2666, by Roberto Bolaño – Part 1

2666 is perhaps the most talked about book of 2008. It’s a 900-page challenge for the reader and, I suspect, a godsend for academic and journalistic literary critics. The book has been around for awhile in Spanish (published in 2004), only recently translated into English by Natasha Wimmer.
Incidentally, I must say something about the translation: I’m no more than an armchair linguist, but Wimmer seems to have given us a most transparent translation of Bolaño’s writing, allowing us to easily plumb this fine work’s story and writing style, as I believe Bolaño would have wished.
I will, in this first post on the book, synopsize its five sections, but something must first be said about its physical structure and the nature of its publication.
Bolaño wrote this piece during his final years, prior to his death of liver failure. He intended the five long “chapters” to be published separately, as five linked novellas, hoping they would provide for his heirs’ future. However, following his death, his executor, Ignacio Echevarría, and the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, agreed to publish the five as a whole piece, believing this would better provide for his family. However this intent plays out, the decision has given the literary world a magnificent addition.
Much has already been written about Bolaño’s intended “hidden center” for the book, this stir mainly concerned with the title’s significance, and his intent for the longest, keystone segment, “The Part About The Crimes”. I’ll dip my paddle into the books depths next week. Now the synopsis:
The book’s first section, “The Part About The Critics,” introduces us to four academic literary critics who become obsessed with the work of a German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi. First we meet Jean-Claude Pelletier, who contacts Archimboldi’s Hamburg publishing house, hoping to meet the novelist, but to no end. Pelletier soon encounters Piero Morini, Manuel Espinoza, and Liz Norton. Although living and working in different parts of Europe, the four—each unmarried—begin to pursue Archimboldi together.
Soon Pelletier and Norton become lovers. Then Norton adds Espinoza to her list of lovers, at first keeping Pelletier and Espinoza separate. Eventually, she admits to each the mutual love affair, and their friendship becomes a ménage a trois. She later adds Morini, who becomes her true love, and the other two begin to fall away.
In one episode, Norton, Pelletier, and Espinoza begin to argue literature and are interrupted by their Pakistani cabbie, who calls Norton a slut, a whore. Pelletier and Espinoza attack the cabbie. Norton first tells them to stop, then urges them on as they kick the hapless cabbie to pulp. This episode seem central to this section, and one senses some evil afoot with the three, Norton possibly the men’s femme fatale. But “Time,” says Bolaño, “erased the sense of guilt…instilled by the violent episode,” and the incident comes to nothing.
“Coincidence isn’t a luxury, it’s the flip side of fate.” With this statement, Bolaño’s literary detectives unearth a pair of Mexicans who say they have recently met Archimboldi, and they travel to Mexico—to the city of Santa Teresa—in search of their mysterious novelist. There, they meet an academic named Amalfitano, who also seems to have an interest in the novelist. Here, the city becomes more than setting, a limned emotional foreboding, if not an outright character of Bolaño’s.
Bolaño seems to be leading the reader toward something in this segment involving the relationship between the four literary critics but, as will happen occasionally in the detective novels Bolaño apparently loved, the suspense he builds in their relationship, and in and their search for Archimboldi, runs dry.
I dwell in length on this section because Bolaño makes crucial introductions—of characters and places—and sets the tone for both the ensuing books/parts and the ethos he seems to want to display in 2666.
In Part 2, “The Part About Amalfitano,” Amalfitano’s life story comes to the fore (Bolaño seems determined throughout the five pieces to leap into the lives of certain characters, seemingly without reason). Amalfitano, a Chilean, has a daughter named Rosa who is Mexican by birth and who lives with him. Wife Lola is bored with the professor and leaves him for a lover. Following this estrangement, Amalfitano becomes either mentally ill or extremely fey. He begins to hear a voice that cautions him about various things, and he becomes obsessed with a treatise on geometry by one Rafael Dieste. This sets the stage for his passing foray into mysticism. Thus he begins an obsession with Dieste similar to that of the four in Part 1 with Archimboldi.
One night Rosa returns home to discover that her father has hung the book on the clothesline. Why? “To see how it survives the assault of nature,” i.e., how it fares with real life, he tells her. He begins to use geometric figures in attempting to divine relationships between philosophers. Of course, this ends unsatisfactorily. The book hung in frustration over the clothesline seems to Amalfitano to symbolize something vaguely enduring, more so than life in Santa Teresa.
The voice begins to berate Amalfitano humorously here, calling him faggot, ho-mo-sex-u-al, claiming “it” is speaking figuratively—possibly an inner reaction to the ethereal nature of Amalfitano’s obsessions. But why the obsession with geometry and the voice? “We aren’t happy,” says a man, Guerra, whom Amalfitano encounters, “We pretend there’s nothing wrong, but there is. We’re being fucking stifled. You let off steam your own way. I beat the shit out of people or let them beat the shit out of me.”
Part 3, “The Part About Fate,” veers in another direction altogether—at least it seems so at first. Quincy Williams, or Oscar Fate, as he comes to be called, works for a newspaper. With the death of the paper’s chief boxing correspondent—as well as Fate’s mother—Fate heads to Mexico to sub for the deceased writer in reporting on a boxing match. But prior to that, Fate encounters a man named Barry Seaman, who expounds his life philosophy in terms of DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, and USEFULNESS.
