Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic’s one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño’s conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it’s hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile.
The contours of his life are becoming well known. Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003 in Spain, where he had long resided. He was born in southern Chile in 1953—a wrenchingly different place and era. His father had been a champion amateur boxer and his mother was a teacher who encouraged her dyslexic son’s love of poetry. In 1968, the family moved to Mexico City, where Bolaño began to acquire a cosmopolitan self-education through the happily random method of shoplifting books. (As an adult his taste was wide enough to appreciate Paracelsus, Max Beerbohm, and Philip K. Dick.)
In 1973, playing his small part in the political fever of the day, he returned to Chile to support the embattled socialist cause of Salvador Allende. What happened next seems to live on in his fiction’s patterns of abrupt cessation. After Augusto Pinochet’s coup, Bolaño was detained and could have joined the thousands who were jailed, killed, or sent into official dramatic exile. Instead, he was spotted by old classmates who worked for the new regime, and let go.
He went back to Mexico and co-founded a Surrealist-influenced, anti-status-quo school of poetry. After that fizzled he went to Europe, where he took a series of low-paying but intellectually uncompromised jobs. He had a heroin habit, which he would later find out had damaged his health. But eventually he cleaned up, settled down on Spain’s Costa Brava, had a child, and by the 1990s felt the imperative to provide. He had begun to enter provincial story contests and collect modest prize money. Increasingly aware of his fragile health, he filled a shelf with compact, fresh, and potent books that might have taken decades to write: among them Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), a funny and disturbing catalog of imaginary writers ; Amulet (1999), the tale of a woman who sits in the bathroom during the army raid on Mexico’s UNAM university in 1968; Distant Star (1996), the tale of an airman for the Pinochet regime who scribbles disturbing poems in the sky and is also a freelance murderer of women; and By Night in Chile (2000), the deathbed confession of a corrupted Chilean literary critic and priest, half-comprehending the horror of his own career.
Bolaño had a deep skepticism about national feeling, and it has been said that his work starts to point the way to a kind of post-national fiction. But some of his insights still seem rooted in particular, not transcendent, experience. In Bolaño’s youth, well before the arrival of Pinochet, Chile was a country of profound inequality and social conservatism, with power held in the Church and by elites aspiring to a faraway dream of refinement. To some degree, it must have been here that Bolaño’s hatred of pretension, at times of the very idea of culture, as the mask for a power fantasy, started to be forged. Yet it was a land of poets. One entry in The Romantic Dogs, the first gathering in English of Bolaño’s wonderfully unreserved poems, pays homage to Nicanor Parra, who swam against the Chilean tide with his poetry of defancified directness.
And then there was Mexico, which Bolaño never again saw after he left in 1977. Here he found a more creative, vivid, and generous chaos, though one hardly free from corruption or violence. Mexico City in the 1970s is the beautifully drawn scene of The Savage Detectives (1998),1 the first book by Bolaño to be longer than a novella, and the most acclaimed work to come out while he was alive. The opening section’s narrator, an excited young would-be poet, describes his thrilling (to him) involvement with a haphazard bunch of literary rebels. They’re presided over by a melancholy Mexican, Ulises Lima, and a restless Chilean named Arturo Belano—partial stand-ins for Bolaño and his Mexican best friend. Abruptly, the story breaks off, switching to a parade of testimonials by people who encountered Belano and Lima in the subsequent decades. The arc that their memories trace is heavy and sad with unfulfilled promise, even as the novel’s methods make it feel full of distracted life.
The final section plants us back where we left off in the 1970s. The hopeful narrator and a young prostitute have tagged along with Belano and Lima to the desert state of Sonora, in northern Mexico. They are on a quixotic double mission. Gallantly, they’re trying to protect the girl from a Mexico City pimp. And they’ve been researching a long-forgotten figure from Mexico’s poetry avant-garde in the 1920s. Of her surviving output, Belano and Lima have been able to find no more than a paper with mysterious, squiggly lines. But they are determined to track her down in the area near a town called Santa Teresa.
