Reviews — From the December 2008 issue

More is More

Roberto Bolaño???s magnum opus

( 2 of 4 )

The first time I picked up 2666, I had to read its opening fifty pages twice to sort out the characters in a plot that, summarized, sounds like the first line of the sort of joke to which the novel slyly refers: “An Italian, a Frenchman, and an Englishman are in a plane with only two parachutes.” In 2666, that joke (which the principals could hardly take more seriously) involves four academics: a Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard, and an Englishwoman. All four share a passion for a cult novelist, a reclusive German named Benno von Archimboldi; this collective devotion helps tie them into knots of romantic and sexual entanglement. The section struck me as gripping, hilarious, and peculiar, but several times, trying to persuade friends to read 2666, I found myself telling them not to give up if they didn’t like the first part, because the opening is quite different from the rest of the book. I understood why a reader might falter in the midst of the initial section, which (in its charting of a quixotic literary quest) most resembles Bolaño’s earlier work The Savage Detectives, whose plot turns spun me out of the novel so often that I lost the energy to work my way back in. Although I am a huge fan of Bolaño’s short stories and short novels, The Savage Detectives seemed to me to suffer from a sort of attention deficit disorder, contagious to the reader.

By contrast, the opening of 2666 had me in its thrall from those first few pages. Even as the academics are having sex and screwing with one another’s heads in book-filled apartments and at the sort of hotels that house participants at international German-literature colloquiums, a thrum of disorder and violence is rumbling just beneath the surface. There’s a horrifying incident involving a Pakistani cabdriver in London, a scene in which Bolaño reminds us—as he so often does—that you can’t predict what any of us will do once the punching and kicking begin. But only when I read the last section (“The Part About Archimboldi”) did I realize how inextricably the opening chapters are connected to the remainder of the novel. 2666 begins in one version of Europe, the home of Old World high culture, which we leave for the New World, with its slave trade, its political, sexual, and drug violence, its legacy of colonialism, and its ongoing economic exploitation. Then we head east again for another perspective on the Old World, in case we need reminding that horror and mass murder are not restricted to the Sonoran desert.

For a novel that begins in the most hypercivilized of venues, the academic conference, 2666 may set some kind of record for sheer carnage. Although the last section is set mostly in Europe during World War II, the book is more disturbing than a war novel, since at least some of the soldiers at Waterloo, Austerlitz, the Polish front, and in Vietnam are conscious combatants, unlike the dead women of Santa Teresa. Besides, those wars are historic events, in contrast to the murders of the women, which go on for a very long time before anyone much notices or cares.

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

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