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by Roberto Bolaño
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), in the words
of one friend, “cultivated ambiguities and
false identities.” For an author who filled his
stories with accounts
of literary sleuthing,
Bolaño left more than
a few mysteries behind
for his own admirers
to solve. Did he really
battle against Pinochet
in Chile and narrowly
escape execution? Did
he really struggle with heroin addiction, and
die as a result of Hepatitis C caught from
sharing needles?  Biographers will have plenty
to sort through in the coming years, as they
try to match Bolaño’s own claims against
conflicting evidence from other sources. The
overall image, however, remains that of a
man on the run—in a bohemian life that
spanned Central America, South America
and Europe—and left behind clues in a trail
of texts.  His novels
The Savage Detectives and
2666 have emerged as the most fashionable
Spanish-language novels of recent years, and
the potent reputation that marked the final
years of Bolaño tumultuous life has only
grown larger since his passing.  Despite this
fame, his books are prickly and labyrinthine,
resisting pigeonholing and assimilation even as
they gain in renown.  “The secret story is the
one we'll never know,” Bolaño once noted,
and this is an axiom that may define his life
and works for a long time to come.
Essay 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
Savage Detectives and 2666?

At the time of the Semana survey,
neither of these novels had been
made available in English translation.
The Savage Detectives was pub-
lished by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
a few days later to much acclaim.
(See my review
here.) And now
2666 appears, a nine hun-
dred page magnum opus that will
no doubt solidify this author’s posthumous reputation as
one of the leading—and most unsettling—modern novelists.

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
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
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.

Ted Gioia's latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History

This essay was published on November 8, 2008.
Click on image to purchase

Further Clues:

"The Many Deaths of Roberto Bolaño"by Michael Saler
from the Times Literary Supplement

"Roberto Bolaño's 2666" by Francisco Goldman

"Slouching Towards Santa Teresa" by Adam Kirsch in

"Stray Questions for: Roberto Bolaño?!" by Blake
Wilson from Paper Cuts
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