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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

2666

by
Roberto Bolaño


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase 2666



Title: 2666
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Novel
Written: (2004) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 898 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: 2666 - US
2666 - US (Spanish)
2666 - UK
2666 - Canada
2666 - India
2666 - France
2666 - Deutschland
2666 - Italia
2666 - España
  • Spanish title: 2666
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

A+ : nearly perfect

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard . 15/1/2009 David Sexton
Le Figaro A+ 27/6/2008 Olivier Mony
Financial Times . 8/12/2008 Henry Hitchings
Financial Times . 5/10/2009 James Urquhart
FAZ . 14/10/2009 Daniel Kehlmann
Globe & Mail A+ 22/11/2008 J.S.Goldbach
The Guardian . 5/9/2009 Alfred Hickling
The Hindu A 1/2/2009 Vivek Narayanan
The Independent A+ 9/1/2009 Richard Gwyn
The Independent A+ 11/9/2009 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday A 1/2/2009 Ian Thomson
LRB . 26/2/2009 Michael Wood
The LA Times . 9/11/2008 Ben Ehrenreich
The Nation . 8/12/2008 Marcela Valdes
NZZ A 12/9/2009 Andreas Breitenstein
The New Republic . 18/2/2009 William Deresiewicz
New Statesman . 22/1/2009 Robert Hanks
New York A 7/11/2008 Sam Anderson
The NY Observer . 20/11/2008 Emily Borrow
The NY Rev. of Books . 18/12/2008 Sarah Kerr
The NY Times . 13/11/2008 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 9/11/2008 Jonathan Lethem
The New Yorker B 17/11/2008 .
Newsweek A 24/11/2008 Malcolm Jones
The Observer . 11/1/2009 William Skidelsky
The Observer A+ 13/9/2009 Hermione Hoby
Political Affairs . 2-3/2009 Martha Kramer
Prospect . 2/2009 Tom Chatfield
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2009 James Crossley
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/11/2008 Alexander Cuadros
The Spectator A 14/1/2009 Philip Hensher
Sunday Times . 11/1/2009 Stephen Amidon
The Telegraph . 22/1/2009 Stephen Abell
Time A+ 10/11/2008 Lev Grossman
The Times . 9/1/2009 Leo Robson
TLS A 9/9/2005 Amaia Gabantxo
TLS . 7/1/2009 Michael Saler
The Village Voice . 11/11/2008 Zach Baron
The Washington Post A 23/11/2008 Steven Moore
Die Welt A 5/9/2009 Marko Martin
Die Welt A- 19/12/2009 Sibylle Lewitscharoff


  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "You could say 2666 is the epic novel that Borges never wrote. Though the book is often quite maddening -- in the way it's so plethoric, constantly introducing new characters and dropping others, never having a main protagonist, choosing to leave so much unexplained, proceeding like a dream -- it also always has a power to command the reader, to absorb and mystify you. And however much the novel circles around uncontrollable evil, social disorder and the questionable value of literature itself, Bolaño's true preoccupation remains always, unmistakeably, the search for love and meaning in life. A masterpiece then ? Maybe. Certainly not nothing." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "Pas un roman, mais un bréviaire pour les temps présents, un immense manuel de deuil et de mélancolie. Un De profundis baroque et énigmatique, le crime passionnel d'un homme mort par et pour la littérature, qui laisse aux vivants ce livre, comme une armée vaincue fait retraite en brûlant la terre derrière elle. (...) Ce serait un livre moderne, indifférent à la modernité. (...) Ce serait inoubliable." - Olivier Mony, Le Figaro

  • "Bolaño’s most audacious performance. (...) 2666 is less fun than The Savage Detectives but it is a summative work -- a grand recapitulation of the author’s main concerns and motifs. (...) Bolaño is an uncompromising writer. He alternates between brisk vignettes and passages of meandering opulence. His prose is short on adjectives and sometimes deliberately infelicitous but it can also beguile. It is studded with aphorisms, many of them calculated to invite passionate disagreement. Deranged similes are a hallmark of his writing" - Henry Hitchings, Financial Times

  • "Only the final book, a compelling mittel-European picaresque of Archimboldi’s rise from Prussian peasant to an author sought by the Nobel committee, brings out Bolaño’s gift for intense, erotically charged encounters, subtly nuanced relationships and assured, complex plotting." - James Urquhart, Financial Times

