Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

By Rob Packer

Roberto Bolaño's masterful 2666

Without a doubt, Roberto Bolaños’s enormous and mysterious novel, 2666, published posthumously in 2004, is one of the greatest works of fiction of the past ten years. I don’t know any other works, but it’s not hard to see why this is widely considered the masterpiece of this Chilean author: the prose flows across the book’s 1100 pages and the author is at his best when he tricks the reader onto a tangent, only for the red herring to turn out not to be one after all, or to become ever more fascinating.

The book is really a series of five (loosely) connected novels with a recurring theme in the hundreds of unexplained murders of women in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, similar to real events in Ciudad Juárez since the 1990’s. Throughout the book, Santa Teresa is a disquieting place where shantytowns grow cojos o mancos o ciegos [the English translation of “hobbling, one-armed or blindly” doesn’t quite match the Spanish], the sunset looks like a “carnivorous flower” and even approaching it through the desert, it seems like “the inhabitants had died that very night with the smell of blood still hanging in the air”.

Hanging in the air in the same way are the mysteries of the book, including a German author’s disappearance, the effects Santa Teresa has on a group of European academics or the ever-present murders. And even when it seems that a journalist does get close to the murky links between Mexican politics and drug-traffickers, the truth seems to be too dangerous to know. Or, maybe it’s another red herring? Or, maybe there is no answer after all?

And characters in the novel seem unwilling or to lack the moral commitment to resolve these mysteries. For example, Santa Teresa’s police appear either too inept or too lazy to connect or investigate the killings, and the section about the crimes is full of evidence going missing and murder victims being nonchalantly thrown into unmarked graves. While the characters in wartime and post-war Germany sometimes appear indifferent to the context of the war and the phenomenon of Vergangenheitsbewälting (struggling to come to terms with the past) that followed.

In this bleak landscape, it comes as a surprise to find the book’s comic moments, such as Amalfitano’s dream with ‘the last Communist philosopher of the 20th century’ or a ventriloquist on a talk show convinced his dummy wants to kill him—for me, showing Bolaño’s years living in Mexico and his coming to appreciate what Andre Breton called the most surrealist country in the world, where everything “is homage to all other things in the world including those yet to happen”.

2666 is far from an easy read: it’s a very disquieting book, but ultimately it’s a thoroughly engrossing read that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Update: In the first version, I forgot to thank Cameron, my erstwhile Mexico City cuate, from recommending me this amazing book.

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