If Roberto Bolaño’s two titanic works were to be distilled into a singular image, it would surely be of the Sonoran desert. It is the primary touchstone of both 2666 and The Savage Detectives, and what’s more, serves as the massive canvas onto which Bolaño spills his astonishing breadth of characters, plots, and general knowledge. Only the endless desert can house such sprawling, convoluted, enigmatic structures.
But the deserts in TSD and 2666 read differently. In the former, it is a vast mirage into which Belano and Lima journey looking for redemption and truth, as uncertain as the reader in finding it. In the latter, the desert is nothing more than the personification of evil, manifesting every human misery at a steady pace. In the former, a quixotic playground; the latter, a repository for death, suffering, bones—but unimaginably worse—because the harshness of the landscape has no memory.
2666 starts off on familiar terrain. The Part About the Critics allows Bolaño to shine with his typical whimsy. His treatment of the four academics and their fetishization of Archimboldi constantly winks at the reader, letting us in on the joke that the literary specialists walk a fine line between sacred devotion and reductive insignificance to their life’s work. Bolaño himself seems to be unsure of literature’s place, be it one of extreme power or impotence. So far so good.
2666 also ends on familiar terrain with a characteristically winding narrative arc of Archimboldi’s life, which tells us a great deal about the author’s life without really revealing him to us. This is Bolaño’s trademark. It works in TSD because Belano’s and Lima’s lives are assembled by a pastiche of diverse characters who can’t quite wrap their heads around the two protagonists. We infer only broad waves of perception via osmosis—their vitality, their devotion, their urgency and the futility of their quests, their eventual resignation, in short, the spectrum of human emotion and experience—but at least there is something there that we can grab hold of and celebrate, or at least contemplate.
2666 failed me because there are no broad waves, nor even the tiniest ripples. There was nothing to latch onto, nothing to soak up, nothing to sail over. Instead, characters played like a heap of wet cardboard that may at one time have carried something of interest. Oscar Fate from Part III is a ghost. He hardly exists but to be enveloped by the madness and amnesia of Santa Teresa. He finally escapes, but his thoughts, emotions, and logic are completely inscrutable. Likewise, Amalfitano is not so much a character, but a mirror onto which the insanity of the murders and the desert are projected and magnified into strange dreams. Lalo Cura and Haas from Part IV are bare sketches of characters that would thrive anywhere outside of the black hole of Santa Teresa. Just as we identify the rape victims by what clothes they wore by the time their bodies were discovered, there are hardly any identifying or noteworthy characteristics about Lalo Cura and Haas other than their muted back stories.
In place of well-developed characters, we get a bewildering set of anecdotes, tales, stories within stories, tangents, asides, and more. Characters are invented and discarded at such a brisk pace that I began to lose interest in them, uncertain whether to devote energy into seeds unlikely to be nurtured. This is most clear, ad nauseaum, in the Part About the Crimes, where a forced march through a landscape of death and rape scorches you over a 300 page slog. Or earlier: ten pages on the history of Brazilian snuff films as a tangent from a story within a story. Or later: when pre-Archimboldi Reiter stumbles into the journals of Ukrainian poet Boris Ansky, we are throttled headfirst into the labyrinth of his life and his dealings with Ivanov, the science fiction writer. Tellingly, Archimboldi, foot soldier of the Third Reich, amid grave strife, finds solace in this novella. He then goes on to become a writer himself—score one for the power of writing and good story-telling. But 2666 didn’t work that way for me: trudging through the ravaged landscape of bleak, dreary death and no humanity to sustain it was nothing more than a chore for vast stretches.
Try as I might, I can’t dismiss the novel outright, though. Part of my enjoyment with TSD derived from my knowing Bolaño’s story of semi-martyrdom, and how the failures of alter-ego Belano were redeemed in author Bolaño’s becoming the toast of the literary world on his deathbed. It bothered me that this heightened the stature of the novel, because it was, after all, extrinsic to the writing. After reading 2666, though, I no longer have that problem because Bolaño so clearly inhabits these two novels, infusing himself throughout with his alter-egos and baffling set-pieces. TSD is an autobiographical mosaic, and 2666, more abstractly, is haunted by Bolaño’s drab, bleak world view. He was apparently preoccupied with man’s ability to do unimaginable things to one another, and to do so with such banality (e.g. The Holocaust, the Juarez murders, featured prominently here and elsewhere in his oeuvre). In 2666, it overwhelms.
If his editor’s closing note is to be believed, Bolaño lived his literature more than anything else, and that is the ultimate testament of a writer’s faith in his craft. Bolaño’s unpublished notes for 2666 read: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano…And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.”
This struck me more than anything else on preceding 898 pages, perhaps because it is the only gasp of humanity and vitality to be found in the entire book. The rest is just a seething desert wasteland.
10 months ago