“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Soren Kierkergaard
Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published 900 pg magnum opus 2666 is ambitious, chaotic, and terrifying. But it’s also devastatingly brilliant. The plot centers around Santa Teresa, a fictional town in Northern Mexico, where women mysteriously disappear and turn up murdered. Like Ciudad Juarez, where the real murders of hundreds of women between 1993 and 2005 went mostly unsolved, Santa Teresa is a haunting symbol of the 21st century globalized world. Set in a desert populated by maquiladoras, narco-traffickers, and corrupt (or ignorant) government officials, Santa Teresa is worse than a dystopia—it’s an apocalyptic nightmare.
Bolaño is often compared to beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac, and Latin American revolutionary poets like Roque Dalton. They’re popular comparisons for a reason. Like the beats, Bolaño lived a large portion of his life as an itinerant poet. Born in Santiago, Chile, Bolaño spent his youth in Mexico working as an journalist eventually dedicating himself to literature, and a little-known vanguard poetry movement called infrarealism. He was politically active, returning briefly to Chile in 1973 to support democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende, and later spent time in El Salvador with Dalton and the guerrilla group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (in Spanish: FMLN).
Instead of illuminating his work, these biographical events, repeated endlessly by fans and critics, have confused what makes Bolaño so frighteningly good. The real contribution of 2666 isn’t political, it’s artistic—and above all it’s literary. With 2666 Bolaño cements himself in the pantheon of writers like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Melville who successfully unleashed the novel from its traditional moorings to create worlds that will transfix readers for years to come. More importantly though, in a world where reading is a second class-citizen, relegated to leisure time, and deemed unworthy if not comforting or informative, 2666 reminds us of the thrill and the horror of how it feels to stick our heads into the abyss and really read.
Bolaño intended 2666 to be published in five separate novellas, but the executor of his literary estate, Ignacio Echeverría, decided to publish the novel whole (he details his reasons at the end of 2666). Each novella or section deals in some way with Santa Teresa. The first section called, “The Part About the Critics”, follows four academics whose search for an elusive German novelist lead them to Santa Teresa. The second, “The Part About Amalfitano”, details the life of a melancholic Chilean professor and his daughter as they navigate the horror—or the boredom—of Santa Teresa. The third “The Part About Fate” follows the adventures of Oscar Fate, an African American journalist sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. The fourth, “The Part About the Crimes” meticulously documents the gruesome murders of women, and the fruitless attempts by police to solve them. The fifth and final section, “The Part About Archimboldi” tells the bildungsroman story of a reticent Prussian-born novelist named Hans Reiter who uses the pen-name Benno von Archimboldi.
As with much of his previous work like By Night in Chile, Nazi Literature in the Americas, and The Savage Detectives, one of the primary themes of 2666 is literature. Much of 2666 is about an enigmatic author, and the lives of four academics who become obsessed with his work. These characters are peripheral literati who devote their lives to little-known writers, authors, and books.
For instance, Bolaño creates Archimboldi’s entire oeuvre, including publication dates and translations (when available) of novels like D’Arsonval, The Garden, Mitzi’s Treasure, Inheritance, and The Berlin Underworld. There are maybe a handful of people who care about Archimboldi, but they really care, devoting their lives to parsing the intricacies of his canon. Similarly, the first book Hans Reiter (Archimboldi) ever read is Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region. Reiter carries the book with him for much of the final section of the novel to identify seaweed such as Laminaria digitata, “a giant seaweed with a sturdy stem and broad leaves…native to cold waters like the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Atlantic”.
Creating characters that obsess over the the subtleties of a little-known German author, or the the flora and fauna of the European Coast, reveals two views of literature. One, as Stacy D’Erasmo eloquently writes is “the idea that culture, in particular literary culture, is a whore.” In other words, quality literature can be appreciated (and written) by anyone. In the words of George Steiner, “we know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning”.