Like Borges—whom he loved and from whom he learned much—Bolaño was attracted to the idea of literature that could speak to the Americas.2 He introduced a Spanish edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and elsewhere suggested that The Savage Detectives had been his stab at an adventure tale in the spirit of Twain. He hinted at another model worth thinking about: Melville, tackling the overwhelming subject of evil in Moby-Dick. Writing a brief note on a book by the Mexican reporter Sergio González Rodríguez, Bolaño sounded a similar theme. In 2002, González Rodríguez published his reportage on hundreds of unsolved murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, just south of the Texas border. The murders had begun to accelerate in the early 1990s, in tandem with the drug trade and a proliferation of new assembly plants for exports.
As it happened, Bolaño wrote, the novel he was currently working on dealt in part with the murders, and he had struck up a correspondence with González Rodríguez, frequently seeking his grisly expertise. To the novelist, the story González Rodríguez was reporting on was becoming “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.” It belonged not to the adventure tradition but to the opposite pole of stories of the Americas, the apocalyptic—“these being the only two traditions that remain alive on our continent, perhaps because they’re the only two to get close to the abyss that surrounds us.”
2666 was published in Spanish in 2004, a year after Bolaño’s death. It runs to 898 pages in English and was not quite finished—yet one doesn’t really feel the lack of final revisions doing much to diminish its power. At many points, one feels about to be able to compare the book to something else. When a former Black Panther reminiscent in a few details of Bobby Seale gives a sermon on such topics as “danger” and “stars,” it feels like a nod to the sermon scene in Moby-Dick. Elsewhere there is an ominousness reminiscent of David Lynch, whose method of digging into his unconscious—whatever may come spilling out—seems an inspiration. Bolaño liked detective pulp, and once claimed he would have liked to be a homicide detective, facing the worst, with access to the scene of the crime. The grimy atmosphere of unsolved mystery should, to most readers, feel utterly familiar. Yet despite all the signposts, we quickly discover that we’re no good at guessing what comes next.
We follow Bolaño into digressions, and with the weak intuition of a dream we sense him playing with the tools of genre: halfway through, a scene might vaguely take on a quality of thriller, porn, or fable. Every so often a character might start to discuss the problems of semblances and metaphors that reveal or conceal. This is the doubt-raising problem of representation itself. Yet there are scenes that feel like they could be there for no other reason than to memorialize a vivid incident Bolaño might have witnessed, and which arrive in the novel like assertive, physically present ambassadors from life. Because there are many references to painting, and because the plot seems at times to move invisibly, as if unable to break out of stasis, the visual starts to take on great importance. It would help if we could somehow assign new characters their place in the growing mural in our mind. But we wonder how to deal with women whom we meet only as corpses. And we aren’t sure how to sort out characters who, in a way we can’t remember encountering before in fiction, seem to be made of different densities—some seeming solid and all there, and others like a hologram you could stick a hand through.
The novel is divided into five sections. Once we have made it through to the finish, the opening feels like a thin memory. But it does its own curious work to disorient us. Set in the mid-1990s, the first section brings us a quartet of young European academics. At conferences, they have bonded like musketeers over their shared line of argument about the work of a writer named Benno von Archimboldi, a German who everyone guesses is still living—he may even be a Nobel contender—but who for decades hasn’t been seen by anyone except his publisher.
The critics hail from different European countries, with traits that occasionally suggest that Bolaño is teasing national types. There’s a Parisian, smooth in his self-presentation; and an Italian, less ambitious because he is passive, ill, and stuck in a wheelchair. A Spanish critic has arrived at his Archimboldi phase after a prior, dubious literary infatuation and a period of concern over the national literature of Spain (not the highest recommendation in Bolaño’s universe). And a woman from London is sharp, with a catlike detachment and honesty. She sleeps with both the Frenchman and the Spaniard, and for a while lets them compete for her with adolescent grandiosity.