  • "2666 ist ein kühnes, wildes, hochexperimentelles Ungetüm von einem Roman. In der vorliegenden Form keineswegs perfekt -- besonders der zweite, dritte und fünfte Teil haben große Längen --, ist er doch immer noch so ziemlich allem überlegen, was in den letzten Jahren veröffentlicht wurde. 2666, das kann man getrost voraussagen, wird für die Literatur Südamerikas so prägend sein wie in der vorangegangenen Generation die Hauptwerke von Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa und Julio Cortázar." - Daniel Kehlmann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It is complete, achieved and satisfying, though there is an unignorable urgency to it that is truly mesmerizing and breathtaking (.....) Although existentially unsettling, 2666 is also funny, very funny, and oddly reassuring; no run-of-the-mill apocalypticist, Bolaño maintains a belief in art, in a "third leg," even though so much conspires against it, like time and the ways it distorts and disintegrates everything. 2666 holds an "unquiet mirror" up to hell and stuns with its brilliance. It is a heroic achievement, a modern epic -- a masterpiece." - J.S.Goldbach, Globe & Mail

  • "It takes some force of will to make it through this sequence of five separate, tangentially linked novels" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Naturally in such a work there are boring passages, irrelevant passages, highly indulgent passages, places where you can clearly see Bolaño pushing his fiction writer’s confidence game too far; yet, the whole of 2666 is such a masterly and awe-inspiring performance that the reader settles into and clings to it as one settles for the world." - Vivek Narayanan, The Hindu

  • "Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is a difficult experience to shake off; it lingers in the unconscious like a sizzling psychotropic for days or weeks after reading. It is a novel both prodigious in scope and profound in implication, but a book ablaze with the furious passion of its own composition. At times, it reads like a race against death. At others, you can only wonder at the reach and raw intelligence of the writing. (...) The uncertainty and the loose flaps, the digressions and the rare unfoldings, the borrowing or pastiche of different genres, the blazing curtains of prose, the frequently hilarious non-sequiturs, together create an effect of startling anarchic grace, no less magnificent for being swallowed up in the novel's own encircling silence. (...) Much of the writing goes beyond any recognisable literary model and can only be approached on its own terms." - Richard Gwyn, The Independent

  • "The next time you hear about the "death of the novel", beat the speaker over the head with 2666. And then make them read it. Five books in one, masterfully interwoven not only by recurrent ideas and characters but by a torrential humour, deep humanity and sheer storytelling bravura, the posthumous masterpiece from the Chilean-turned-Catalan magician (splendidly translated by Natasha Wimmer) should stand on every self-respecting bookshelf." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "2666, a detective novel without a solution, contains much dark philosophical humour, wickedly effective pastiche and pages of gutsy, irreverent boisterousness (not to mention peculiar sex). (...) Among other things, 2666 offers an apology for the novel as a vast network that links all things, no matter how trivial or disparate. It is a marvellous gallimaufry of the funny, fabulist and, at times, oddly beautiful. All human life is contained in these burning pages, and Natasha Wimmer deserves a medal for her fluent translation." - Ian Thomson, Independent on Sunday

  • "Whether he is as good as he wanted to be, or in the way he wanted to be, is another question, and the answer can’t be simple. It depends, I think, not only on the literary quality of the hugely ambitious late work, especially 2666, but on how we read it and what we are looking for. (...) The way these stories arise and fade away doesn’t give us the sense that the narrative leads nowhere; just the sense that it doesn’t lead anywhere obvious, and that we are going to have to work out the connections that Bolaño has left for us to make." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "This is no ordinary whodunit, but it is a murder mystery. Santa Teresa is not just a hell. It's a mirror also -- "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant, useless metamorphosis." (...) He wrote 2666 in a race against death. His ambitions were appropriately outsized: to make some final reckoning, to take life's measure, to wrestle to the limits of the void. So his reach extends beyond northern Mexico in the 1990s to Weimar Berlin and Stalin's Moscow, to Dracula's castle and the bottom of the sea." - Ben Ehrenreich, The Los Angeles Times

  • "2666, like all of Bolaño's work, is a graveyard. (...) His ambitions for 2666 were greater: to write a postmortem for the dead of the past, the present and the future." - Marcela Valdes, The Nation

