Reviews — From the December 2008 issue

More is More

Roberto Bolaño???s magnum opus

Discussed in this essay:

2666, by Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 898 pages. $30.

Almost halfway through Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a seventy-year-old seer and healer named Florita Almada appears on a local TV talk show. Local, in this case, means Sonora, a state that includes the city Bolaño calls Santa Teresa, which is based on Ciudad Juárez—a bleak, industrial desert hellhole on the Mexican side of the border, where over the past fifteen years hundreds of women (many of them factory workers in the maquiladoras) have been raped and killed, as they are in Bolaño’s book. By the time Florita makes her television debut, Bolaño has described, in clinical detail, the discovery of dozens of corpses, but no one in any official capacity has been much concerned; the police have been busy trying to catch a madman known as the Penitent, whose illness compels him to desecrate churches.

The litany of dead women and girls (many of the victims are very young) has exerted an intensifying pressure on the reader. Why isn’t anyone saying or doing anything about the killings? That pressure will erupt through Florita at the end of a scene that goes on for ten dense (there are no paragraph breaks) pages—written in the third person but clearly in Florita’s voice—a passage that seems musical in its flights of melody, its swells and dips and crescendos, like a great operatic aria, but more free-form and improvisational, more like a brilliant jazz solo.

Florita begins by describing the nature and limitations of her gift (“sometimes she didn’t see anything, the picture was fuzzy, the sound faulty, as if the antenna that had sprung up in her brain wasn’t installed right or had been shot full of holes or was made of aluminum foil and blew every which way in the wind”) and goes on to dispense some basic nutritional advice (“a tortilla with chile is better for you than pork rinds that are actually dog or cat or rat”). Next she lists the various schools of herbalism, or “botanomancy,” including those that promote the use of hallucinogens (“Everyone was free to mess with their own heads. It worked well for some people and not for others, especially lazy youths with regrettable habits”). She provides a brisk autobiography, an account of how she cared for her blind mother, and later her blind husband, a dealer in livestock whose habit of bringing books home turned Florita into a voracious reader and autodidact. Next comes a meditation on the childhood of Benito Juárez and the inner lives of shepherds, then an explanation of the circumstances that have brought Florita to follow a ventriloquist from Guaymas on An Hour with Reinaldo.

Then she glanced at Reinaldo, who was fidgeting in his chair, and began to talk about her latest vision. She said she had seen dead women and dead girls…. As she talked, trying to recall her vision as exactly as possible, she realized she was about to go into a trance and she was mortified, since sometimes, not often, her trances could be violent and end with the medium crawling on the ground, which she didn’t want to happen since it was her first time on television. But the trance, the possession, was progressing, she felt it in her chest and in the blood coursing through her, and there was no way to stop it no matter how much she fought and sweated and smiled at Reinaldo, who asked her if she felt all right, Florita, if she wanted the assistants to bring her a glass of water, if the glare and the spotlights and the heat were bothering her.

Even while she struggles against it, Florita’s vision takes shape:

It’s Santa Teresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters! My daughters! My daughters! she screamed as she threw an imaginary shawl over her head and Reinaldo felt a shiver descend his spine like an elevator, or maybe rise, or both at once. The police do nothing, she said after a few seconds, in a different voice, deeper and more masculine… but what are they watching?… Then, in a little girl’s voice, she said: some are driven away in black cars, but they kill them anywhere. Then she said, in a normal voice: can’t they at least leave the virgins in peace? A moment later, she leaped from her chair, perfectly captured by the cameras of Sonora’s TV Studio 1, and dropped to the floor as if felled by a bullet. Reinaldo and the ventriloquist hurried to her aid, but when they tried to help her up, each taking an arm, Florita roared… don’t touch me, you cold-hearted bastards! Don’t worry about me! Haven’t you understood what I’ve said? Then she got up, turned toward the audience, went to Reinaldo and asked him what had happened, and a moment later she apologized, gazing straight at the camera.