To describe the satire makes it sound crueler than it feels in the reading. What comes through in the critics’ lives is a poignant barrenness. The novel’s never-specified narrating voice describes two critics out for a walk, sharing “their innermost feelings.” At one point, in London, the frustrated suitors achieve displaced catharsis by beating up a Pakistani cabdriver, whose illiberalism has tried their tolerance. The joke is schematic, but still bracing. We realize a couple of things. First, despite the strangeness of their presentation, the quartet are in many ways typical European liberals, with the usual contradictions. Second, Bolaño has been directing us to observe them along fairly specific lines: their relation to sexual expression, curiosity, goals, and waiting, the size of their assumptions, their comfort with violence—all factors in their mastery or nonmastery of self.
The opening finally takes its turn toward Mexico when the critics get word that Archimboldi was spotted there. For reasons no one can fathom, he told someone he was headed for Santa Teresa—yes, it’s roughly the same area where The Savage Detectives’ Belano and Lima went to look for their mystery writer, and the area where that novel ended with its breath held in 1976. Two decades later, the city that the European critics (minus the less portable Italian) now visit in order to find Archimboldi has spread like an ooze. With its arcaded plaza, hotels, brothels, large swathes unlit at night, round-the-clock work sites, child craft vendors, Americans singing along to Willie Nelson, and a background trickle of dead bodies, which the critics are vaguely but not urgently aware of, the city so far refuses to yield a clue about Archimboldi.
The second section takes up the story of a resident of Santa Teresa, a Chilean literature professor named Amalfitano. The critics met him in part one and judged him a loser until they learned he once did an Archimboldi translation. It was published in 1974, he tells them, when he was living in Argentina. What was he doing in Argentina, they ask? Their blithe ignorance of what his situation as a Chilean might have been in 1974, in the year following Pinochet’s coup, sits on the page for an extra beat if we’re paying attention. Then Bolaño moves on.
This seems a key to his method: potent implications reside in unremarked details, like a hidden symbol in the mirror of a Mannerist painting. For his part, Professor Amalfitano strives to avoid self-pity. But he keeps hearing a jittery, homophobic voice in his head. He recalls an ex-wife from his years in Spain who was troubled by madness and later AIDS, and who left him to raise their daughter alone. Anxiously guarding his house under the big Sonoran sky, Amalfitano calls to mind a medieval squire, wanting but failing to protect the girl, Rosa, who has grown up so lovely she could be a secret princess.
We’re getting used by now to the provocations, the almost beatnik-throwdown quality to some of Bolaño’s weirder imagery. “The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain,” he writes. “It was also like an empty dance club.” We are settling into the rhythm of digressions—sometimes stunning, occasionally a stretch—and the brief flickerings of characters who then fall off the radar. So far we have had an aspiring thug who beats people in order to not appear gay; an anecdote of Marcel Duchamp in Argentina; a brilliant dissection of the Mexican writer’s compromised relationship to power; and two different visits to insane asylums, described in such a way that they seem surrounded by an aura of vibrating, possibly malignant energy.
The novel’s third section follows a black American journalist who goes by his pen name, Oscar Fate. (The name hints at the tone of this section, which does helpful, expository work to ground us in Santa Teresa, but feels at times both more pop and more “literary” than the rest.) After a sports reporter at his magazine dies, Fate gets pulled off the politics beat and sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prize fight. While there, though he personally seems like a square, he gets brought along to bars and druggy private party scenes, where he meets and decides to rescue Rosa. “This is a big city, a real city,” a chatty, ambiguous Mexican colleague has told Fate. “We have everything. Factories, maquiladoras, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico, a cocaine cartel, a constant flow of workers. There’s just one thing we haven’t got…time.”