  • "Die ganze Potenz seines Könnens legte er in diesen 1200-seitigen Roman (.....) (E)in Ineinander von Stimmungen und Überlegungen, Erregungen und Meditationen. (...) 2666 ist ein literarischer Amazonas, in dessen labyrinthische Verzweigungen und Stromschnellen hinaus ein jeder Leser mit einem Boot segelt, das sich als zu klein erweist. (...) Bolaño zieht das ganze Arsenal seines Könnens, um reale Gegenwart zu schaffen. Stupend sind sein Wissen und seine Beobachtungsgabe, die Potenz seiner (historischen) Imagination, die Sensitivität der Einfühlung, die Psychologie der Figurenzeichnung und nicht zuletzt die Organisation eines so gigantischen Stoffes und so vieler Erzählstränge." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "It is here that 2666 begins to betray its weaknesses. Each of its parts is brilliantly paced, and aside from the first few dozen pages of the third, consistently compelling. All are connected not only by the crimes, but also by a myriad of interwoven motifs. But the whole thing does not hold together. Bolaño goes too far this time in the centrifugal direction. The difficulty is not the novel's heterogeneity of form. Just as The Savage Detectives offers a crowd of voices, 2666 gives us a virtuosic range of narrative modes: academic satire in I, minimalism in III, reportage in IV, the bildungsroman or fictional biography in V, allegory and surrealism in places throughout. There is no problem with Bolaño's implication that to know something one must speak about it in different ways. The problem is that there is no single central something about which the novel attempts to speak." - William Deresiewicz, The New Republic

  • "An outline of the narrative is, maybe, an evasion of what the book is about: it obscures the violence, the explicit and often overwrought sex (cocks a foot long, and no screw under three hours); it also obscures Bolaño's teasing, self-consciously literary tone. He is a relentlessly digressive author, and the book is packed with subplots, details and disquisitions to the point of neurosis. (...) When the dazzle has faded, what is the pattern that will be left imprinted on your vision ? Is it only the omnipresence of death ?" - Robert Hanks, New Statesman

  • "The newest entry in Bolaño’s legendary oeuvre is the enormous, posthumous, ambiguously complete, inscrutably titled novel 2666 -- which arrives omni-buzzed and hyperdesigned, poised to be the most fashionable literary blockbuster of the holiday season. Having just spent the equivalent of a full workweek crawling through the book, however, I’m having trouble envisioning it as the hot Christmas item some people might expect. Its 893 pages are indisputably brilliant, but they are not, by any definition, brisk -- they’re tall, crowded, brutal, dense. In fact, one possible explanation of the mysterious title is that it would take any normal author 2,666 pages to convey what Bolaño manages to convey (or half-convey, or almost possibly begin to suggest he might convey) in just under 900." - Sam Anderson, New York

  • "It’s hard to know what to make of 2666. It reads like a puzzle crafted by a sadistic, sympathetic literary master. Given the way it rambles without urgency, it’s hard to believe it’s is the work of someone at death’s door. There are long stretches when I felt abandoned as a reader. (That he’s not here to explain himself makes for a perfect punch line.) Yet Bolaño reveals enough to keep us reading—a turn of phrase, a captured moment that just feels so confident, so singular. (...) If there’s something, anything, that ties these five books together, perhaps it’s a sense of the nakedness of life, the proximity of death and the occasional yearning to reach out and stroke the liquid air. It should be noted that although many lives are snuffed out in these pages, the writers seem to live on. 2666 may not be Bolaño’s masterpiece, but it’s also inescapable, unignorable and lasting." - Emily Borrow, The New York Observer

  • "(O)ne doesn't really feel the lack of final revisions doing much to diminish its power. At many points, one feels about to be able to compare the book to something else. (...) Randomness and consequence competing for control over history, the struggle of the individual to survive with a functioning ethics: the themes carry over into the final section (.....) For a while yet, our brain feels rewired for multiplicity. This is not just a cultural or geographical question, though if 2666 contains a lesson it is that people are always from some confluence of factors more bizarre than a country. And it goes deeper than the question of multiple voices. We have eavesdropped on characters and then felt ourselves in the funny, sad, and dangerous process of needing and making meaning. Since there is no logical endpoint, we close with an image from the novel that is out of time. A world of "endless shipwreck," but met with the most radiant effort. It's as good a way as any to describe Bolaño and his overwhelming book. " - Sarah Kerr, The New York Review of Books

