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.

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.

Among the unusual achievements of 2666 is its ability to make the reader feel as if the novel is being acted out, cinematically, on two screens at once. On one screen is the latest discovery of a raped and mangled woman, and on the other is the rest of the world, which doesn’t want to see what’s happening in Sonora.

I’ve mentioned the experience of reading Melville, Proust, and Dickens—their long novels, it should be pointed out, a form that Bolaño mentions in a passage that has been cited as key to understanding his intentions in writing 2666. Amalfitano is reflecting on an acquaintance, an avid reader

who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

The Savage Detectives is similarly full of this sort of thing: half-serious, half-ironic flights in which a literary fellow makes a case for a certain kind of literature—usually the kind he writes. But apart from extending a pointless invitation to consider why someone might want to read Bartleby the Scrivener when he could read Moby Dick, or, for that matter, 2666, Bolaño is onto something—something about capacity and weight. In those great “torrential” novels, room and heft are necessary for the steady accumulation of events and characters that connect to other events and characters and together form those parallel fictional worlds.

In a series of notes on 2666, Natasha Wimmer compares Barry Seaman’s lecture to the sermon in Moby Dick. The two novels share the same encyclopedic impulse, a drive to include everything that can be known about a subject as proof that nothing can ultimately be known about that subject, if that subject happens to be the mystery of evil. In Moby Dick, Melville offers his readers a full course in cetology containing all the available scientific knowledge about the whale, and we wind up understanding no more than Ahab does about the object of his obsession. 2666 likewise provides us with an encyclopedia on the subject of the dead women of Santa Teresa, most of whose murders will remain unsolved.

By the time we reach the fourth and longest section of the novel, “The Part About the Crimes,” we’ve followed the literary critics to Sonora, where they’ve alighted briefly, like butterflies, before flying on, in search of their literary idol. They have introduced us to the academic Amalfitano, marooned in Santa Teresa with his daughter, Rosa, whose story carries over into that of Oscar Fate, who in the third section comes to Santa Teresa to cover a prize fight and who learns about the murders but is unable to interest his editor in an article about the killings.

The fourth section begins at what will be the first of many crime scenes:

The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonial Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big. Some children playing in the lot found her and told their parents. One of the mothers called the police, who showed up half an hour later. The lot was bordered by Calle Peláez and Calle Hermanos Chacón, and it ended in a ditch behind which rose the walls of an abandoned dairy in ruins. There was no one around, which at first made the policemen think it was a joke. Nevertheless, they pulled up on Calle Peláez and one of them made his way into the lot. Soon he came across two women with their heads covered, kneeling in the weeds, praying. Seen from a distance, the women looked old, but they weren’t. Before them lay the body. Without interrupting, the policeman went back the way he’d come and motioned to his partner, who was waiting for him in the car, smoking. Then the two of them returned (the one who’d waited in the car had his gun in his hand) to the place where the women were kneeling and they stood there beside them staring at the body. The policeman with the gun asked whether they knew her. No, sir, said one of the women. We’ve never seen her before. She isn’t from around here, poor thing.

This happened in 1993. January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.

Describing the aftermath of the murders, Bolaño manages to combine the stripped-down, just-the-facts style of an autopsy report with the more compassionate sensibility of a tragic neighborhood story. It is a credit to Natasha Wimmer that her translation succeeds in helping the reader follow these subtle but all-important tonal shifts. In its precision about street names, location, time, the victim’s outfit, the order of events surrounding the grim discovery, and the initial impressions of the policemen, the passage above mimics the statement that one of the cops might have written. That is, until we get to the women praying over the body, like mourners in a religious painting, and to their phrase “poor thing,” an expression of compassion that effectively turns the mangled corpse back into the body of a person with a name and an age. “The sake of convenience,” “the first to be killed,” “she heads the list”—such phrases warn and remind us that the list will grow. And then we reach that final sentence and its reference to the ashes of the women being scattered “in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to”—and the language steps up to something more poetic, an evocation of a shadowy killer, lost in the dead of night—something that would never appear in the official report.

The killings continue, and Bolaño gives us every detail about each victim—her name, her age, her history, her job, her domestic situation, what she was wearing, and how she was found. Knowing that very few readers (and not necessarily the kind of readers a writer might want) will stay with a book for several hundred pages of gory crime scenes and wrenching victim bios, Bolaño weaves these sections together with a number of suspenseful plots—a police detective’s love affair with the director of an insane asylum, a boy who is recruited from the countryside to work as a bodyguard for a drug lord’s wife, Harry Magaña’s ill-fated trip south of the border after an American woman has been killed—to keep us reading. Some of the murders are solved—a few of the women have been killed by their husbands, or pimps, or boyfriends—but most are not, though throughout there is the suggestion that, as in life, the killings have something to do with the collusion between the narcos and the police, as well as the more generalized cruelty and corruption of the maquiladora system, which attracts young women from all over Central America to work, for almost nothing, in the factories. In addition, there is the hint, floated early on, that Benno von Archimboldi—the critics’ darling—might have some connection to the murders. Suspects are arrested and detained, confessions are extorted, and the killings go on, as they have in reality.

All of which brings us back to Florita Almada’s appearance on An Hour with Reinaldo and to the possibility that it’s Florita—rather than the obsessed literary critics or the academic Amalfitano, with his convictions about the “blood and mortal wounds and stench” of great fiction—who functions as the true stand-in for the novel’s author. Surely it’s no accident that her television debut is preceded by the performance of a ventriloquist, or that Florita herself gives voice to an urgent and impassioned vision of the dead of Santa Teresa. Every artist has felt, at times, like some equivalent of a ventriloquist’s puppet, speaking words or creating images that seem to come from a source outside the self. And Florita’s progression from the general to the specific, from autobiography to history to science to meditation, from the literal to the metaphysical, is a compressed version of what Bolaño does in 2666.

For there are some novels that make you feel as if a powerful force has moved through the writer, as if the artist has become the vehicle for the words of an exalted ventriloquist or has indeed been possessed by something, a narrative or a theme, larger than himself. For all the precision and poetry of its language, for all the complexity of its structure, for all the range of styles and genres it acknowledges and encompasses, for all its wicked humor, its inventiveness and sophistication, 2666 seems like the work of a literary genius in the ferocious grip of a spirit not unlike the one that seizes Florita Almada. Dying, aware that his time was short, Roberto Bolaño gave himself over to the most important of subjects, to the eternal and ineradicable evil that has—for the moment—alighted on the Mexican border, to the desire to insist that the blameless murdered women of Ciudad Juárez were once individual living beings with names and faces and souls, and to our human need, our obligation, to cry out, as Florita does: Haven’t you understood what I’ve said?

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

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