2666 by Roberto Bolano (Part 1 and 2)

2666 is a monstrous novel, in every conceivable way. Even the critical praise is monstrous, from the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award to Time‘s Best Fiction Book of the same year. Reading it is an exercise in patience, beauty, and masochism, as Bolaño deftly circles the mysterious mass femicide of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico like a subtle vulture.

This post is the first in a series of attempts to analyse Bolaño’s magnum opus from a writer’s perspective. The novel is actually five distinct books, beginning with The Part About the Critics, where four European professors track their literary hero–the enigmatic and reclusive Archimboldi–to the city of Santa Teresa, Mexico (a stand-in for the dreadful, real-life Ciudad Juarez), where they hope to finally encounter him face-to-face. In the second book, The Part About Amalfitano, a Mexican literature professor slowly succumbs to an infectious madness as he tries to protect his daughter from the dangers of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women are being quietly raped, tortured, and left for dead in the desert.

While stylistically distinct, these first two parts of 2666 circle around the same concept of madness–specifically the kind of madness that results from obsession with meaning–and Bolaño’s carefully constructed prose creates an eerily similar effect in his readers.

This obsession slowly becomes evident in The Part About the Critics when the academics reach Santa Teresa, and their perceptions of reality are altered and obscured. Throughout the first hundred pages or so, their preoccupation with Archimboldi certainly affects their professional and personal lives, but it isn’t until they are embedded in the bizarre labyrinth of Mexico that we see the real toll their obsession has taken on them, as evidenced by their dreams, their shifting perceptions, and their increasingly desperate behavior.

The theme is further underlined in The Part About Amalfitano, when we discover the professor’s wife’s obsession with a Spanish poet, but especially Amalfitano’s own schizophrenic delusions as he tries to understand the actions of his insane wife and the unspeakable crimes in Santa Teresa.

The common thread between all of these characters is a desperate search for meaning, whether through direct contact with the artists that mystify them (Archimboldi, Edwin Johns, the Spanish Poet), or with the greater mysteries of the city itself. Like many postmodern novelists, Bolaño explores the relationship between the search for meaning and its resultant madness, but 2666 takes it a meta-step further by echoing this relationship in his prose itself.

Bolaño is subtle at first, but as the pages pile on, the reader becomes more and more lost in a series of competing narratives, of non sequitors and red herrings and dreams and impossible reversals. He writes in a straightforward way, and then undercuts himself with short passages that demand interpretation from his readers. Consider the first instance of this technique on page 9:

“Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.”

These flashes of narrative ambiguity occur more and more frequently as the novel progresses, from Espinoza’s toilet seat to Norton’s mirrors to Santa Teresa opening up like “vast barbeque pits tended by an angel” to Amalfitano’s near-drowning in the pool and his Dada-esque ruminations, and odd turns of prose that Bolaño likes to use as punctuation at the end of his sections.

Subtly and deftly, Bolaño underminines the most basic relationship between author and reader: that the reader’s appetite for narrative meaning will ultimately be fulfilled by the author. But this author, like life itself, feels no such obligation, and thus his readers are infected by his novel’s postmodern perspective on madness, obsession, and meaning, beginning even with the ambiguous title.

Cover image via Wikimedia Commons.


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