  • "Almost 300 slow pages later, with "The Part About Archimboldi," this epic, maddening, mesmerizing adventure picks up energy as it nears its end. Archimboldi appears, not quite living up to his fanfare. The book tightens its focus, to the extent that a book with a huge population but no real principals can do so. And a description of Archimboldi’s prose offers a crystallization of Bolaño’s." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "2666 is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what's possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. The Savage Detectives looks positively hermetic beside it. (...) As in Arcimboldo's paintings, the individual elements of 2666 are easily catalogued, while the composite result, though unmistakable, remains ominously implicit, conveying a power unattainable by more direct strategies. (...) By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world's disasters, Bolaño has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable." - Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review

  • "2666 is not Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece but almost a compendium, in individual scenes, of the qualities that made him a great writer. (...) By the end, after close to nine hundred pages, the reader will be impressed by the range and power on display but might wish that the novel cohered, rather than merely concluding." - The New Yorker

  • "History, in this concept, is like a collective nightmare, and reading 2666 is much like enduring a horrific dream -- all you want to do is wake up but you can't -- because the multitalented Bolaño was a spellbinder: he knew how to make readers keep turning pages. (...) This is a daunting book, a book to admire more than like. But despite its faults -- the section on the serial murders is, frankly, tedious -- it beguiles a reader as few books do. If you're not one of those timid readers singled out at the beginning of this review, if you're a reader who'd rather see a novelist aim for the moon, even if he falls on his face, then this is the book for you." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "2666 is a novel of stupefying ambition with a mock-documentary element at its core. (...) 2666 is indeed Bolaño's master statement, not just on account of its length and quality but also because it is the fullest expression of his two abiding themes: the writing life and violence. Bolaño's interest in the former is easy to explain -- he believed that a life dedicated to literature was the only one worth living." - William Skidelsky, The Observer

  • "With The Savage Detectives having already been proclaimed Roberto Bolaño's "masterpiece", a new superlative is needed for this, the Chilean author's colossal final work." - Hermione Hoby, The Observer

  • "The detailed and relentless cataloging of the deaths of hundreds of women in the border city of Santa Teresa in the novel's longest part, titled "The Part About the Crimes," serves as a lens through which readers witness the brutality of a modern society whose fabric has been torn by the exigencies of global capitalism, internal and external migration, and the dehumanization of the characters who people this nightmarish landscape." - Martha Kramer, Political Affairs

  • "Like all superconfident bastards, 2666 is flattering, unpredictable, swaggering -- and irresistible to anyone who wants something to care about in the world of books. No wonder reviewers loved it. Reviewing a novel like this is about the most intense thrill a critic will ever have, short of writing one themselves. (...) The intoxicating force of 2666 also lies in its utter disregard for boundaries." - Tom Chatfield, Prospect

  • "Bolaño is occasionally lyrical but more frequently direct, demonstrating a facility with styles and tones from broad comedy to blackest despair. The five discrete sections that make up 2666 could stand as novels in their own right, twists on different genres from academic satire to clinical police procedural to bildungsroman." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(M)addening, inconclusive and very, very long; hideous in parts and beautiful in others; exerting a terrible power over the reader long after it's done. (...) As for the title, there are clues to its significance in other books, but trying to take apart Bolaño is like looking under the hood of a car to see what makes it go. The big cryptic number, like so much in the book, is a riddle without a right answer -- ineffable, yet palpitating with meaning." - Alexander Cuadros, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "2666 has still bigger goals in its sights, and though the mind shrinks from parts of it, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by its ambition, and much of its achievement. (...) This is an unlikely bestseller, I must say: it is often very hard-going, deliberately frustrates the reader’s wish to discover, and challenges his ability to recall the details of plot and character at every point. (...) Does he have enough subject-matter to sustain his huge fictional design, or is he one of those writers who turn to exhibitions of the extreme to disguise a fundamental poverty of observed human experience ? The question goes unanswered, but I will say that the wild chaos of 2666 held me from beginning to end -- reminding me, above all, of The Man Without Qualities -- and sent me back to read all Bolaño’s other novels. You will want to experience this one." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "The fact that the book remains as riveting as any top-notch thriller is testament to Bolano's astonishing virtuosity. (...) What is most memorable about 2666 is the sheer abundance of its narrative. Bolano mints characters with a spendthrift generosity, though there is nothing preening about this breadth of scope. (...) Bolano is equally unstinting with his subplots, which spring organically from the novel, like the colourful offshoots of a rampant tropical plant." - Stephen Amidon, Sunday Times

  • "The first temptation might be to dismiss this wondrous novel as no more than cult fiction. (...) But 2666 is a major literary event. (...) (W)ith Bolaño nothing is simple. 2666 is also a deeply self-conscious work which concerns itself with the act of reading and writing (something almost every main character is seen doing at some stage). (...) It is both notably realistic (...) and elaborately inventive. It is an important development in the novel form and an unforgettable piece of writing that will resonate for years to come." - Stephen Abell, The Telegraph

