“A bag of apples or a prayer mat?” – 2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666There are not many books that will have you gasping with wonder one moment and flicking ahead to see how long the horror will last the next; fewer still that have you weighing the book like a bag of apples, caught between tossing the thing as hard as you can at the nearest wall and getting down on all fours to treat the thing like some kind of chunky prayer mat. 2666, though, does all of these things. You probably know. Given that the book is as I write this at number 4 in the best seller lists, it may be you already own a copy, have it placed somewhere on your bedside table, are gearing yourself up for the task of reading it. Certainly, if reviews were ever to serve as fuel for that gearing up, the level of hyperbole currently directed towards 2666 would help you, would maybe even power you through the first book.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Background first. Roberto Bolano is perceived in some quarters as a kind of revolutionary. As a young man, he kickstarted a Latin American literary movement which he then abandoned as others took up the mantle, choosing instead to roam the world, from menial job to menial job, writing in the evenings, battling with illness and (according to the apparently erroneous legend) drug addiction. It wasn’t until the publication of his penultimate novel, though, The Savage Detectives, that New York, in particular, started to pay attention. For the last few years (the years after Bolano’s death it should be said), New York has taken Bolano to its collective breast and made a cause celebre of him. Or of the legend of him. His final book – 2666 – which Bolano himself wanted publishing as five different books – has only confirmed, cemented, consolidated and delivered a hearty hail fellow well met pat on the back to that ongoing celebration.

There are reviewers already claiming this is the first truly important book of the twenty first century, reviewers praising the book’s vaulting ambition to the high heavens and reviewers seeking to be more reasonable in the face of such critical consensus, labelling the book a flawed masterpiece in the vein of DeLillo’s Underworld. There is also a telephone directory thick wodge of discussion around what the book is about, what the title means, what Bolano intended (in some senses 2666 is unfinished, in that Bolano never got to redraft his magnum opus and never conclusively ‘finished’ the book – although the translator says to all intents and purposes the book is finished). Even before you crack the spine, you can’t help but absorb a lot of information about the book.

What about when you do crack the spine, though? What then? Well, as I said, as you may know, as I said you may know, 2666 is comprised of five books – each of which can (and probably should) be viewed as standalone books. Each of the five books revolves around different characters and is arguably a different kind of book (which means that if you read 2666 as a weighty single volume tome, you may find that the beginning of each new ‘book’ is rather more disorientating than reading ‘Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’ and ‘Part 3’ etc of a single novel). Conversely, however, the five books taken together do have a kind of unity (which is, I’m sure, the reason why the executors of Bolano’s estate chose to release them together): there is a fictional Mexican town called Santa Teresa in which for a period of years hundreds of women have been killed (itself apparently closely modelled on a real Mexican town Bolano was entranced by in which hundreds of women have been killed). Santa Teresa is the hub around which the novel(s) spin(s) but 2666 is not about Santa Teresa.

Starting at the start: the first book, ‘The Part About the Critics’, revolves around a mysterious German novelist called Archimboldi, in a way (even though Archimboldi himself does not make an appearance). There are four critics, three men (Pelletier, Morino, Espinoza) and one woman (Norton), each of whom ‘discover’ Archimboldi and set about trying to get him to greater prominence, writing papers for international symposia and translating his books into different languages until each of them arrives at a kind of prominence themselves, respected in their respective circles as soi-disant authorities. In time, Pelletier and Espinoza begin to see Norton, gadding about between France, Italy and London, each known to the other, both men giving Norton the space and time she needs to decide which of the men she actually, truly wants. Running to about 150 pages, ‘The Part About the Critics’ is, as the title suggests, a sort of Murakami-esque romp amongst occasionally imagined literature (Archimboldi is placed within a largely ‘real’ canon but the first book, and much of the rest of 2666, is peppered with ‘imaginary’ books – this is a recurring Bolano trick, a nod to Borges, to be seen in his debut Nazi Literature in the Americas and the aforementioned The Savage Detectives). Pelletier and Espinoza do end up in Santa Teresa because an intellectual of their acquaintance believes he saw Archimboldi there – and the love affair with Norton is resolved in a satisfying manner – but there is a sense that ‘The Part About the Critics’ does not adequately prepare you for what comes next.

‘The Part About Amalfitano’ comes next – another relatively slim ‘book’ (running to just under 70 pages) in which we are introduced to Amalfitano, a character who appeared in the previous book in the company of Pelletier and Espinoza – but this second book runs before the events of the first book. Not that that matters entirely. Amalfitano lives and works in Santa Teresa. He works at the University. He lives with his daughter, whom he worries about, understandably given all of the murders we’re starting to hear about. He finds a book in his house that he didn’t know he had (doesn’t remember ever buying or picking up or borrowing) called ‘Testamento geometrico’ and (borrowing an idea from Duchamp) hangs the book from the washing line in his back garden to see how it stands up to the weather. He hears a voice which may be his father’s. He is saddened by a young pharmacist’s reading habits (to the degree that he says, ‘Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown…’). What happens? What is this section about? I don’t know. I just know that, having blazed through a strangely compulsive opening book, I found myself stumbling in the company of Amalfitano.

