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The Topography of Hell: Roberto Bolaño’s ‘2666’

By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

“The Savage Detectives,” Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s greatest novel, is a kaleidoscopic fictional autobiography—a treatise on youth, love, literature and death—whose frame is the journal of the Mexican poet Juan García Madero. Madero is the disciple, devotee and faithful hanger-on of two older poets, Arturo Belano (Bolaño’s alter ego throughout his fiction) and Ulises Lima, who follows the pair through the Sonora Desert in flight from a violent pimp and his henchmen. The intervening chapters of the novel’s larger arc outline the movements of Belano and Lima from Mexico to Europe to Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa across three decades, through the testimony of friends, lovers, acquaintances and total strangers. But by the book’s end, the two have parted ways with Madero and the last pages belong, fittingly, to him. “Someday the police will catch Belano and Lima, but they’ll never find us,” his girlfriend Lupe assures him. “Oh, Lupe, how I love you, but how wrong you are,” he replies in his journal, to himself and to us. Bolaño suspends Madero’s fate: as readers, we know he will never see his mentors again, but in the novel’s final moments, Madero seems poised for a life of happiness, however fleeting.

If “The Savage Detectives” gives us hope for this dream, then “2666,” Bolaño’s posthumously-published final novel, released in 2004 in his native Spanish and translated into English last year, is the violent and inevitable calamity that finally shakes us all awake. Written as he slowly succumbed to a failing liver before his death in 2003, “2666” is a work of sheer enigma, the cryptic suturing of staggering indifference and nonrelational pain. Bolaño manages to etch the host of themes that characterize his entire body of work—the community of literature, popular culture, and Latin American politics—into a structure that renders them at once inherently meaningless and infinitely meaningful. If the history of twentieth century literature is one of deepening disorder, a collapse of tradition in the wake of Walter Benjamin’s storm of progress, then “2666” is a novel with ambitions to exist at that storm’s center.

At nearly 900 pages, “2666” perfects the digressional style that Bolaño honed throughout his entire fiction career. Characters forget themselves in the middle of monologues that span pages; metaphors mutate from the fantastical to the grotesque; the narrator’s personality (in Bolaño’s notes, he says Arturo Belano is the narrator) and the seemingly irrelevant details that embellish individual plotlines emerge from nowhere and are cast off almost as quickly; “He said his name was Harry Magaña, or at least that’s how he wrote it, but he pronounced it Magana, so that when he said it you heard Macgana, as if the self-sucking faggot was of Scottish descent.” Soon enough, Harry Magaña disappears and never returns. The inconsequence of his place in the world of “2666,” like so many of its characters, projects the novel’s style out onto its very structure; the events and characters in the novel’s five books don’t intersect so much as lie tangent to one another. Instead, they remain in orbit around the novel’s center, the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa (the fictionalized Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from San Jose, TX) where scores of women are raped and murdered every year without a major conviction.

The first section tells the story of four European critics bound together by a fascination with the elusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi. Shallow globetrotters with a surplus of luxury time, they combine and couple in various permutations of the three male critics and their single female colleague, endure bizarre and horrifying dreams, and plunge stoically into the breach between art and madness. Their search for a trace of the living author leads them to Santa Teresa, where a brush with the Spanish professor Oscar Amalfitano gives way to that character’s own section. Of all the protagonists throughout “2666,” Amalfitano is perhaps the most typical for Bolaño—a lone scholar and continental transplant who suffers bouts of profound fatigue and schizophrenic delusion. Paranoid over his daughter’s safety in the city, Amalfitano begins to recede into his own delusions. He’s haunted by a voice in his head that claims to be his grandfather, and the icon of a strange geometry text that—in homage to Marcel Duchamp—Amalfitano hangs on a clothesline in his yard for nature to destroy.