  • "2666 is not a novel that any responsible critic could describe with words like brisk or taut. (Not like all those other brisk, taut 898-page novels.) That's not Bolaño's method. He's addicted to unsolved mysteries and seemingly extraneous details that actually do turn out to be extraneous, and he loves trotting out characters -- indelible thumbnail sketches -- whom we will never encounter a second time. (...) But the relentless gratuitousness of 2666 has its own logic and its own power, which builds into something overwhelming that hits you all the harder because you don't see it coming. This is a dangerous book, and you can get lost in it. How can art, Bolaño is asking, a medium of form and meaning, reflect a world that is blessed with neither ? That is in fact a cesspool of chance and filth ?" - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Wading through its 900 pages, one never feels that he could have pushed things further but chose to rein himself in; at every turn, he went for it. The result is a wild, ungoverned book, full of surreal inversions and wistful comedy, the source of countless pleasures. Yet it is also a menacing proposition for readers of average intolerance, exhaustingly playful and tauntingly long, founded on dream sequences and digressions, replete with red herrings and wild geese. The book's fever-ishness can be contagious; symptoms include nausea and déjà vu. (...) (I)ts whole approach seems to have been derived from Goethe's notion of "world literature". The difference is that Goethe conceived "world literature" as a way of thinking about all books, whereas Bolaño, with his mixture of dynamism and overreach, managed to achieve it in a single novel." - Leo Robson, The Times

  • "(A)n exceptionally exciting literary labyrinth. (...) What strikes one first about it is the stylistic richness: rich, elegant yet slangy language that is immediately recognizable as Bolano's own mixture of Chilean, Mexican and European Spanish. Then there is 2666's resistance to categorization. At times it is reminiscent of James Ellroy: gritty and scurrilous. At other moments it seems as though the Alexandria Quartet had been transposed to Mexico and populated by ragged versions of Durrell's characters. There's also a similarity with W. G. Sebald's work (.....) There are no defining moments in 2666. Mysteries are never resolved. Anecdotes are all there is. Freak or banal events happen simultaneously, inform each other and poignantly keep the wheel turning. There is no logical end to a Bolano book." - Amaia Gabantxo, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Even as the novel exudes the improvisatory nature of lived experience, Bolaño eases the reader towards the void represented by the murders in Santa Teresa. Quirky, vibrantly etched characters undergo crises that resonate with the darkness at the heart of the novel." - Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In the staggeringly intricate, vast, and brilliantly unnerving 2666, too, everyone is constantly moving toward the unknown, but this time, they're not alone." - Zach Baron, The Village Voice

  • "Knowing that his liver ailment would probably kill him, Bolaño pulled out all the stops for his last novel and threw out the rulebook for conventional fiction. (...) Archimboldi never meets his critics, the reporters never solve the crimes, and nothing is resolved at the novel's end. (Even the title is left unexplained, though an editor's note offers a clue.) This is not because Bolaño didn't finish it but because he was more interested in conveying the culture of violence and how writers respond to it than in telling a tidy story. (...) The novel is probably longer than it needs to be, but there isn't a boring page in it, and I suspect further study would justify everything here." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

  • "Auf uns Leser wartet das Glück einer einzigartigen Entdecker-Reise, über Hunderte und Aberhunderte Seiten einer von Christian Hansen berückend aus dem Spanischen übersetzten Prosa, die tatsächlich ihresgleichen sucht. (Wenngleich Roberto Bolano wohl auch an dieser Formulierung die stilistische Prüderie gerügt hätte.)" - Marko Martin, Die Welt

  • "Metaphernsicher, mit Sinn für rasante dramaturgische Schnitte (auch den locker eingestreuten Kürzestdialog beherrscht er hinreißend), dabei höchst ambivalent zwischen Frechheit, Wahn, Zynismus, Trauer, Wut und Komik schwankend, berichtet dieser chilenische Vielfraß und Alleskönner vom Bösen. Der deutsche Übersetzer Christian Hansen ist ebenfalls hoch zu loben. Er hat Bolaños rasch dahineilende Sätze in ein sehr gelenkiges Deutsch überführt und sich vor affigen Floskeln gehütet. Doch eine Crux gibt es. Sie betrifft den fünften und letzten Teil (.....) Deshalb mein Rat: Stellen Sie auf Seite 769 einfach das Lesen ein." - Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Die Welt