The third section was better (in the sense that, for the most part, the ground was more level) – ‘The Part about Fate’ concerns Oscar Fate, a journalist sent to cover a job for a recently deceased sports writer in Santa Teresa, a fight between an up and coming name in fighting and a local boy. Fate hangs out with journalists, hears some stories, drinks some, throws up some, travels around, gears up for the fight which, when it comes, passes much like Hunter S Thompson’s coverage of the legendary Rumble in the Jungle. He dreams, as many of the characters do, and the dreams are reported back to us with a sense of import. He hears about the murders and asks his editor if he can cover them but his editor says no. He is invited to attend the Santa Teresa prison in the company of a fellow journalist who apparently has an interview with the person that the Santa Teresa police think is responsible for the killings. By this point in the book, though, you’ll have a good take on what to expect from Bolano in some respects: he can fashion a page turning narrative out of the most oblique of plot points (you’ll mostly always want to go on reading) and he also likes his flights of fancy. The flights of fancy – occasionally difficult passages where his characters go off on one (or peripheral characters go off on one, or books go off on one) – can be difficult, but the more flights of fancy you read the more generous you become towards them. This won’t last, you’ll tell yourself. Hang in there.

The fourth section is a biggie and referred to – erroneously, I think – in much the same way as the night time episode of Ulysses, as if this is the most arduous part of the book. ‘The Part about the Crimes’ is arduous, in the sense that you are reading, in part, a recounting of hundreds of deaths, but the writing is fluid and easy. You will not have a problem getting through ‘The Part About the Crimes’ as far as the words on the page are concerned. This is strictly procedural. Pelecanos or Ellroy transmuted through the eye of Murakami. 300 pages during which you think, yes, okay, I have the measure of this book now, I see where it is going, I think I understand what is going on. You break the halfway point and you think, okay. If asked, I can now say I am thoroughly enjoying this book. There are far fewer flights of fancy in ‘The Part about the Crimes’ than in the rest of the book but the oblique narratorial slant remains. Parts of 2666 read like the equivalent of the most recent David Lynch movies (characters spy themselves in mirrors in ways that recall other earlier characters spying themselves in mirrors and you nod and think, okay, I am meant to make a connection here – I don’t know why but I do). Characters appear and then disappear never to reappear. It is challenging without being offputting.

By the time you reach the end of the fourth book, you may suspect that the tall German that the Santa Teresa police have in custody has something to do with the murders (or not) and may or may not be Archimboldi himself. Starting in on the last book, ‘The Part about Archimboldi’ then, you think, okay, here are answers! Which very definitely places you on the wrong foot. Because ‘The Part about Archimboldi’ opens seventy years before the events of ‘The Part about the Crimes’ – and the two books don’t really intersect (if they could even be really said to intersect) until the final pages when Archimboldi decides to pay a visit to Santa Teresa. This last book is about Archimboldi, himself, the mysterious writer so beloved of the critics in the first part of 2666. We follow him from being a boy with a fondness for diving to a soldier in the second world war through to the beginning of his writing career and the start of his legend. In the beginning, it is possible to ‘know’ Archimboldi but gradually, over the last 300 or so pages of the book, we lose sight of him and start to view him through other characters, such as his publisher, a woman Archimboldi viewed having sex through a crack in a castle wall as a young man. The relationship between Archimboldi and his publisher is the connection with Santa Teresa – but that connection is not the reason why you should read the book (although it may be something you cling on to as you ride Bolano’s flights of fancy like a feather on a zephyr).

2666 then is a hard book but not for the reasons you might suspect – if you pick up the book and get along with it, you’ll discover a writer you want to read more by (and you should read more by). For the most part, his style is deceptively easy on the eye. Although there is always more to things than you suspect you see, the narrative and the desire to tie things together power you on. I can imagine that there will be a significant number of those people who have helped to place the book at number 4 in the best seller lists who don’t get to the end of the last page – but that is neither a criticism of 2666 or a criticism of the reader. This is a book you have to try and rub along with – and I can more than understand if it rubbed them up the wrong way. It rubbed me up the wrong way from time to time. But it also dazzled me and shook me and had me ignoring just about everything else in the world (itself no bad thing) for a little over four weeks.

Any Cop?: 2666 certainly warrants all of the column inches heaped its way. Is it for everyone? I don’t think so. Is it worth the time and effort? Absolutely.

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