Posthumous Praise For '2666' Author Critic-at-large John Powers salutes the Chilean-born writer and the new literary "It" boy, Roberto Bolano, who died in 2003. Bolano's novel, 2666, is a "massive epic of modernity," says Powers.

Posthumous Praise For '2666' Author

Posthumous Praise For '2666' Author

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Roberto Bolano died in 2003, the same year his work first became available in English. Getty Images hide caption

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Read an excerpt of 2666.

Best Books of 2008

It's part of the rhythm of our self-absorbed American culture that we seem able to process only one foreign language writer at time. But when we do, we do it with a vengeance. And so, every three or four years, the press is suddenly filled with the discovery of some new literary genius — Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, Michel Houellebecq — who we're all supposed to read.

The current literary "It" boy is Roberto Bolano, the Chilean-born writer whose reputation has surged since his work first began being translated into English in 2003. If the bad news is that this acclaim happened too late — Bolano died that same year at age 50 — the good news is that he deserves it. He's clearly the greatest writer to have appeared in Latin America since the so-called "boom" that produced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. And he knew it. In fact, Bolano took pride in being against magical realism. He derided his predecessors' eagerness to adopt the role of literary lions dispensing wisdom in perfectly crafted novels.

While all of Bolano's books are interesting, three knocked me out. By Night in Chile is a lacerating little novel about a literary-minded priest who backed General Pinochet's dictatorship. The Savage Detectives is the great Mexico City novel, a freewheeling tale about a group of young poets known as the Visceral Realists. And then there's his latest: 2666, superbly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is a magnum opus about, well, almost everything.

The book is hard to describe because it's broken into five, loosely overlapping parts. It begins with four literary critics obsessed with finding a German writer named Archimboldi. Their quest takes them to Santa Teresa, an imaginary Mexican border city modeled on the real Ciudad Juarez. Like a black hole, this brutal city eventually sucks in all the book's major characters — an alienated professor, a black journalist who's covering a prize-fight, and the novelist Archimboldi himself. What they share is a foretaste of danger, a sense that they're tiptoeing on the razor's edge of apocalypse.

I'm tempted to call Bolano the love-child of David Lynch and Jorge Luis Borges — he's that visceral and erudite — but this wouldn't do justice to his ambition. 2666 aims to be nothing less than a massive epic of modernity, ranging from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to yuppie London and the cruel Sonoran desert. Bolano always championed messy books like Moby Dick, and that's what he offers here: 912 pages of vivid characters, startling dream sequences and stories within stories within stories, all told in the seductive voice of one who experiences the world more intimately than we do and can capture all its nocturnal melancholy and unexpected sunbursts of beauty.

Like all of Bolano's work, 2666 is obsessed with writers and writing, which is one huge reason he gets rave reviews from — you know — writers. His books celebrate those devoted to the grand existential leap of literature, both the search for meaning that is the writer's task and the brave, often foolish lives of those obsessed with work that doesn't offer you any security. Yet what makes Bolano great is that he's never blind enough to believe that literature is a religion or that it can transcend earthly existence. He never lets us forget that, beneath writers' vaulting words, the world still exists in all its pain, struggle, inequality and violence.

That's why the key section of 2666 is called "The Part About the Crimes," a chilling tour de force that chronicles the routine rape and murder of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa — a fictional version what was — and is --happening in Ciudad Juarez. Bolano gives us an unforgettable portrait of an earthly hell, a dusty, sun-flayed sprawl of shacks and little factories just teeming with lost souls — gangsters, corrupt cops, media mystics, heartless bureaucrats. Most lost of all are the city's young women, who are exploited at work, sexually devoured and literally tossed dead onto the trash heap. "No one pays attention to these killings," a character remarks at one point, "but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

This is a thrillingly upsetting line, and coming across it, you grasp why Bolano is idolized by so many other writers and why, in a few years time, we'll be seeing novelists doing knockoffs of his work. At a time when so many authors seem to skate along the surface of things — piling up brand names, displaying their childhood love of comic books or hailing small-town cats that saved Iowa towns — his stinging vision of life has hit our shores at just the right time. It measures perfectly with our current mood of precariousness, brought on by war and economic collapse. Reading Bolano, you never feel that he's just fooling around. This was a man who was always looking for the secret of the world.

Excerpt: '2666'

Roberto Bolano's '2666'
By Roberto Bolaño
Hardcover, 912 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $30.00

When Pelletier discussed the Swabian's article with his three friends one morning as they were having breakfast at the hotel before going out into Salzburg, opinions and interpretations varied considerably. According to Espinoza and Pelletier, the Swabian had probably been the lady's lover at the time when Archimboldi came to give his reading. According to Norton, the Swabian had a different version of events depending on his mood and his audience, and it was possible that he himself didn't even remember anymore what was really said and what had really happened on that momentous occasion. According to Morini, the Swabian was a grotesque double of Archimboldi, his twin, the negative image of a developed photograph that keeps looming larger, becoming more powerful, more oppressive, without ever losing its link to the negative (which undergoes the reverse process, gradually altered by time and fate), the two images somehow still the same: both young men in the years of terror and barbarism under Hitler, both World War II veterans, both writers, both citizens of a bankrupt nation, both poor bastards adrift at the moment when they meet and (in their grotesque fashion) recognize each other, Archimboldi as a struggling writer, the Swabian as "cultural promoter" in a town where culture was hardly a serious concern.

