by Roberto Bolaño

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Early in 2007, the Colombian magazine Semana asked a panel of
experts to select the 100 best novels in Spanish published during the last
25 years. Few were surprised to see Gabriel García Marquez take the top
honors with his
Love in the Time of Cholera. But who was Roberto
Bolaño, who, captured both third and fourth spots with his
novels The Savage Detectives and 2666?

How does one begin to describe this writer’s unconventional work to

the uninitiated? I am tempted to call him a Latin American Kerouac,
given his wandering bohemian protagonists with their idiosyncratic
literary ideals and often arbitrary itineraries. Yet at many junctures
2666 will remind readers of the very different sensibility of Cormac
McCarthy, with his violent tales of the
US-Mexico borderlands. One critic has taken a
different tack, going so far as to proclaim this
book as the novel that Jorge Luis Borges might
have written. Yet none of these pigeonholes do
justice to the avant garde sensibility that often
lingers below the surface of Bolaño’s fiction, and
often threatens to take charge of the narrative.
The diversity of these descriptions is perhaps the
best indicator that Bolaño is his own man,
straddling many traditions without settling
comfortably into any one of them.

Bolaño, who died from liver failure at age 50 in 2003, was a wanderer

himself for much of his life. In his acceptance speech for the Rómulo
Gallegos Prize in 1999, Bolaño defended his unwillingness to give
complete allegiance to any one country, noting that “a writer’s
country is his language.” A vagabond, perhaps by nature, and a
traveler by either choice or necessity—he was born in Chile, raised
partly in Mexico, and spent decades in Spain— Bolaño sometimes saw
the Spanish language as his true homeland. Playing on this
comparison, he described the quality of his writing as his passport,
and defined quality in revealing terms: “to know how to thrust your
head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to
understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”

All these elements play a role in
2666. This sprawling book takes
place in a half dozen or so countries and moves back and forth over a
period of some eight decades. And, yes, it is a leaping into the void, a
thrust into the darkness. As with The Savage Detectives, the theme of
searching after the unknown looms large in the unfolding plot lines.
Sometimes the pursuit is an ardent vision quest, as in the opening
section during which several scholars attempt to track down Benno
Von Archimboldi, an enigmatic writer who makes Pynchon or
Salinger look gregarious by comparison. At other points, the seeking
takes on darker tones, as in the long penultimate section of the book,
devoted to the local authorities' attempt to identify and apprehend a
serial killer who murders dozens—or perhaps even hundreds—of
women in northern Mexico. The settings and situations constantly
change in this unconventional novel, but the sense of restlessness

As he worked to complete this novel, Bolaño planned to publish it in

five separate books. His literary executor overrode this request, and
as a result 2666 sees light of day as a single long fiction, although in
five sections corresponding to the components the author would have
issued separately. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Bolaño merely
hoped to maximize the financial value of his final work, and decided
that five short books would earn more money for his estate than one
very long novel. The different sections do stand alone—and probably
will be published in isolation in the future—although they take on
their greatest resonance when juxtaposed and compared.

Indeed, this work circles in on itself, and each section undermines, to

various degrees, the narrative thrust of the remainder of 2666. For
example, the apparent meaning of the opening section, devoted to the
academics’ obsession with the elusive writer Archimboldi, is
subverted and refined by the final portion of the novel, which lays out
in telling details Archimboldi’s own story. The experience is almost
like finding an unpublished final act to Beckett’s famous play in which
Godot shows up and offers the audience a gripping soliloquy.

But the fourth and longest section of
2666, some 280 pages, threatens to
overwhelm the rest of the book. This is a peculiar crime story, in

which the author presents the details of the murders committed by a
serial killer in Santa Teresa (a slightly fictionalized version of Juárez)
in the maquiladora-dominated northern border area of Mexico. This
is much more than a murder mystery. The sheer number of victims is
overwhelming, and Bolaño almost numbs the readers’ sensibilities by
providing all the gritty specifics of several dozen corpses, crime
scenes, autopsies and related investigations.

Yet at various points in this bloody litany, Bolaño breaks off to

interpose some unexpected and almost avant garde digression. At one
point, for example, he offers a lengthy and eccentric discourse on the
medicinal properties of various plants; elsewhere he provides a
retrospective look at the fast-and-loose life story of a reformist
congresswoman, or the behind-the-scenes story of the making of an
unsavory film. Then, in a flash, the detour is over, and Bolaño returns
to the murders, senseless violence that haunts this whole novel and
makes all of the previous subplots—dealing with academic
conferences or surrealist experiments with geometry books—seem
like mere frivolity by comparison.

In the final section of the novel, Bolaño has the opportunity to

resolve the many narratives he has set in motion, and to some extent
he does. But this life story of the author Archimboldi comes across
more like the beginning of 2666 than its conclusion. In fact, I wonder
if this novel would not be equally effective if one read the five
sections in reverse order. In 2666, Bolaño has created the literary
equivalent of the snake swallowing its own tail. Upon completing the
book, you may feel tempted to go back to the beginning and start all
over again—a remarkable claim for a work that approaches one
thousand pages in length. Yet Bolaño’s mastery is perhaps best
demonstrated by precisely this ability to pull readers into the orbit of
his fictions with a gravitational pull that resists their best efforts to
break free.
At the time of the Semana survey, neither of
these novels had been made available in
English translation. Yet The Savage
Detectives was published by Farrar, Straus
and Giroux a few days later to much acclaim.
(See my review here.) And now Bolaño's 2666
appears, a nine hundred page magnum

opus that will no doubt solidify this author’s
posthumous reputation as one of the leading
—and most unsettling—modern
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
by Roberto Bolaño.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Goon Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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