Fate’s story has brought us closer to the feeling of danger. In the fourth section of 2666, we plunge into dread and numbness, tallying the bodies of women and girls who have run out of time. Much of the language in this section maintains the neutral tone of a report, with angry ironies noted beneath the surface. Bodies are described as stabbed or strangled or shot or burned, often raped in multiple places, sometimes mutilated; found on desert roads or schoolgrounds, in alleys and hills and a dump that catches fire and poisons the scuttling poor who scavenge from it (a place pointedly named by Bolaño “El Chile”). Page after page, the bodies keep showing up at the rough pace of one or two, sometimes three a month.
With his skill at letting small details and their implications work in our minds, Bolaño allows us to start to map out for ourselves the larger social pattern. From descriptions, we could probably sketch the city of Santa Teresa, quadrant by quadrant, from upscale condos to sports fields to bus stops and shacks by a makeshift latrine. Factories beckon migrants from all over Mexico to work, but offer no transport home at night beyond long, solitary walks in the dark. A creepy German national—whose height and blond fairness give him, in the Mexican context, a rather monstrous aspect—is held on suspicion of murder. The worst police seem wired to power; the better police are under pressure to nab a suspect—and the crimes go on. Fascinatingly, the United States appears as a part of characters’ remembered visits; a Mexican-American sheriff from Arizona crosses over to find out what happened to a blue-collar woman from his town. But the United States’s relationship to the drug trade and the history of the assembly plants are not explored directly or at length. Instead of belaboring the obvious, Bolaño seems to have chosen the challenge of representing something pervasive.
One key to Bolaño’s more idiosyncratic take on history seems to be a young, green police recruit named Lalo Cura. (The last name means “priest”; spoken quickly in Spanish, the entire name sounds like the Spanish word for crazy.) Lalo was still a child when he was plucked from an orphanage and pressed into service as the guard to a pampered wife of a rich man, who he later realizes is a narco; after a while in that job he is then placed in the police force as a detective trainee. It is an episode that somehow feels part of a history bigger than northern Mexico’s. Powerful institutions of the day, scooping rootless youth into their fold: if this were the year 1300, Lalo might well be a monk.
Lalo feels like a freighted child of history in still other respects. In The Savage Detectives, the kids traveling to Santa Teresa were fascinated to learn that Belgians had come through the region in the 1860s. They were monarchists, following Carlota of Belgium and the Hapsburg Maximilian in their misbegotten attempt to set up a Mexican empire. Instead, several of the Belgians were captured and beheaded—an omen of the region’s future as a hotbed of assassination. In 2666, we learn that Lalo’s ancestor was raped by one such Belgian (though the child later died). For a real mindbender, it is even suggested in passing that Lalo’s conception in the mid-1970s dates to the time when a certain pair of young men from Mexico City passed through—could they have been our poets?—and made love to a local girl.
Randomness and consequence competing for control over history, the struggle of the individual to survive with a functioning ethics: the themes carry over into the final section, in which the life of the writer Archimboldi is revealed—not to the first part’s critics, who have vanished, but for our eyes only. His real name is Hans Reiter. We follow him from birth (when he looks like “a strand of seaweed”) to World War II service in the German army from Normandy east to the Crimea. He discovers the journals of a Ukrainian-Jewish poet (from these he learns of the organic, bizarrely proliferative fruit-and-vegetable portraits of the Renaissance painter Arcimboldo). The name Hans Reiter belonged in history to a notorious Nazi doctor; but in the novel, while a POW, this Reiter murders a man who cravenly sent Jews to die and has the nerve to pity himself. Eventually he finds his calling to write fiction. The range of sexual episodes and violent fates multiplies. The prose is moving again, which is a relief to our nerves. What Reiter’s fiction is actually like to read remains opaque, as does his personality. In a way he is a man of action: he survives, observes, and chooses: to stay with his frail wife, to live a writer’s life, to ruthlessly eschew fame.
