The puppet master’s testament


2666, Roberto Bolaño’s dark, furious, final burst of creativity as he was dying was, inevitably, fascinated with death – yet reveals an extraordinary eye for the living


Roberto Bolaño,
2008, Anagrama (Spanish edition)
1141 pages

Reviewed by Eli Gardner

IT ALMOST seems a cliché that 2666 is Roberto Bolaño’s last book. This posthumous novel (Bolaño died in 2003) was written in a furious, final burst of creativity while the novelist was dying of liver failure. Bolaño had lived a curious life. Though he was born in Chile, he was partially raised in Mexico. He returned to his country of birth to support Salvador Allende’s socialist government only to escape imprisonment by Pinochet’s henchmen because one of the prison guards happened to have been one of his close schoolmates. This narrow escape led, ultimately, to him abandoning his native land and eventually settling down in the coastal town of Blanes in Cataluña, Spain.

Most of his adult life Bolaño lived somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle – his experimentation is said to have contributed to his early death. Most of his readers would be extremely surprised to find out that this rapidly celebrated writer of such immense talent spent several years as a rubbish collector. Yet, it is a fact; and what is also true is that deathbed novels, such as this one, catch our attention quite quickly. Perhaps it is because we are captivated by their final testament. We would like to know what it is that they have to say. It is as if in these closing words that the value of life becomes more apparent.

It is true that 2666 is fascinated with death to a certain degree. Bolaño’s novel is divided into five parts – each section was originally contemplated as a separate novel that, together, would comprise a complete series. Its longest piece, “La parte de los crímenes” forces the reader to contemplate the crimes within the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. Cringingly grim detail is presented to us in the forensic and police reports on scores of women who were raped, tortured and murdered and then discarded in the desert lands along the US-Mexican border which creates an apocalyptic view of society. As the body count mounts, Bolaño presents the idea that man is, indeed, a beast (as the title seems to suggest as well) and hope fades as chaos reigns while both victims and criminals slip through the authorities’ fingers. Resolution on almost any level is elusive in this Chilean author’s last novel.

Puppet master

However, life fascinates Bolaño as well. He is an excellent puppet master, sliding himself into the skin of countless characters with an extraordinary eye for credible detail. Some of these characters become important to the larger narrative that interconnects its five pieces, but a large number of the people in the novel are intricately created, only to be forgotten after their sketch is complete. Similarly striking is the curious mixture of South American, Spaniard and Mexican modes of expression that are used in the Spanish of the different characters. This is surely a tribute to Bolaño’s own movements through these regions of the world. His narrative creates a way of weaving his varied backgrounds together in his text.

Nonetheless, it is Bolaño’s interest in Mexico, the land that was once his adopted homeland and with which he never broke completely, that is openly apparent in this novel. Indeed, of 2666’s five different sections, one of the strongest connecting threads which draws them all together is their link to Santa Teresa. This imagined town on the northern Mexican border appears to be a thin veil for the real Ciudad Júarez, a city which is often associated with, and home to, sordid affairs. These dark happenings are often what draws people to the apocalyptic place or what keeps them there. The author’s passion for this location shows not only his affinity for Mexico but adds its voice to the collective choir of obsession with and condemnation of the events occurring in this region.

This novel is noir. It does pay significant attention of the darker avenues of society at times. However, it is also impressive for the amount of interest it maintains in the world of academia, which Bolaño is said to have detested. Yet, he portrays university scholars with impressive detail.

In the ever increasing attention that is being paid to this author, he has even been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, an author claimed to be one of Bolaño’s most admired. It is a statement that is not convincing, and not only because the short story master would not have written a novel.

2666 is an encyclopedic work with an abundance of places, facts, and faces very reminiscent of the classic work that Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes were creating in the sixties such as Rayuela and La región más transparente, as well as other Latin American Boom writers from this period. The world is at your fingertips within Bolaño’s pages as we trade Paris for London, Madrid, Mexico, Asia, Germany at a somewhat dizzying pace that is incredibly natural and persuasive. Perhaps it is this author’s ability to write a compelling novel showing such a dark side of human nature that is the most chilling aspect of his narrative.

It is not surprising that this complex novel needed more than a thousand pages in its original to bring the narrative to relative completion (the author is said to have been “almost complete” at the time of his death). Yet, like Don Quixote, at the other end of this narrative journey one is astonished that one has read so much when contemplating the length of this hefty tome. It is not a revelation that its English translation in the US has shortened it (only around 850 pages) and also offers a version of this novel divided into three volumes, apparently to lighten the blow of the writer’s massive final work. It is a pity that Bolaño’s personal canon has closed, which makes this piece of literature all the more valuable.

Eli Gardner is a scholar of Latin America

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