  Quotes:
  • "The multiple story lines of 2666 are borne along by narrators who seem also to represent various of its literary influences, from European avant-garde to critical theory to pulp fiction, and who converge on the city of Santa Teresa as if propelled toward some final unifying epiphany. It seems appropriate that 2666's abrupt end leaves us just short of whatever that epiphany might have been, resulting in another open-ended ending, in paths to retrace and resume, leaving everything behind again." - Francisco Goldman, The New York Review of Books (19/7/2007)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Roberto Bolaño sets the bar awfully high when he has one of his characters note with disappointment that:

Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
       Bolaño knows he's one of the masters, and he's done those perfect exercises -- the formal one, Nazi Literature in the Americas, the looser The Savage Detectives. With 2666 he goes torrential: like Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet (over which his pharmacist chooses A Simple Heart), like Melville's Moby-Dick (the pharmacist's choice: Bartleby, the Scrivener), it blazes that path into the unknown. The basics are still there: the passages read like a (very good) 'normal' novel, there is -- at least in most of the individual sections of this five-part work -- a story that unfolds fairly straightforwardly. But this is far more ambitious than anything he's done before, as he makes his way through the "blood and mortal wounds and stench"
       While violence is central to 2666, with the serial killings of hundreds of women in Mexico casting an immense shadow over almost everything else, the novel is also only 'about' these murders much the same as ... well, Moby Dick is 'about' getting the whale. The longest stretch of the novel does zero in, again and again and again, on these acts of brutality, but other parts are far removed from it. Among many other things, 2666 includes what amounts to a novel of academia (and a story of love among the professors), as well as a fairly traditional sort of author-biography.

       2666 is presented in five seemingly separate parts. There is some overlap -- and usually at least one character that moves from the periphery of one part to a more central position in the next -- but the full picture (and all the connexions) only emerge at the end.
       The five sections consist of:

       I. The Part about the Critics. 2666 begins as the story of an international quartet of literary scholars who are all fascinated by the work of a German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. Bolaño describes how they each come across the work of this then largely still obscure author, and how their efforts, as enthusiastic interpreters, teachers, and translators play some small part in the emergence of Archimboldi as a widely recognised author, a contender even for the Nobel Prize.
       These four academics' lives to some extent revolve around this literary figure, as they continue to write papers about his work and attend conferences devoted to him, yet the man himself, the author behind the works, remains elusive. Little is known about him, almost no one has had any personal contact with him. He remains a shadow-figure, his art evidence of his existence but an infinitely interpretable clue as to who he might really be, the few second-hand reports they obtain from those who have (or claim to have) met the man hardly providing anything more substantial.
       The four academics remain if not entirely obsessed at least very curious, and when there are indications that Archimboldi might be in Mexico they decide to go there, though one ultimately remains behind in Europe. Over the years the one woman, Norton, has been involved with two of the others from this Archimboldi-gang, Pelletier and Espinoza, and it is the fourth, the wheelchair-bound Morini that stays behind. The group dynamics are affected by the intimate relationships, though Pelletier and Espinoza remain good friends; Norton eventually makes a choice, too, in this unusual relationship story that dominates much of this section.
       "Something strange was going on", Norton thinks upon their arrival in Mexico -- though: "even in Europe, something strange had been happening, something she didn't understand". Mexico had already cropped up briefly earlier, seemingly out of nowhere, with Morini: "the first of the four to read an article about the killings in Sonora", the unsolved serial killings of large numbers of women in a part of northern Mexico. "An hour later he'd already forgotten the matter completely" -- but it is Morini who later backs away from travelling in search of Archimboldi, travelling to Santa Teresa, the epicentre of the murders.
       Aside from the vivid nightmares they each have after arriving, and a slight sense that they are out of place, there's not too much of an ominous atmosphere around them. The murders of the women, which they learn a little more about, are a troubling but distant fact; their personal relationships sort themselves out, in a way. As to Archimboldi, there is practically no trace of him.

