Stalking the Behemoth: “2666,” by Roberto Bolaño

2666, by Roberto Bolaño
By Roberto Bolaño
Editorial Anagrama, 2004
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
All things must come to an end, and this includes my Stalking the Behemoth series. This is the last entry in that, which is a bit of a shock to me. Where does the time go? Well, time notwithstanding, I’d like to take a moment to offer up a few suggestions for further reading if this series got your attention or if you like long books. Among the great behemoths that didn’t make the list were Don DeLillo’s Underworld, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, William H. Gass’ the Tunnel, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and a couple of other giants by authors who were on this list: Dostoevsky’s the Idiot and Demons, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, Gaddis’ JR, and Bolaño’s the Savage Detectives. I couldn’t get to these due to either space restrictions or my one book per author rule, but they’re all great books and they all mingle well with the books that made my list.
Now here we are at the last one. 2666 has attracted plenty of attention in recent years, which has led some to dismiss it as trendy, the way people will dismiss all things that get a bunch of critical acclaim out of nowhere trendy. Is this dismissive tendency justifiable in general? I don’t know, but I can tell you for certain it’s not in the case of this novel, which has some faults but is still among my list of favorites. Some of these flaws are on account of the circumstances of its publication. Bolaño died before finishing this, and in many ways, you can tell. Some aspects of this enormous book are drawn out to an almost absurd degree and others are barely given a passing mention. Some readers have objected to the handling of the series of murders at the book’s heart, but I won’t add that to my list of incomplete things because it’s thematically appropriate and probably would’ve stayed that way if Bolaño had lived to finish this novel, but don’t go in expecting a neat and conventional mystery.
The plot’s hard to summarize, as it is with many of these massive postmodern novels. It more operates conceptually, so let’s get at the concept. A reclusive author who has built up a ton of mystique vanishes, and several groups of people set out to find him. He is believed to be in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Teresa, which has seen a series of gruesome murders. However, Bolaño takes off in quite a few directions, with each of the novel’s five parts telling a self-contained story. A group of academics hunt for the author in part one, which is mostly amiable and funny but erupts into violence. The second part concerns a man’s obsession with protecting his daughter. In the third, a sportswriter covering a boxing match stumbles into a pornography ring. The fourth recites the murders themselves, in infamous detail that requires a cast-iron stomach. It’s not until the fifth that the reclusive author himself is given serious narrative space, although his story is a little funky on pacing and is easily my least favorite of the novel’s five parts; still, it works out quite well once Bolaño works out what he wants to do with it. Regardless, this is the part I imagine would’ve changed most if Bolaño had lived to finish this novel. But who knows?
What matters is the mystery itself. While there are certainly mysterious aspects to this novel, and not just the murders and the reclusive author but also a few other events such as a subplot involving a medium, Bolaño’s not too keen on resolving the mysteries he presents. This will inevitably infuriate some readers, so if you picked this up expecting a murder mystery, consider yourself warned. Bolaño has always been the sort of author who worked in the shadows, though, and the shadows are what make his fiction so powerful. I’m sure a lot of this is a result of his politics – he grew up under and loathed Pinochet – and it’s hard to argue that Bolaño is a political writer. But the mystery operates as more than an indictment of fascism. It also allows Bolaño an opportunity to flex the strength of his prose.
Before I get into this strength, I’d at first like to admit that I haven’t the first idea of how this effect is carried through. I don’t speak Spanish well enough to read Bolaño in his native tongue, so I’ve been reliant on such translators as Natashia Wimmer and Chris Andrews to get me through his work. It must be said that they’ve both done splendidly, since they’ve managed to instill his prose with a deep sense of dread that I imagine he intended to be in there. There’s a sense throughout this novel that a guy with a knife is just around the corner, that there’s danger in every shadow, and he gets it all in through just the right combination of words. Even in the plainest moments, such as the early bits of the aforementioned first bit, he still makes me feel that fundamental terror. This is to say nothing of the more explosive bits, such as a close encounter between the sportswriter and a group of pornographers or the description of the murders themselves. No doubt, here was a fearless writer.
Yet it’s not just violence Bolaño concerns himself with. It’s also literature itself. There’s a particular quote from this movie that sticks with me, and allow me to offer it to you before I unpack it: “He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecouchet, 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 a path 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 us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
I like this quote because it so embodies Bolaño’s approach. The man was a notorious self-mythologizer, as the Savage Detectives attests to, and I see this great quote as the man’s attempt to elevate himself to the level of Kafka, Melville, Flaubert and Dickens. This might strike you as sheer arrogance, but the guy has a good point; 2666 is one of those imperfect and torrential works, a book that struggles against something. It’s his effort to get to the very root of the human psyche’s darkness, his attempts to analyze our impulses toward violence, our need to work in the dark, our inability to form real connections. So even with its obvious stance as an incomplete novel in mind, even with its flaws both small and large, its pacing issues, its slight unevenness, it’s still an effort to stare the human condition down with the steeliest of eyes, to go to the darkest imaginable places in search of some light. I applaud him for trying and applaud him even more for making a good ninety percent of it work so well.
This book will make your skin crawl and make you queasy in places, and there are plenty of shorter Bolaño novels that feature tighter plots. Distant Star, By Night in Chile, Amulet and others are all great books, and all weigh in under 200 pages. You might be tempted to start with any of those, but I’m going to advise the Bolaño neophyte to meet him at his most extreme. Not just because it’s what he would have wanted, but because there’s a sense of culmination in this work. You get all his favorite themes and character types explored to their fullest, and anyway it’s a great picture of what he’s about as a writer. So the question is, why wouldn’t you start here? You can think of it as a 900-page novel if you want to, but in many ways it functions more as five shorter novels that add up to a broader story. Each separate part tells a self-contained story, and these smaller stories take on so much power and menace when combined into a 900 page book. So come prepared for his violence, which I assure you is highly purposeful and not written in a way that can be seen as even remotely celebratory, and understand Bolaño’s project requires him to cast a shroud of mystery over the entire novel. With these two facts in mind, I imagine you’ll find this a spellbinding and terrifying work, one that seeps into your subconscious while at the same point getting you to think. Hard to argue with that.