Bolaño explores this phenomenon in all his literature, perhaps most profoundly in Nazi Literature in the Americas, and By Night in Chile, and does so with an eye towards poking fun, or outright insulting, the literary establishment. In his days as an infrarealist, a poetic movement he co-founded and describes in The Savage Detectives, Bolaño was a notorious presence at poetry readings and literary events, often publicly humiliating authors whose work he didn’t like. It’s tempting to see the marginal literary-obsessed characters of 2666 as Bolaño’s way of taunting the literary community. At one point Amalfitano compares Mexican literature to “a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club”, and the Archimboldi critics are easy targets for satire, attending events like “Reflecting the Twentieth Century: The Work of Benno von Archimboldi”, where:
“the latest litter of Archimboldians, recent graduates, boys and girls, their doctorates tucked still warm under their arms, who planned, by any means necessary, to impose their particular readings of Archimboldi, like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if doing so meant signing a pact with the devil…”
However critical and sarcastic it may appear, 2666 also reveals an undeniable awe towards literature.
The literary world in 2666 feels infinite, boundless, and expanding with such ferocious energy at times it appears Bolaño can barely tame it. It’s as if he created Borges’ Library of Babel that spreads across his entire oeuvre and culminates in 2666. That is, Bolaño’s protagonists aren’t confined to just one novel. Auxilio Lacoutre for example, the protagonist of Amulet reappears in The Savage Detectives and at one point meets Arturo Belano, the protagonist of the latter, who is eerily similar to a narrator named “B” (Last Evenings on Earth)–Bolaño also enjoyed toying with literary tropes like the pseudo-autobiographical protagonist. This technique blurs the lines of his novels (and the novel), creating the feeling of a vast Bolaño universe spanning his entire creation.
Beyond awe, however, Bolaño’s literary universe also provokes dizziness similar to looking down into a deep dark abyss. It’s not just endlessly deep, but terrifyingly incomprehensible, and no section demonstrates this better than the fourth and longest part of the novel called “The Part About the Crimes”. In it the narrator details the homicides of close to 300 women in Santa Teresa, and the detectives that try to solve them. Like the title of the section, the prose is spare and rudimentary, almost like a reporter or police officer’s notes at a crime scene. Most descriptions run something like this,
“On August 20 the body of a new victim was found in a field near the western cemetery. She was between sixteen and eighteen years old and wasn’t carrying any kind of identification. Except for a white blouse, she was naked, wrapped in an old yellow blanket printed with black and red elephants. After the forensic examination, it was established that death had been caused by two stab wounds to the neck and another very near the right auricle.” (518)
“Three days after the discovery of Carolina’s body, in the calamitous month of March 1997, a girl between sixteen and twenty was found on some stony ground near the Pueblo Azul highway. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition, by which it was assumed that she had been dead for at least fifteen days. She was completely naked, wearing only brass earrings in the shape of little elephants. Several families of girls and women who had disappeared were brought in to view the body, but no one recognized her as a daughter, sister, cousin, or wife. According to the medical examiner, the right breast had been mutilated and the nipple of the left breast had been torn off, probably bitten or cut with a knife, though the putrefaction of the body made it impossible to say for sure. The official cause of death: fracture of the hyoid”. (547).
“The last week in April another dead woman was found. According to the medical examiner, before she died she had been beaten all over. The cause of death, however, was strangulation and a fracture of the hyoid bone. The body was found in the desert, some fifty yards from a secondary road headed east, toward the mountains, in a place where it wasn’t unusual to see small drug planes land. The case was handled by Ángel Fernández. The dead woman wasn’t carrying identification and her disappearance hadn’t been reported at any Santa Teresa police station. Her picture wasn’t published in the papers, even though the police supplied photographs of her mutilated face to El Heraldo del Norte, La Voz de Sonora, and La Tribuna de Santa Teresa.” (507).
