By the time he died Bolaño was famous across the Hispanic world. The Spanish-language writer to whom he has most often been likened is Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The comparison is lazy; there are closer similarities to the Argentines Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Throughout his career, however, Bolaño repudiated the idioms of Latin American literature. He was contemptuous of his native continent’s “bad imitators of magic realism” and “terrible youth writers”. He dismissed Márquez in particular as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops”. Instead Bolaño saw himself as the inheritor of a larger, more international tradition.
Until his son was born in 1990, Bolaño wrote mainly poetry; he turned to fiction because it promised better financial rewards. Although his reputation grew rapidly, only in 2003 was his first book translated into English. This was the slender By Night in Chile. The deathbed confession of a priest who lambasts the servility of Chilean artists under the Pinochet regime, the novel’s most striking feature is that it’s set out in just two paragraphs – one of them 130 pages long. This may sound unreadable but Bolaño pulls it off. By Night in Chile is typical of his work, mixing the caustic, the pedestrian and the surreal.
There followed another attack on Chile’s self-image, Distant Star (2004), and then an uneven volume of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth (2007), as well as a gallery of invented literary fanatics with the memorable title Nazi Literature in the Americas (2008). But the Bolaño cult began in earnest with the more meaty The Savage Detectives – published in Spanish to huge acclaim in 1998, it came out in English only in 2007.
Earning improbable comparisons with both Homer’s Odyssey and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, The Savage Detectives was a joyous yet grimy epic of two poets’ quest for information about an elusive female poet. Set in Mexico, it paid a kind of crazed homage to Huck Finn and encompassed a mass of subjects: poetry, the exuberance of youth, sex, the trials of age and the realities of love.
Now, with the publication of 2666, we have Bolaño’s most audacious performance. The novel’s cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like “a cemetery in the year 2666”. Why this particular date? Perhaps it’s because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation. Then again, Bolaño may simply be indulging his enthusiasm for misdirection. One of his abiding themes is that crucial facts are forever passing unnoticed: another is that we are continually – in our lives as in our reading – suckered into heading down blind alleys.
Bolaño’s chief gift is for unsettling familiar categories of experience. He is a writer who poses questions at every turn and provides few answers. His fiction is disturbing, experimental, poetic and at times chaotic. Its mysteries are deep and unresolved. We struggle to decide whether he is more visionary iconoclast or preening prankster.
At one point in 2666, a character reflects that readers today are “afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown”. They have no interest in “real combat” – by which he means those occasions “when the great masters struggle against … that something that terrifies us all … amid blood and mortal wounds and stench”. These words seem like the author’s own baleful comment on this novel.
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. As before, Bolaño is preoccupied with parallel lives and secret histories. Largely written after 9/11, the novel manifests a new emphasis on the dangerousness of the modern world. Civilisation, Bolaño seems to suggest, is a misnomer; one character wonders, “Isn’t reality an insatiable Aids-riddled whore?”
The novel consists of five very different sections. Each could be treated as a discrete novella, were it not for a slow accumulation of sly cross-references. Indeed, Bolaño left instructions for them to be published separately, taking the view that this would make the most money for his legatees. His family and executors demurred. The effect on the reader is strange: the novel feels fragmented, a morass of unconnected details. Its plots threaten never to converge but its ugly lyricism keeps us engaged. Despite his erudition, Bolaño is not a pretty stylist – in Natasha Wimmer’s skilful translation his bumpy volubility comes across strongly.
The early story is similar to The Savage Detectives: a fruitless literary quest. Four scholars are researching the works of an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. Their obsession leads them to Mexico, where Archimboldi is rumoured to be living – a rumour that actually begins in The Savage Detectives, when the Mexican poets gossip about the arrival in their city of “the French novelist JMG Arcimboldi”. The scent goes cold but the scholars become aware of something else – a crime wave ravaging the community of Santa Teresa, modelled on the real-life city Ciudad Juárez where about 400 women have been violently murdered in the past 10 years.
The mood then darkens, especially during a brutally explicit account of the rapes and murders in Santa Teresa. For 300 pages we are presented with an inventory of distressing facts about the deaths of poor women. This is not so much the novel’s dark heart as a black hole. Bolaño defies us to cast the book aside in disgust. Yet to look away from these harrowing descriptions is, we sense, to fail his test.
We are rarely secure in our understanding of the larger business of the novel. The moment we think we see the entire picture it dissolves again into its constituents. Only in the final 200 pages do we find out who Archimboldi really is, and his connection to the events in Santa Teresa is not revealed until page 872.
The novel’s scope is enormous – far greater than a speedy summary can convey. Comparisons with other works of similar scale and ambition are inevitable. 2666offers some of the arcane allusiveness of Thomas Pynchon’s work and the psychologically acute yet stylised noir of David Lynch. Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade are also touchstones. Yet ultimately the book’s most significant forebear may be Moby-Dick, that symphonic masterpiece about the gaping mouth of evil.
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: “A metaphor is like a life-jacket”, he says; “the sky, at sunset, looked liked a carnivorous flower”, a university is “like a cemetery that begins to think, in vain” and is also “like an empty dance club”. At one point the man suspected of the Santa Teresa crimes is described as having a “neck long like a turkey’s, though not just any turkey but a singing turkey or a turkey about to break into song, not just sing, but break into song, a piercing song, a grating song, a song of shattered glass, but of glass bearing a strong resemblance to crystal, that is, to purity, to self-abnegation, to a total lack of deceitfulness”.
These images give us pause. Bolaño is a master of the suggestive non sequitur. But is the literary fuss about him really justified? 2666 is an excruciatingly challenging novel, in which Bolaño redraws the boundaries of fiction. It is not unique in blurring the margins between realism and fantasy, between documentary and invention. But it is bold in a way that few works really are – it kicks away the divide between playfulness and seriousness. And it reminds us that literature at its best inhabits what Bolaño, with a customary wink at his own pomposity, called “the territory of risk” – it takes us to places we might not wish to go.
Bolaño’s big risk was turning his back on being “merely” a Latin American. After he won the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, he commented that “a writer’s homeland is … his tongue”. But, characteristically, he then undercut this, saying that “sometimes … a writer’s only homeland is … his courage”. It’s a statement that rings true in relation to 2666. And Bolaño, ever ready with a jest, couldn’t resist adding: “I feel like Pinocchio.” It is by being brave and truthful, he proposes, that we get to be real.
Henry Hitchings won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys prize for ‘The Secret Life of Words’ (John Murray)