Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece. When I came to this realization, I gave up writing. Still, my mind didn’t stop working. In fact, it worked better when I wasn’t writing. I asked myself: why does a masterpiece need to be hidden? what strange forces wreath it in secrecy and mystery? [2666, pg. 786]
These are the words of an old man who sells a typewriter to Hans Reiter, the German ex-soldier who eventually takes the pen name Benno von Archimboldi in Roberto Bolaño’s sprawling, defiant opus, 2666. It is impossible not to wonder at his extended rant about the impossibility of writing, the manner in which the writer is lost in his own work, the inevitability of literary failure: are these Bolaño’s words, or a deliberate counterpoint to them? Does Bolaño see in this novel what his critics have seen – a masterpiece, a defining statement, a work for the ages? Or does he see a miasma, a shapeless cloud which has only the illusion of substance and either detracts from his true masterpiece (Amulet? The Savage Detectives?), or hints at another, sadly unwritten?
Bolaño’s untimely death in 2003 at the age of 50 has inevitably shaped the reception of his – at least in terms of girth – major work. “Bolaño,” John Banville insists in the paperback edition’s blurb, “was one of those rare writers who write for a future time.” In part, this is simply a statement of fact: much of his work wasn’t in fact translated into the language Banville reads until after his death. There is the danger of hyperbole in this context. 2666 isn’t about anything except the difficulty of anything being ‘about’ anything; it is frustrating and rambling, fond of diversion and detail rather than the simpler pleasures of plot and character; it is at times – even if deliberately – deadeningly and repetitively written. If it is a masterpiece, it is a curious one – and it needs to be discussed in those terms.
Nevertheless. Explore the varied responses of the bloggers who participated in the reading group hosted by Steph and Tony Investigates, or read the five in-depth reviews of Adam Roberts, and it’s impossible not to accept that there are great depths of material in this confounding novel. Each of the above approached the novel as I did, treating its five constituent volumes in turn as individual books. In this way, 2666 has been part of my life for five or six months, and this gives you time (although nowhere near enough) to consider a work which represses and denies the connections between its parts. Bolaño has mastered the trick of appearing to write superficially: at times, most obviously in his unrelenting litany of misogynistic violence in ‘The Part About The Crimes’, it is easy to assume that his characters are cardboard, his prose without deeper insight. In part, this is because he withholds that authorial judgement we have come to expect from novelists – where the narrative voice does comment, it’s usually about something trivial. What 2666 refuses to do is attach significance to any of the events that take place in the course of its close to a thousand pages. But this superficiality is deeply (geddit?) deceptive.
In a sense, it’s easier to think of the manner in which Bolaño achieves this effect in musical terms. 2666 is in some ways less a novel and more a suite: its five volumes reinforce each other rather than build one upon the last. So, whilst the author studied by the academics caught in a ménage à quatre in the first book, ‘The Part About The Critics’, appears in the last, ‘The Part About Archimboldi’, and we learn there considerably more about the writer, his publisher, and his publisher’s wife than we do from their almost irrelevant cameos in the earlier part, the two volumes can nevertheless be read in isolation, and largely the same lessons be learned from them, the same impressions got. These might include the essential hollowness of texts, the great importance – but crippling difficulty – of love and sex, or the shapelessness of life and its attendant contexts. But there is much else besides. Bolaño achieves this multifarious unity not through story, plot, or even character, but through imagery and endless incident – that is, the momentum of his work is found in the digression.
A book hung out to dry by a man undergoing a nervous breakdown in ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ reappears in ‘The Part About Fate’, a scuzzy volume about a sports journalist who gets in over his head in the Mexican town of Santa Teresa. That city itself is famously based on Ciudad Juárez, where much the same violence against women as is described gruesomely and unsparingly in ‘The Part About The Crimes’ has occurred for real. Amalfitano hangs the book outside “to see how it survives the assault of nature, to see how it survives this desert climate.” [pg. 191] 2666 is in part about how the book can truly reflect, and fully interact with, the unfathomable world which contains it. It represents an attempt to show that it can perhaps do so by denying for its entire length that the feat is possible.