The effect these descriptions create is numbing, or better yet, nauseating. From the start the ensemble of detectives appear powerless to stop the crimes. Evidence is gathered and then misplaced, leads are exhausted, witnesses disappear, and the crimes go unsolved. Several people are accused of committing the murders, including a spectral, uncanny American computer salesman of German descent named Klaus Haas, as well as several members of a gang called Los Bisontes (supposedly hired by Haas), but the killings continue even after they’re imprisoned, and (SPOILER ALERT!) they’re never resolved.
Why doesn’t Bolaño resolve the Santa Teresa killings? One answer might be that not doing so invites multiple interpretations which is a staple of good art. In an interview with TCM Terry Gilliam talks about the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, noting that Spielberg’s films tend to give viewers comfortable endings where plots are resolved and “tied up in a nice bow for the viewer”, whereas Kubrick’s leave more room for interpretation, opening up space for a richer dialogue. Bolaño is more Kubrick than Spielberg, but Bolaño’s 2666 is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. One obvious difference is that 2666 is a detective novel, its protagonists are searching to solve something (or find someone); an enigmatic German author, the homicidal killer(s) in Santa Teresa, lost loved ones, etc.
Like Spielberg movies, most detective stories are solved for the reader. Think of a typical Scooby Doo episode; the beginning introduces the problem (a ghost is haunting the cinema), the middle allows for the detectives to gather clues (and eat Scooby Snacks), and the end resolves the problem by explaining who perpetrated the crimes and why (it was Mr. Magoo the owner of the cinema who didn’t want to lose it to foreclosure!).
People enjoy detective stories because they get to participate in the narrative. We participate in the creation of meaning along with the detectives, putting clues together to solve the case. But, we never have full control. We aren’t telling the story, and are often forced to watch others piece the puzzle together for us. Still, it’s comforting to watch fragmented pieces of evidence coalesce into a coherent narrative—it gives answers, meaning to randomness, and order to chaos. In short, it does what most sane humans try to do all the time: tell coherent stories about the world.
2666 denies both these atypical pleasures of detective stories. The femicides in Santa Teresa simply don’t make sense. There are plenty of clues, descriptions of crime scenes, recurrent tropes (a man in aviator glasses in a black Pelegrino), and suspects, but nothing adds up. In Part III, an African-American journalist named Oscar Fate is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. He meets Guadalupe Roncal, a Mexican reporter covering the femicides and visits the supposed killer, Klaus Hass in prison. The meeting is harrowing,
“When Fate heard footsteps approaching he thought they were the footsteps of a giant. Guadalupe Roncal must of thought something similar because she seemed about to faint, but instead of fainting, she clung to the prison official’s hand and then his lapel. Rather than pull away, he put his arm around her shoulders. Fate felt Rosa’s body next to him. He heard voices. As if the inmates were egging someone one on. He heard laughter and calls to order, and the the black clouds from the east passed over the prison and the air seemed to darken”. (349)
As a precursor to the chapter about the killings, the description serves as a dark hint to Haas’ role in the femicides. However, throughout the following section, Haas maintains his innocence and we never learn anything about his role in the killings. In other words, there is an order to the chaos, but it is un-fulfilling, painful—and albeit sometimes thrilling—nauseating. This trope repeats itself throughout 2666. After the first section, the critics—underdeveloped, but identifiable or at least familiar to the reader—are never mentioned again. The same is more or less true of Amalfitano and Fate who are described in spare prose divided into short fragments, further curtailing any chance for the reader to truly know characters or places.
This pattern of unresolved problems, shortened descriptions, and hollow characters leaves the reader to limp alone towards the incomprehensible. Reading as coping is Bolaño’s main concern here. People often read to be entertained, distracted, and comforted by familiar plots, characters, and stories. Reading (and all art) is one way that people deal with a life which, in the words of Baudelaire (whom Bolaño quotes at the beginning of 2666) can often appear to be “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom”. 2666 is a refreshingly terrifying reminder of what reading can be; to scramble around in the frightening unknowable, to unsuccessfully grasp for the concrete in the un-graspable, and in Bolaño’s own words, “knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation.”