Fate enters Mexico from Tucson, and talk with the locals leaves him with a picture of Mexico as a booming country, but rife with institutionalized violence, a la the Roman circus. Finally he comes to Santa Teresa and the fight he’s supposed to cover. The fight, of course, turns out to be incidental to Fate’s stay—and to Bolaño’s purpose—a city with an ongoing incidence of rape and ritual murder of women. This causes Fate to consider “What’s sacred to me?” The passing of his mother? An understanding of what can’t be fixed? The pang he feels when he looks at a woman? This then is the story of Santa Teresa: death loss, pain, commingled with the mystical sacredness of landscape and history.
Near this part’s end, Amalfitano makes a cameo appearance, through his daughter Rosa, who begins to date one of the story’s heavies, Chucho Flores. This comes predictably to nothing except Rosa’s new “friends” make light of Amalfitano’s obsession with the book he’d hung over the clothesline. To make coincidence even more prominent, Fate begins to see Rosa.
As the section ends, a journalist named Guadalupe Roncal, who says of the city’s accumulating killings, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” A giant man is to be executed at the local prison for these killings, a man who sings in German, “I’m a giant lost in the middle of a charred forest. And yet only I know where I’m going, only I know my destiny.” As the piece ends, Guadalupe Roncal is to interview him, but she’s too afraid of him to speak.
Part 4, “The Part About The Crimes,” is easy enough to synopsize. The larger part of Bolaño’s keystone piece moves from one case of rape and murder to another, as if one is reading a police blotter. Several police detectives dig into the multiple cases, searching for the killer or killers. One of these policemen, Juan de Dios Martínez, during his investigations, attempts to understand a notorious local Penitent, who defaces sacred objects. This leads him to a woman, Elvira Campos, a psychologist. They begin to have regular sex, but without the encumbrances of love. In one of their early conversations, Campos spins out a long list of phobia she’s come across in her work—including phobophobia, the fear of fear itself. During their copulations, Martínez notices that his bed partner “fucks like someone on the brink of death,” as if she’s trying to suck the life from him.
Another episode depicts a long, casual conversation between the local cops, who seem to have the same violent urges toward women as does the mysterious killer.
Then a woman, Florita Almada, appears. She’s something of a mystic, and she rails on local TV against the killer and the police’s seeming lack of interest in the miscreant. Following her tirade, Florita forgets having said anything of the kind. And the random killings continue. This part ends with no solution in sight.
Part 5, “The Part About Archimboldi,” details the mysterious writer’s life. He is, in the beginning, a tall German named Hans Reiter. An odd child, he becomes fascinated with the ocean, particularly its flora. This youth’s childhood takes place in the Germany of the 1930s, as National Socialism rears its ugly head. He becomes friends with a man of twenty, Hugo Halder, who turned Hans from science to literature.
Then war comes; Hans ends up in Germany’s Wehrmacht and, despite his size, survives Germany’s eastern front war. During the war, he meets a woman, the Baroness von Zumpe. The Baroness has a torrid affair with a brutish Romanian commander. During one episode Hans and a friend secretly watch their violent lovemaking. Later Hans finds the Romanian crucified by his own men.
After a long while, Hans returns to Germany, but not before he kills a fellow soldier, who has obeyed orders to execute a large number of Jews. Hans and Ingeborg, a girl he met in Germany years before, are reunited by fate. They become lovers, living in poverty in Germany’s bombed out ruins. Hans is haunted both by his wartime experiences and by killing the friend who executed Jews. To exorcise his past, he begins to write. His publisher, an older man, has now married the Countess, and she and Hans become occasional lovers. Finally, as Ingeborg dies, Hans—now living as Archimboldi—hits his emotional bottom. He continues to write and his publisher continues to put his books out there despite poor sales. But the books never die; they continue to sell and eventually gain the respect of critics. Archimboldi and the Baroness (now his publisher) cool their affair and become friends.
This part—and the book—end with the story of Hans’ sister, Lotte. She has a son, Klaus, from a deceased husband. The years of her story roll quickly by, and she discovers that Klaus is in jail in Mexico, in a town called Santa Teresa. He’s on trial as the city’s serial killer of women. After several years of trying to get Klaus out of jail, she seeks out Hans/Archimboldi and begs his help. The story ends with Archimboldi on his way to Mexico.
This will seem an overlong synopsis, but it barely skims the surface of a book with perhaps a couple hundred characters and enough plots and subplots to fill a library. Parenthetically, I should mention that with the various dramas going on in Mexico—from the four critics to the serial murders, Hans/Archimboldi’s presence in Mexico fails to be noticed by those seeking him.
Bolaño’s writing style here has an offhand, almost conversational tone, primarily because, I suppose, of the numerous frame stories told by his characters. But it’s a style that sits well with this reader.
And I don’t believe for a minute, as some reviewers have supposed, that Bolaño intended this book to be a high-level literary detective novel. He’s simply using the detective novel’s tone to obscure his real intent, to urge his readers to dig deeper. This, I think, is the skill of a most capable fiction writer.
Next week, a few thoughts on what the author wanted this project to accomplish.

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