Such paradoxes, it seems to me, are central to understanding Bolaño’s art. When Fate first learns about the true extent of the killings in Santa Teresa – which the reader, too has been teased about for the preceding 280-odd pages – he asks how all these women are killed. “Nobody knows,” he’s told. “They vanish into thin air, here one minute, gone the next. And after a while their bodies turn up in the desert.” [pg. 287] (The desert again – that featureless, unforgiving desolation.) 2666 goes out of its way to deny the wider significance of the killings, to beat us into insensate familiarity with them, to take conspiracy theories and grand explanations, those impositions of wishful thinking on cold, brute fact, and pick them slowly apart. And yet, in cataloguing in the novel’s fourth part how each woman was murdered, how each body was found, he invests more significance in the individual murders – the individuals murdered – than any newspaper article or government report. It’s not the devil that’s in Bolaño’s detail, but, if we worship meaning as 2666 seems to assume we do, the divine.
This is a curious way of looking at the novel, given how nasty its details can be – homophobia and misogyny are constant presences in a book which can at times be uncomfortably frank in its expression of the objectionable. In ‘The Part About Amalfitano’, for example, a childless woman is casually described as ‘non-breeder’; in ‘The Part About Fate’ we are routinely exposed to anti-semitism and other mindless racisms; and in ‘The Part About The Critics’, even intellectuals can suddenly – and apparently without reason – wreak a violent retribution upon an innocent, immigrant taxi driver, deriving sexual gratification from the act. In particular, this linkage of sex and violence – of sex and death – lends the novel a discomfiting tenor: there is a lot of sex in 2666, much of it like the moment in ‘The Part About Archimboldi’, when we join Reiter and an army colleague in voyeurism, witnessing a high-ranking Nazi soldier enjoy functional, if athletic, sex with a passive baroness. Reiter – and Bolaño – linger over the officer’s penis “which must have measured nearly a foot long” [pg. 691] – as potent a weapon as any heavy ordnance.
Reiter, or Archimboldi, may be as close to an emblem as 2666 has. His observations – of sex which draws blood, or of vivid texts which make him feel as if he, not a contemporary, were the assassin of a dissident Soviet diarist – tend to reflect what the reader has been led to believe the themes of the novel might be. When he reflects of National Socialism that it “was the ultimate realm of semblance” , we hear the book’s broader distrust of the signifier and its false representation of reality; when we’re told that Reiter spurned the national metaphors of the Germans – the earth, the forest – he seems again to echo the novel in which he appears; and when, in the final pages, he is tasked with travelling to Santa Teresa to do what he can for his nephew, accused of at least some of the city’s murders, we see in his nonplussed, uncertain approach the same confusion in the face of raw experience that each of the other characters must face. “I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa,” are Amalfitano’s first words in the part named after him; no one does.
But if Reiter is an emblem, he is far from a hero – a murderer and a minor writer, he achieves only his aim of being forgotten (in the first instance to avoid post-war American investigation, later simply out of personal preference). But Reiter’s story encompasses war, passion, solitude, much of Europe and some of the rest of the world; his life is, in short, storied – and his writing career is of course built on devising yet further stories. In short, Reiter/Archimboldi is a person of incident, of copious detail. His part more than any other is interrupted by long passages orthogonal to what small main narrative there remains. It is in such moments that 2666 finds meaning. It is perhaps ultimately formless, meaningless, meaning; but it is all that Bolaño allows.
Not even ten pages into the first part of 2666, we meet Liz Norton, one of the four critics who are the protagonists of the opening – and least memorable – of 2666‘s five volumes. We learn about her reading habits: “For her, reading was directly linked to pleasure, not to knowledge or enigmas or constructions or verbal labyrinths, as Morini, Espinoza and Pelletier believed it to be.” [pg. 9] All three of those other critics come very much to desire Norton – one must assume in no small part because of the attractiveness of her interpretative strategy. 2666 is very much a novel about interpretation (about, if you will, how things are about things), largely by dint of its refusal to yield to one – indeed, even to accept that interpretation is possible, much less desirable. But it is not, appearances aside, without purpose.
A strange masterpiece indeed, but very likely one nevertheless.