2666 – Roberto Bolano

When they turned, Pelletier and Espinoza saw an older woman in a white blouse and black skirt, a woman with a figure like Marlene Dietrich, as Pelletier would say much later, a woman who despite her years was still strong willed as ever, a woman who didn’t cling to the edge of the abyss but plunged into it with curiosity and elegance. A woman who plunged into the abyss sitting down.

Take 4 students with an intense love of an obscure, enigmatic author, an ageing professor whose daughter is a rope tethering him in existence, a journalist pulled in to cover a boxing match and a spiralling series of horrific murders and mutilations on young women, and place them all in a fictional version of cuidad Juarez in Mexico, and you have the nub of 2666. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the German second world war soldier. Just like it said on the back cover, Bolano’s colossal epic captivated and astonished me.

Published posthumously, Bolano’s request was that this was published as five separate books, the five separate parts of the novel, a year apart. However his family and others considered the work and decided to publish it as one whole novel. In his note on the first edition, Ignacio Echevarria (Bolano’s literary executor)  advises that Bolano himself said he only had a couple of months worth of work left in the book, so it is assumed to be mostly complete.

Aside from Santa Teresa the five books are linked, I thought in the case of The part about Fate, rather tenuously, via the characters and the grisly murders that form one whole part of the book. I’m not sure how Bolano filled an entire part with descriptions of how young women were murdered and mutilated without it becoming too much, without it just becoming a recital of names, places and injuries, but in amongst the litany of dead, that section includes a young kid trying to become an uncorrupted cop and an older crumpled cop trying to find romance in amongst the seemingly endless murders. The part about Fate I struggled to see any link, apart from Amalfitano’s daughter, apart from showing a another, seedier side, to Santa Teresa, that the other books didn’t show.

It was part one, the part about the critics, that Bolano struck a chord with me. I felt an immediate affinity with Liz Norton, Bolano seemed to have picked up my character and filled out a woman’s body with it.

Liz Norton. on the other hand, wasn’t what one would ordinarily call a woman of great drive, which is to say that she didn’t draw up long- or medium-term plans and throw herself wholeheartedly onto their execution. She had none of the attributes of the ambitious. When she suffered, her pain was clearly visible, and when she was happy, the happiness she felt was contagious….She preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness.

The way Pelletier and Espinoza fall for her is much the same as when I fall for someone, the shared interests, the fun we have when we’re together, it all comes along very naturally, and I suffer in the same way as both men. This is obviously a tiny section of the whole story, but it’s something to recognise something of yourself in a character, especially when it’s a considerable part of yourself.

At first I tried to work out the narrative, to try and detect where Bolano was going, but in the end I gave up. I just enjoyed reading 2666 for the sheer pleasure of reading Bolano. By the time I got to the part about Archimboldi I had lost what was going on, but then Bolano switches from the dry heat of the Sonora desert to the second world war, lived through by Hans Reiter, possibly my favourite character. This throws off the comfort of the first four parts and their slight continuity but Bolano’s style remains remarkably the same.
I tried to work out what it is about Bolano that I enjoy so much, upon reading his prose is simple, almost functional, but his descriptions, his quick characterisations, such as the three examples I have included here are for me perfect. They are never clichés, but somewhat unexpected, yet still wonderfully fitting.

Echevarria adds at the end that among the notes for 2666 was the fact that the narrator was Arturo Belano, Bolano’s literary alter ego and protagonist from the Savage Detectives (which ends up in the Sonora desert), and that he planned to sign off the book with Belano’s, and ultimately his own goodbye, and it is an incredible goodbye.

…at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, in Spanish or English or Spanglish, every last fucking word unintelligible, and then Juan de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping ot trying to weep, but when he finally removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.

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