Part of my four-day holiday weekend has been spent thinking about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The book is huge, almost 1,000 pages. It is Bolaño’s final novel. He was still working on it when he died in 2003. The book is finished, he was doing some final revising, all the major work and revisions already complete. The book is broken up into five sections that Bolaño had thought he would like to publish separately, but in the end agreed that it would be easier for the publisher and his family to publish them as one work.
It is natural to provide a plot summary when talking about a book, but in this case it is impossible to do. There is no plot as we think of plots. Section one, “The Part About The Critics” follows four literary critics obsessed with tracking down the elusive German author Benno von Archimboldi. A rumor eventually takes them to the fictional city of Santa Teresa Mexico but they do not find him there and the section just kind of ends. Part two is “The Part About Amalfitano” who is a professor are the University of Santa Teresa and whom we meet in part one as one of the people who show the critics around town. “The Part About Fate” follows journalist Oscar Fate who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a big boxing match. But Fate is not a sports writer and while there gets interested in investigating and writing about the many women who have been murdered and who are continuing to be murdered in the city. He also meets Amalfitano’s daughter and saves her from being numbered among the murdered women.
Part four, “The Part About the Crimes” is the hardest part of the book to get through, not because it is hard to read but because of the crimes. It is three hundred pages of emotionless recounting of the discovery of the bodies of murdered women in Santa Teresa. The account of bodies is mixed in with the futile efforts of a corrupt police department; a love affair between one of the police officers and woman who runs a hospital for the mentally ill that he consulted to try and gain some insight into the killer or killers of all the women; a psychic who “sees” some of the women who are murdered; Klaus, who is arrested as the serial killer of all the women but who obviously is not since the murders don’t stop after his arrest; and a few other stories woven in and out and around the murder of women. Santa Teresa, you may have heard, is based on the real Mexican city of Juarez where hundreds of women have been murdered since 1993. It is also a focal point for Mexico’s drug war.
Finally, part five, “The Part About Archimboldi” bookends everything. It does not come full circle, however. The critics make no appearance at all. What we get is Archimboldi’s life story, who he really is and why he is so hard to track down. The section and the book ends with him heading off to Santa Teresa.
This is one of those books that will benefit from a reread or two. But from my first pass through, one of the things that really stood out and that flows through all of the sections is madness. Madness comes in many forms. It can be the madness of obsession, like the critics flying around the world just to try and meet Archimboldi. Madness can also come from physical and mental dislocation, from pursuing a line of thought that goes nowhere, and from grief. Violence can also be a form of madness and in the book is evidenced by WWII and murdered women in Santa Teresa. It is frightening how much madness there is in this book. Not all of it is bad, but it leaves the reader, me, wondering if there is such a thing as sanity and if so, what does it look like exactly?
A book as big as this has a little bit of everything in it. There are funny parts and sad parts, boring parts and page turning parts, head scratching moments and aha! moments, beautiful lyrical description and brutal clinical description. The book is easy to read and hard to read. It is a book that can’t be placed in a tidy category. I liked all this about it, its mysteries and surprises. I like that having just read it once I don’t have it al figured out and that in spite of knowing how much work it is to read, how much time it takes to get through, I want to read it again sometime in order to see what else is there. And I know that when I read it again I will be rewarded for my efforts.
If you are planning on reading 2666 I wouldn’t recommend reading a lot about it beforehand in an effort to prepare yourself for it. Just dive in and see what you find, let it caress you and chafe you, let it confuse you and piss you off and tease you, and let it cast its magic spell over you. However, if you do insist on reading a little more about it, there are a couple of good reviews at New York Magazine Book Review, Time Magazine where it was chosen best book of 2008, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and Slate.