The publication of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 ‘has become an international sensation’, as the blurb on the cover of the 2009 Picador edition has it.
Among the back cover hype is this quote from Guardian (sic): ‘Does the work live up to the hype? Absolutely.’
Not quite, would be my own assessment.
Whatever the merits of the Spanish original prose are and whether the English translation is faithful to it, I do not know – I stopped reading Spanish novels when I left school, almost half a century ago. What is apparent however is that Natasha Wimmer, the translator, is a first-class stylist. Her book reads beautifully, as too few translated novels do.
It has also been splendidly edited: I noticed only three misprints (‘dessert’ for ‘desert’ p305, ‘embarassed’ p448 and ‘Ca|rranza’ p507) in the course of 900 pages (some 400 000 words).
I read the first eight hundred pages in early redshirt times and finished the last hundred pages last night. The over two months’ hiatus was instructive: when I resumed reading, I’d forgotten much of what I’d read. Not all, though.
The book is composed of five parts that can, and yet should not, be read separately: each tells its own story, in its own style, with different characters; yet, the accumulation of these plots and styles, the interlocking of clues and subtle connections and resonances of the five parts add another dimension to the work: for all its apparent disarticulation and constant sidetracking, this five-fingered thing was conceived as a whole hand.
The first section, ‘The part about the critics’, I remembered as a trite ‘ménage à trois plus un’ romance between Western academics running to Latin America after their Grail, a genius German novelist they idolise and will never meet. The three men who successively have the consolation prize of their female companion’s sexual favours are as insipid and interchangeable as they come and share the same despondency in the end.
Of the second and third parts, I remembered little: in the one, a fifth, European academic becomes central, or rather his wife does, or is it his daughter; in the other, it’s the turn of a black American political journalist sent south of the border to cover a boxing bout and stopping by Detroit to hear a former Black Panther rant à la DeLillo in a sequence of Underworld.
What I remembered vividly, though, was the stunning fourth section, ‘The part about the crimes’: over 280 pages, the blunt, factual, detailed reporting of hundreds of murders with or without rape of young women in a Mexican desert poblaciòn and of the attendant search for serial killers and arrests of alleged murderers. The sheer litany of cases some will find stultifying, who will be blind to the grand literary performance underlying it, more than a match to The Executioner’s Song or In Cold Blood. I’d be tempted to say that this part alone is worth reading, except that the preceding sections, with their sense of failure, foreboding and impending death, had helped narrow the geography of the novel down to that particular killing field.
Reading out of that into the bildungsroman of the last section fleshing out the ghost of that elusive German novelist was a letdown, even though this ‘part about Archimboldi’ does crown the book by measuring the distance between myth and man.
So, what is there not to like in this would-be world masterpiece of the twenty-first century? The work is coherent in its constant incoherence. The style is often superb, full of surprises, and never pedestrian, whether in two-word sentences or in sentences that snake over five pages. Altogether, a gripping read.
The problem, as I see it, holds in one word, overambitious, and is threefold.
First, the crowds of multifarious characters that come and go have just enough presence (and absence appeal) to carry the day; none flies off the page, even though the main ones tend to be bigger than life, making kinky love for hours on end with porn-standard schlongs, thinking lofty thoughts while remaining opaque, evolving little or not at all.
Second, Bolaño writes like a child marvelling at the world. He goes from wonder to wonder and seldom remembers what his starting point was and where he meant to go. Because these are wonders and he makes them glitter, we follow and enjoy the coruscations and sometimes get disoriented, and at the end of the trip wonder what this was all about.
Third, assembling chunks, and bits and pieces within each, only works satisfactorily when their sum amounts to an overriding theme or truth. What that is I can’t quite fathom, apart from the stench of death and doom.
Of course, what excites to onanistic fervour all those professional literary critics is that this is a book centred on the plight of the writer and of his usual parasites (academics, biographers and book critics) and is replete with literary winks, but is this real life? Give me Underworld instead, or The white shadow, or a few other masterpieces manqués that lack this little something that would make them immortal.
But perhaps I need to read this book all over again in just one session of however many days to better assess its inner coherence.