Monday, January 18, 2010

Roberto Bolaño's "2666": Book Review

Bolaño's five-part novel sprawls over Europe and Mexico, from WWII until now. The epicenter of Santa Teresa jolts those who investigate a serial murderer of women laboring at 'maquiladoras' in this stand-in for Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. border. For a typical whodunit, look elsewhere. Truer to reality, characters walk off never to be heard from again, narratives digress and dead-end, and the plot inexorably expands as hundreds of characters enter it, some named but only given one line of dialogue, some given dozens of pages for their stories.

This structure may be intensified by the nearly finished condition of the manuscript left after Bolaño's death in 2003. Recalling Borges with its mixture of true titles with imaginary texts, and Umberto Eco in its determination to uncover the reasons for intellectual production beneath a cultural construction, "2666" roams over the traditions via Latin American and Central European novelists obsessed with popular indifference, or incorporation, of ideas within political and social corruption. This novel feels truer to life by its weary, roughened, off-kilter perspectives.

It must incorporate Bolaño's own physical decline and mental fever as he sought to finish this during his battle with his deteriorating liver. There's a dreamlike quality that pervades the shadows. These do not make this "magical realism" yet they heighten disturbing patterns that lurk behind the journalistic tones and more conventional registers that try to dominate this kaleidoscopic narrative.

It's nearly nine hundred pages, so I will share from four out of the five sections a sampler of these darker hues and oblique angles. Sue Norton, a scholar, notes in her English college how
"the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote." (9)

Certainly an hallucinatory quality neatly links the Western European mode early in this novel with the Mexican setting that will take over soon. We view this in a Chilean (like the author) emigré. Amalfitano teaches in Santa Teresa, where he "felt tired and overwhelmed by the landscape, a landscape that seemed best suited to the young or the old, imbecilic or insensitive or evil or old who meant to impose impossible tasks on themselves and others until they breathed their last." (205)
Oscar Fate, an African-American journalist, finds himself curious about evil in the city. He tries to follow the murder story. He leaves for the American side, El Adobe. The few tourists look like sleepwalkers by day.
"A woman in her seventies, in a flowered dress and Nike sneakers, was kneeling down to examine some Indian rugs. She looked like an athlete from the 1940s. Three children holding hands watched some objects displayed in a shop window. The objects were moving almost imperceptibly, and Fate couldn't tell whether they were animals or machines. Outside a bar some men in cowboy hats who looked like Chicanos were gesticulating and pointing in opposite directions. At the end of the desert were some wooden sheds and metal containers on the pavement and beyond them was the desert. All of this is like somebody else's dream, thought Fate." (347)

Florita the seer goes on local TV to tell of the murders. She channels visions that transform the ordinary into the unsettling.
"Old white haired, weak, barefoot, bearing an enormous burden, up mountain and down valley, over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken, through wind and storm, when it's hot and later when it freezes, running on, running faster, crossing rivers, swamps, falling and rising and hurrying faster, no rest or relief, battered and bloody, at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten. And also: This, o virgin moon, is human life." (432)

This powerful stream-of-consciousness section is one of my favorites. It departs from the usual realistic style to remind us of the poetry that the author also is known for, and the quality of Natasha Wimmer's fluid translation throughout. Parts I skimmed rapidly, parts I plowed through slowly. Tones warp and narratives slow and race. Never for long will you be listening to one teller's sole version.

By section four, the killings never seem to end, and they confound many. Among them, Sergio González from Mexico City comes to cover the cases, but falters. Santa Teresa feels mired in conspiracy, trapped by silent secrets. People yearn for release. He wonders: "But what are 'good times'?" He muses: "Maybe they're what separate certain people from the rest of us, who live in a state of perpetual sadness. The will to live, the will to fight, as his father used to say, but fight what? The inevitable? Fight 'who'? And what for? More time, certain knowledge, the glimpse of something essential?" (563) This existential mood shrouds the entire novel; religion and ideology and criminology and critical theory: all falter and are found wanting.

In this implacable desert city, will it be impossible to solve the murders, or at least to stop them? You feel little of how serial killings on this scale of hundreds would have "really" gained attention in today's sensationalistic media, but as Bolaño sums up what weighs you down by each victim's story, you gain an appreciation for the horror, and then the tedium, that unites, perhaps, these cases in the manner of how the women are found and what was done to them, or not done. Ambiguity pervades this dense, readable, and truly mysterious tale. (Posted to Amazon US 12-24-09.)


Tony Bailie said...

John, out of curiosity, you didn't really mention part five. I though the Archimboldi section was the best part of 2666 in terms of the character and actual story and how towards the end of it he starts to slip out of focus to become the mythical figure that we encounter in part one. Also I loved the way elements of the earlier book's fed in like future echoes - the artist whose paintings were 'full of dead women'.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I did not want to give anything away, but part 5 indeed was gripping, if almost too exhaustive in its epic reach. You express it's "slipping out of focus" element well. I thought the last section needed some tightening, but he told a powerful, if rather diffused, tale.