The fast-paced noir of the third section finds a Harlem journalist named Oscar Fate reporting on a boxing match in the Santa Teresa. Clearly the most narrowly realized of the five sections, Bolaño’s odd-footed parsing of racial and radical politics from New York City has a Kafkaesque absurdity about it (cf. “Amerika”). The world Fate inhabits is awkwardly fleshless, but the details he chooses can illuminate whole parallel universes; “[T]he Mohammedan Brotherhood caught his attention because they were marching under a big poster of Osama bin Laden. They were all black and they were all wearing black leather jackets and black berets and sunglasses, which gave them a vague resemblance to the [Black] Panthers, except that the Panthers had been teenagers and the ones who weren’t teenagers had a youthful look, an aura of youthfulness and tragedy, whereas the members of the Mohammedan Brotherhood were grown men, broad shouldered with huge biceps, people who spent hours and hours at the gym, lifting weights, people born to be bodyguards, but whose bodyguards?”

One criticism of Bolaño’s fiction is that he mystifies the time and place of his focus, that he covers over the reality of his stories with surrealistic affect, but “2666” abandons all traces of that affect for an unflinching, procedural language that bypasses poetic imagery or strips it to its disturbing core. The Part About the Crimes, the longest section of the novel and its most infamous, unfolds 300 pages of stark summary, illustrating the various cases of kidnapping and murder that took place in and around Santa Teresa between 1993 and 1997. The narrative, based on the actual unsolved murders in Juárez known as the feminicidos that continue to this day, mirrors the structure of “The Savage Detectives” in their ephemeral disinterest. Detectives, bodyguards, politicians, and prophets float to the surface and sink back again into an ocean of brutality, where a phantom mental patient desecrates churches and young girls are swallowed whole by unmarked cars in the Mexican night. With its medically precise descriptions of the symptoms and scenery of murder, the Part About the Crimes is a labor of agony and transcendence.

For the novel’s final section, “2666” explores the life of Archimboldi, who up until now had diminished from the novel entirely. Instead of a faithfully causal chain of events (which Bolaño already showed signs of eschewing in “The Savage Detectives,” and even earlier in “Nazi Literature in the Americas”), “2666” plots the five circles of a sort of literary hell. Beginning with criticism, then academia, journalism, police detection, and finally fiction, the structure of the novel represents a cycle of inexplicable death and rebirth that’s as close to a theory of reality as we’re likely to get from the author. Archimboldi is born in Germany on the coast of the North Sea in 1920, and from the outset he seems a figure emerged from Bolaño’s dreams: “He didn’t like the earth, much less forests. He didn’t like the sea either, or what ordinary mortals call the sea, which is really only the surface of the sea, waves kicked up by the wind that have gradually become the metaphor for defeat and madness. What he liked was the seabed, that other earth, with its plains that weren’t plains and valleys that weren’t valleys and cliffs that weren’t cliffs.” Archimboldi is Bolaño’s overman, a diver walking on Earth who bores through the mist that the rest of the cast seems too nauseous or too stupid to see through. The Part About Archimboldi is the novel’s most ambitious section, and it’s most beautiful. The novelist is Arturo Belano’s kindred spirit, a secret brother who seems to absorb the whole weight of his tragic experience—from his time in the Werhmacht on the apocalyptic Eastern Front to his haunting stay in a rest home for the demented—with a consciousness that remains totally opaque but for his books. But he’s more a symbol than a man: a silent, sage-like alien figure whose enigma never promises anything like life, let alone hope.

Ripped from any sense of sympathy or consequence, the reader approaches “2666” as a sort of museum of humanity, with triumph and atrocity laid bare and placed side by side: never equivocated, but inextricable from one another. The novel’s end comes suddenly, without reflection or resolution, as Archimboldi prepares to depart for Santa Teresa—the novel’s first cause. “2666” begins with an epigraph from Charles Baudelaire (“An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom”) and for many of the book’s critics, it never delivers more than that. But the novel’s central aspiration—perhaps disastrously, the one that can be the easiest to overlook—is unfathomably ambitious: a phenomenological study of destruction at the end of the twentieth century.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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