       II. The Part about Amalfitano
       One of the men the four academics in search of Archimboldi met in Santa Teresa was a local professor, Amalfitano -- with their first impression of him: "mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place". But he is familiar with the work of the German writer and turns out to be a decent guide. He does not figure much in the first section, but is central in the second (while the academics have played their part and now left the scene).
       The section begins:
     I don't know what I'm doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he'd been living in the city for a week. Don't you ? Don't you really ? he asked himself. Really I don't, he said to himself, and that was as elegant as he could be.
       Much of the section looks for an answer, recounting how he wound up there, a fifty-year-old man living with his seventeen-year-old daughter, Rosa, abandoned long ago by his wife. As the opening suggests, he's a rather isolated character, with no one he can really discuss even such basic questions with.
       The focus is more on Lola, Amalfitano's wife, than the professor for long stretches, and Archimboldi is no longer much of a concern here, as Bolaño relates how Amalfitano wound up in this somewhat sorry state and out of the way place.
       Amalfitano is far from unhinged, but he lives a bit in his own world, reality around him rather a disappointment; the closing words of the chapter find him abandoned even in a dream and with: "no choice but to wake". The reality of Santa Teresa remains inescapable.

       III. The Part about Fate
       A new figure crops up in the third section, Quincy Williams -- whom everyone at work calls 'Oscar Fate'. The boxing correspondent at the paper he works at has died, and his editor asks him to cover a fight; Fate's mother having just passed away he wouldn't mind the change of scene and accepts. The fight is in Mexico, and already Santa Teresa had again flickered back into consciousness, a report on an American who had disappeared there appearing on the TV as Fate slept.
       Fate learns about the murders once he gets to Mexico to cover the fight, and even pitches a story to his editor:
     "A sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world," said Fate, "a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story, for fuck's sake."
       His editor isn't interested; Fate, himself African-American, writes for a black-interest publication and, as his editor points out, with no black men involved, either as the victims or scapegoats, it's not a story of any interest. "No black men, but more than two hundred Mexican women killed", Fate tells him, but, as elsewhere, no one cares about these Mexican women.
       Fate does pursue the story a bit; he also gets involved with Rosa Amalfitano, and his visit draws to a close with the terror closing in.

       IV. The Part about the Crimes
       The atmosphere already turned more ominous in the third section, but it is the fourth and longest section that finally delves completely into the darkness. The mass-murders in and around Santa Teresa have, for the most part been kept at distance, acknowledged and briefly addressed but not much more. This section is now simply a clinical litany of the murders, Bolaño recounting in a fairly neutral tone brutal death after brutal death, beginning with the first, in January 1993.
       Surprisingly, even as Bolaño moves from body to body in a seemingly endless cycle of violence, his account is riveting. There are enough variations here, enough small details that separate each life and that give so many of the victims (and some of those around them) a brief moment of identity, to make this much more than just a listing of the dead. In following the investigation as body after body crops up, Bolaño also offers a sort of police procedural -- bizarrely drawn out and inconclusive where, in any normal mystery, one would have come to a resolution.
       The crimes are heinous, many of the victims teenage girls, and some even younger, most brutally raped and stabbed, found in various places and states of decomposition, with frequent bizarre touches -- such as a woman whose head (but not the rest of her body) is buried. Not all of the murders in Santa Teresa can be ascribed to the serial killer(s); there are occasional crimes of passion or dispute which, at first, seem to fit the pattern but then are easily solved, the brief hope that all the other crimes can be pinned on these perpetrators generally quickly dashed.
       Some of the girls and woman can be seen getting into a black car before they disappear, but there is frustratingly little else to go on. Several are pregnant, many work at local maquiladoras (the factories where cheap labour assembles goods made from foreign parts that are then re-exported). Outrage grows, but these are also victims that the authorities are unwilling and unable to invest much time or money in; life is demonstrably cheap here.
       Suspects are incarcerated, but the killings continue. One man who is arrested is a tall German (just like Archimboldi ...), Klaus Haas, who eventually makes himself quite at home in the prison, and even offers up the names of additional suspects.
       The section leads to the end of 1997, the murder spree still ongoing; it closes with the perfect image of the eerie hell-hole that is Santa Teresa, as the townfolk celebrate the Christmas holidays:
Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of the streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who know where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.