Out of the desert we have moved into a new world of symbols, from the dense forest to the cold seabed. In a novel already filled with departures, a loving portrait of Reiter’s editor (said by the translator Natasha Wimmer to reflect Bolaño’s gratitude to his Spanish editor) and the dwelled-upon death of Reiter’s wife suddenly begin to haunt us. We remember an earlier scene. The young character Rosa crosses the border into the United States with Oscar Fate. Spontaneously moved, she looks behind her, saying of her time in Mexico and of Mexicans that they are
hardworking, they’re hugely curious about everything, they care about people, they’re brave and generous, their sadness isn’t destructive, it’s life giving…. I’ll miss my father and I’ll miss the people.
We can’t help but wonder what it was like for Bolaño, cataloguing his affections.
Bolaño’s vision is fierce, not total. Technology, various kinds of intimacy, and levity as opposed to satire don’t have much of a place here. Bolaño’s sexual staging can feel like a lecture; his women can seem larger or smaller than life.
Still, Bolaño gives us an idea of something like moral nobility. We hear it in the words of the old-lady Indian seer Florita Almada, possessor of common-sense recipes for high blood pressure, and apprehender of danger. In her harsh decades of self-teaching, Florita has come to understand how “every hundred feet the world changes.” She has faced down boredom and self-pity—two of Bolaño’s main enemies, and come up with a code:
If it was true that all effort led to a vast abyss, she had two recommendations to begin with, first, not to cheat people, and, second, to treat them properly. Beyond that, there was room for discussion.
We see it in people who strive to keep children from harm, and who keep their heads amid tribulation. In Santa Teresa, we see the mother of a little girl not insignificantly named Penelope, whose father departed for the United States. The mother has given up waiting to hear from him and taken charge of the family. When her older daughter is threatened with rape by a neighbor, she does what she needs to protect her:
But by this point she didn’t trust the word of men and she worked hard and put in overtime and even sold sandwiches to her own coworkers at lunch until she had enough money to rent a little house in Colonia Veracruz, which was farther from Interzone than the shack by the trench, but it was a real little house, with two rooms, sturdy walls, a door that could be locked. She didn’t mind having to walk twenty minutes longer each morning. In fact, she almost sang as she walked. She didn’t mind spending nights without sleeping, working two shifts back to back, or staying up until two in the morning in the kitchen when she had to leave for the factory at six, making the chile-spiked sandwiches her fellow workers would eat the next day. In fact, the physical effort filled her with energy, her exhaustion was transformed into vivacity and grace, the days were long, slow, and the world (perceived as an endless shipwreck) showed her its brightest face….
The older daughter is protected. The mother can’t know that her eleven-year-old will soon leave school and vanish. Penelope may have been seen getting into a car with tinted windows; she is eventually found in a drainage pipe, dead not from the hands that strangled her but a heart attack induced by terror. The mother has failed in the only way that matters to her. Yet she made every effort.
Near the end of the novel, we learn the reason Reiter is headed for Mexico. And then he is gone. Instead of completion we have the physical sense of being in the presence of a confounding object, which we are not yet done investigating. For a while yet, our brain feels rewired for multiplicity. This is not just a cultural or geographical question, though if 2666 contains a lesson it is that people are always from some confluence of factors more bizarre than a country. And it goes deeper than the question of multiple voices. We have eavesdropped on characters and then felt ourselves in the funny, sad, and dangerous process of needing and making meaning. Since there is no logical endpoint, we close with an image from the novel that is out of time. A world of “endless shipwreck,” but met with the most radiant effort. It’s as good a way as any to describe Bolaño and his overwhelming book.
December 18, 2008
The Savage Detectives is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The other books cited above are published by New Directions. ↩
In a wonderful 2006 essay, the critic Aura Estrada began to explain how it is the chaotic Bolaño could be compared to the cerebral Borges, who rarely wrote more than two thousand words at a time: Bolaño had begun to enact an idea suggested by Borges, of the return of the epic in a novel. 2666 has a couple of additional Borgesian undercurrents: history as a sequence of forgotten dates; and history as a survey of metaphors. ↩