It was at this point in my reading of 2666 that I began importuning nearly everyone I know—close friends, fellow writers, family members, casual acquaintances—to put down whatever they were reading or writing and to start Roberto Bolaño’s novel. Immediately. My messianic enthusiasm was altruistic, in a way—I wanted others to enjoy the book as much as I did—but also somewhat self-interested, because to read 2666 is to enter into a world that resembles our own but that exists only between the covers of a novel; it’s much like the experience of reading Moby Dick or David Copperfield or In Search of Lost Time. One can’t help wanting company in those alternate worlds, and I wanted to ask someone about a subplot in the first of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Critics,” an interpolated story about a painter who cuts his hand off as the ultimate work of art and winds up in a mental hospital, where he is visited by several of the section’s principal characters. Or the parallel insane-asylum story in the second section, “The Part about Amalfitano,” a sequence in which the estranged wife of the protagonist (a depressed Chilean academic stranded in northern Mexico) becomes infatuated with a poet with whom she has had semi-public sex at a party in Barcelona, a poet who winds up in a loony bin, where his doctor turns out to be writing the poet’s biography. And what about the passage near the start of the third section (“The Part About Fate”) in which yet another protagonist—in this case, Oscar Fate, an African-American journalist writing muzzy human-interest features for a New York–based magazine named Black Dawn—attends a lecture by a character named Barry Seaman, who is obviously modeled on the former Black Panther Bobby Seale? Like the larger novel, the lecture (which spans ten pages) is divided into five sections, the third of which, “FOOD,” begins, “As you all know, porkchops saved my life,” and segues from a capsule history of the Panthers to Seaman’s absurd conversations with his parole officer to a reflection on various Chinese Communist politicians, then back to the aforementioned porkchops—and finally to a recipe for duck à l’orange.

Although what would I have asked the obliging friends who would (or so I hoped) read quickly to the point that I had reached in the novel? I suppose I wanted to ask: What’s up with those glorious passages, and what are they doing in the book? It’s a question with no answer, really. They are stations along the circuitous route on which Bolaño has chosen to take us to Santa Teresa. Perhaps I just wanted confirmation of my own sense of the uniqueness, the inventiveness, the strangeness of what Bolaño is doing. Which is what, exactly?

Four hundred pages in, I thought I was beginning to have some idea of what the book was about, though later I realized how little I’d known. The five books get steadily more engrossing as they comment and reflect on, refract, deepen, and complete one another, five sections so unalike that they suggest different genres, all converging on the dead women lying half-buried or simply tossed aside in the nightmare moonscape of Santa Teresa. On my second reading of 2666, I was surprised to notice how often buzzards and vultures are mentioned, because after I’d finished the book the first time, it had occurred to me (out of nowhere, or so I had thought) that the shape of the narrative is like the flight of some carrion-eating bird with a wingspan so enormous that to see it take off and soar seems miraculous. Bolaño’s terrifying and gorgeous vulture of a novel keeps landing in Santa Teresa—but the wider arc of its flight (which includes Nazi Germany) reminds you that evil touches down in one country this time, next year in another place. The erratic but relentless flight plan of human evil from one era and continent to the next is, as much as anything, the subject of 2666.

Apparently, Bolaño—who was dying of liver failure while he wrote 2666—wanted this, his last novel, to be published as five separate books, in the hopes that his heirs might make more money that way. But the sections are clearly parts of a single volume that is 900 pages long and far denser than that number suggests, crammed with events, plots, subplots, dreams, visionary lyricism, stories within stories, pages of compressed, rapid-fire dialogue, switches of pace and tone from academic comedy to something suggestive of a classic film noir, of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, of newspaper reports, police procedurals, A Touch of Evil, all of which culminate in an apocalyptic vision of a war-ravaged Europe that’s part history, part Thomas Pynchon, part Stanley Kubrick, but mostly Roberto Bolaño. Unless one reads the book slowly, and with a high degree of concentration, it’s easy to miss some of its most virtuosic turns—such as this moment, buried in a long scene during which Harry Magaña, an Arizona sheriff, is having dinner with Ramírez, a Mexican cop; the fact that Harry is a widower has been mentioned so far only in passing:

Then Ramírez talked about women. Women with their legs spread. Spread wide. What do you see when a woman spreads her legs? What do you see? For Christ’s sake, this wasn’t dinner conversation. A goddamn hole. A goddamn hole. A goddamn gash, like the crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California, the San Bernardino fault, I think it’s called…. Then came a long story about children. Have you ever listened carefully to a child cry, Harry? No, he said. I don’t have children. True, said Ramírez, forgive me, I’m sorry. Why is he apologizing? wondered Harry. A decent woman, a good woman. A woman you treat badly, without meaning to. Out of habit. We become blind (or at least partly blind) out of habit, Harry, until suddenly, when there’s no turning back, the woman falls ill in our arms. A woman who took care of everyone, except herself, and she begins to fade away in our arms. And even then we don’t realize, said Ramírez. Did I tell him my story? wondered Harry Magaña. Have I sunk that low?

Luckier in death than in his peripatetic and often penurious life, Roberto Bolaño has had the rare good fortune to find not one but two brilliant translators into English, first Chris Andrews, whose rendering of the stories and short novels is eloquent and fierce, and now Natasha Wimmer, who gracefully follows the book’s switchback turns in diction even as she accommodates the specialized vocabularies of every diverse historical and cultural subject that Bolaño packs into this novel, the consummation of his life’s work.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Goldengrove.

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