       V. The Part about Archimboldi
       The final section jumps back to Europe, and to 1920, to Hans Reiter, born of a woman with only one good eye and a man with only one leg. Here Bolaño relates this German life, a boy who left school at thirteen and eventually went to fight in World War II and, of course, afterwards becomes a writer and assumes the pen name of Benno von Archimboldi.
       It was on the Eastern front that Reiter came across the notebooks of yet another man, one who was fascinated by the Italian painter Arcimboldo, and which eventually inspires his own pseudonym.
       Reiter is fortunate in the publisher he finds after the war, a time of crushing poverty. Despite poor sales for his first two books, his publisher stands fully behind him. "We have to protect him", the head of the publishing firm tells his wife, and they do; and the fact that: "they believe in me" is of tremendous importance to the young author.
       There are two women in his life, the one the publisher's wife, with whom, coincidentally, his past is also connected, and who remains his last and lasting tie between worlds, and his great love, Ingeborg. With Ingeborg's death he becomes a solitary if not entirely secluded figure; among Bolaño's most amusing bits is when Reiter is tempted by the promise of: "a house for the vanished writers of Europe, a place of refuge", but, though an agreeable enough sort of retreat, it doesn't quite turn out to be as advertised and Reiter realises he doesn't quite belong.
       Eventually, reaching (i.e. returning to) the 1990s, the story comes full circle. Thirty pages before the end Bolaño lifts a final curtain, the authorial presence far more pronounced than usual as it announces:
     And at last we come to Archimboldi's sister, Lotte Reiter.
       The last pieces fall into place, a few more connexions are made, and 2666 is revealed as a rounded-off whole. Not everything is neatly tied off, with many characters simply having fallen out of sight -- yet these don't feel like ragged edges and loose knots, but rather like the booster rockets that have helped move the vital piece into place and then can fall by the wayside, having served their purpose.

       One of the keys to the text is the name assumed by Hans Reiter, Benno von Archimboldi. The painter Arcimboldo is famous (and his work instantly recognisable) because of his technique of creating portraits that are not photographically realistic, but rather in which the elements of the face consist of appropriate but entirely different objects: books, fruit, meat [examples]. The Russian in whose notebook Reiter first learns about him considers this technique: "happiness personified" -- and, in what could be Bolaño's rallying cry:
The end of simulacra.
       And:
the paintings of the four seasons were pure bliss. Everything in everything, writes Ansky. As if Arcimboldo had learned a single lesson, but one of vital importance.
       Everything in everything: it is clearly what Bolaño is after as well. The seemingly disparate parts of the novel add up to something like an Arcimboldo painting. Not as easily or obviously as in a painting, and yet Bolaño comes surprisingly close. As importantly: the pieces which make up the whole are expertly crafted. This is simply very fine writing, from beginning to end. [2666 was not completed by the author before his death, but he was reportedly almost finished with it; even without his final input as to the editing it reads remarkably well.]
       "Everything collapses in pain", Reiter is told, and 2666 is full of loss and death. Most obviously in the ceaseless horror of Santa Teresa, but also elsewhere. Yet parallel to this, indeed as if in spite of it, 2666 is also far from grim.
       Many of the characters make the necessary discoveries at the appropriate times, awakening to the one they should love or be with, for example. Quests and investigations may be futile, and so, for example, the academics who try to hunt down Archimboldi fail -- but they don't really need to find him. If not an absolute joy, the book is filled with the satisfaction of that done properly and well -- as the book itself is.
       In its presentation of details and side-stories, its foreshadowing and dreams, its incidental mentions, 2666 shows itself to be meticulously crafted -- with the seams barely showing. There's an easy naturalness to the way the stories are told and the book is allowed to unfold, even as it it is recognizable as complete artifice. Bolaño doesn't seem to make a wrong move or allow a wrong sentence. And from the details of the lives of the Mexican women who are the victims to the German publishing industry of the early post-war period to the authors that he cites, he seems to get everything just right.
       Continent-spanning, the novel reflects Bolaño's own ambition, to be not only cosmopolitan but truly transnational. The action takes place in Europe, the United States, and Mexico -- the latter promising, as one character says:
Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven't happened yet.
       But it's noteworthy that Archimboldi is also presented as transcendent: when his publisher asks a critic his opinion on the then still young author the man is reluctant to be specific, but finally allows that: "he doesn't strike me as a European author", and that:
     "No, not American either, more like African," said Junge, and he made more faces under the tree branches. "Or rather: Asian," murmured the critic.
       "Malaysian, Malaysian," he eventually settles on, but what he means is that there's an indefinable exoticism to Archimboldi's work. To Bolaño's too, especially here. Hard as it is to believe, this is something new -- taking, as much that is new does, much that is familiar. But it's not mere novelty; it is something significant -- and of lasting significance. Forty years after García Márquez shifted the foundations with One Hundred Years of Solitude, Bolaño has moved them again. 2666 is, simply put, epochal.
       No question, the first great book of the twenty-first century.

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Links:

2666: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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