2666 by Roberto Bolano

This is the first book I have read by Roberto Bolano after being persuaded by the comments on the back cover. Bolano had been on my radar for a while, having been highly praised on a number of book blogs and sites that I visit, but I had intended to begin with what is probably his best known and widely praised work, The Savage Detectives. I chanced upon 2666 and decided to take the plunge with it, despite the worrying size of the tome (just under 900 pages). I like to get involved with a large work now and again as I can really lose myself in the world of the book and give it a lot of thought.

2666 is a book about violence and death, divided into 5 parts, all linked in some way to a place in Mexico called Santa Teresa, where we learn that a huge number of murders have been and are still being committed. All of the victims are women.

The books main character (although we don't actually meet him properly until the last part, other than a fleeting appearance in Part 1) is a German novelist called Benno von Archimboldi. Part 1, The Part About The Critics, concerns four academics devoted to studying and discussing Archimboldi's work. They all dream of meeting the elusive author and, following a lead, fly to Santa Teresa to track him down. The quest for Archimboldi begins to fall by the wayside as distractions (mostly sexual) begin to take over.

Part 2, The Part About Amalfitano, follows a character we have already met in Part 1, a Mexican university lecturer who is experiencing psychological problems. We learn a little more about why he reacted in a certain way in scenes from Part 1 and follow episodes from his life as he slowly unravels.

Part 3, The Part About Fate concerns a new character, Oscar Fate, an American journalist sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. We are told a huge amount of what Fate gets up to during the build up to the fight. He falls in with a group of Mexican journalists and goes to interview both fighters. The fight itself, something that we might expect to provide us with some philosophical musings from Bolano is tossed away with barely a second thought. It's a good joke but it also tells us something of Bolano's attitude toward violence, in that he is far more interested in what might lead a person to commit it and the aftermath, than the actual act itself.

This continues in Part 4, The Part About the Crimes. It's worth mentioning here that this part is, without doubt, the most troubling section of the book to the vast majority of readers, myself included. It is long (just under 300 pages), the style of writing is completely different to what has come before and it describes, in graphic detail, the discovery of the bodies of a large number of the murder victims. Bolano does not discuss what leads up to these murders (because he doesn't know), nor does he describe the murders themselves, but focuses solely on the victim and the injuries they have sustained. Almost all of the crimes go unsolved as detectives begin preliminary investigations that soon get shelved if nothing turns up in a few days. We get a sense of the police and the community of Santa Teresa becoming desensitized, as we do ourselves, by the sheer number of murders carried out. Many of the killings involve rape and mutilation but by the time you read about the twentieth, the thirtieth, the fortieth body, it begins to become meaningless. I think this is Bolano's point here, that humanity can overlook the worst of crimes merely through boredom and repetition. The police know they can't possibly investigate every murder and so they don't really bother to try. They just go about their lives as they did before. We must also assume that Bolano is making a point about Women in the book. All of the victims are women and he is unflinching in describing violence towards women. A lot of the male characters in the book treat women very poorly indeed but we get the sense that society doesn;t really care.

Part 5 returns us to Archimboldi and tells us the story of his life. We hear about his childhood with his sister Lotte, his experiences during the Second World War and how he became a novelist. We then focus on Lotte and her life without her brother who has disappeared. Here we discover why Archimboldi visited Santa Teresa.

2666 is a difficult work, of that there's no doubt. I found it, in some places, wonderfully rich and inspiring, in others, dense and dark and in others just plain tedious. I certainly can't say I loved all of it but I'm extremely glad to have read it. It's hard to explain why but I feel it's a seminal book for me that has opened up certain pathways. The book seems to concern not just its themes of violence and death but also literature itself and what it can do. There are many layers and it's the kind of book whose dense meaning can never be fully unraveled.