Was it even conceivable that the miserable and (why not?) contemptible Swabian was really Archimboldi? It wasn't Morini who asked this question, but Norton. And the answer was no, since the Swabian, to begin with, was short and of delicate constitution, which didn't match Archimboldi's physical description at all. Pelletier's and Espinoza's explanation was much more plausible: the Swabian as the noble lady's lover, even though she could have been his grandmother. The Swabian trudging each afternoon to the house of the lady who had traveled to Buenos Aires, to fill his belly with charcuterie and biscuits and cups of tea. The Swabian massaging the back of the former cavalry captain's widow, as the rain lashed the windows, a sad Frisian rain that made one want to weep, and although it didn't make the Swabian weep, it made him pale, and he approached the nearest window, where he stood looking out at what was beyond the curtains of frenzied rain, until the lady called him, peremptorily, and the Swabian turned his back on the window, not knowing why he had gone to it, not knowing what he hoped to see, and just at that moment, when there was no one at the window anymore and only a little lamp of colored glass at the back of the room flickering, it appeared.


So the days in Salzburg were generally pleasant, and although Archimboldi didn't receive the Nobel Prize that year, life for our four friends proceeded smoothly, flowing along on the placid river of European university German departments, not without racking up one upset or another that in the end simply added a dash of pepper, a dash of mustard, a drizzle of vinegar to orderly lives, or lives that looked orderly from without, although each of the four had his or her own cross to bear, like anyone, a strange cross in Norton's case, ghostly and phosphorescent, for Norton made frequent and rather tasteless references to her ex-husband as a lurking threat, ascribed to him the vices and defects of a monster, a horribly violent monster but one who never materialized, a monster all evocation and no action, although with her words Norton managed to give substance to a being whom neither Espinoza nor Pelletier had ever seen, as if her ex existed only in their dreams, until Pelletier, sharper than Espinoza, understood that Norton's unthinking diatribe, that endless list of grievances, was more than anything a punishment inflicted on herself, perhaps for the shame of having fallen in love with such a cretin and married him. Pelletier, of course, was wrong.


Around this time, Pelletier and Espinoza, worried about the current state of their mutual lover, had two long conversations on the phone. Pelletier made the first call, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes. The second was made three days later by Espinoza and lasted two hours and fifteen minutes. After they'd been talking for an hour and a half, Pelletier told Espinoza to hang up, the call would be expensive and he'd call right back, but Espinoza firmly refused. The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier's call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton's name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed. In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.


The second conversation, radically longer than the first, was a conversation between friends doing their best to clear up any murky points they might have overlooked, a conversation that refused to become technical or logistical and instead touched on subjects connected only tenuously to Norton, subjects that had nothing to do with surges of emotion, subjects easy to broach and then drop when they wished to return to the main subject, Liz Norton, whom, by the time the second call was nearing its close, both had recognized not as the Fury who destroyed their friendship, black clad with bloodstained wings, nor as Hecate, who began as an au pair, caring for children, and ended up learning witchcraft and turning herself into an animal, but as the angel who had fortified their friendship, forcibly shown them what they'd known all along, what they'd assumed all along, which was that they were civilized beings, beings capable of noble sentiments, not two dumb beasts debased by routine and regular sedentary work, no, that night Pelletier and Espinoza discovered that they were generous, so generous that if they'd been together they'd have felt the need to go out and celebrate, dazzled by the shine of their own virtue, a shine that might not last (since virtue, once recognized in a flash, has no shine and makes its home in a dark cave amid cave dwellers, some dangerous indeed), and for lack of celebration or revelry they hailed this virtue with an unspoken promise of eternal friendship, and sealed the vow, after they hung up their respective phones in their respective apartments crammed with books, by sipping whiskey with supreme slowness and watching the night outside their windows, maybe seeking unconsciously what the Swabian had sought outside the widow's window in vain.


Morini was the last to know, as one would expect, although in Morini's case the sentimental mathematics didn't always work out. Even before Norton first went to bed with Pelletier, Morini had felt it coming. Not because of the way Pelletier behaved around Norton but because of her own detachment, a generalized detachment, Baudelaire would have called it spleen, Nerval melancholy, which left Norton liable to embark on an intimate relationship with anyone who came along. Espinoza, of course, he hadn't predicted. When Norton called and told him she was involved with the two of them, Morini was surprised (although he wouldn't have been surprised if Norton had said she was involved with Pelletier and a colleague at the University of London or even a student), but he hid it well. Then he tried to think of other things, but he couldn't. He asked Norton whether she was happy. Norton said she was. He told her he had received an e-mail from Borchmeyer with fresh news. Norton didn't seem very interested. He asked her whether she'd heard from her husband.

"Ex-husband," said Norton.

No, she hadn't heard from him, although an old friend had called to tell her that her ex was living with another old friend. Morini asked whether the woman had been a very close friend. Norton didn't understand the question.

"What close friend?"

"The one who's living with your ex now," said Morini.

"She doesn't live with him, she's supporting him, it's completely different."

"Ah," said Morini, and he tried to change the subject, but he drew a blank. Maybe I should talk to her about my illness, he thought bitterly. But that he would never do.


Around this time, Morini was the first of the four to read an article about the killings in Sonora, which appeared in Il Manifesto and was written by an Italian reporter who had gone to Mexico to cover the Zapatista guerrillas. The news was horrible, he thought. In Italy there were serial killers, too, but they hardly ever killed more than ten people, whereas in Sonora the dead numbered well over one hundred. Then he thought about the reporter from Il Manifesto and it struck him as odd that she had gone to Chiapas, which is at the southern tip of the country, and that she had ended up writing about events in Sonora, which, if he wasn't mistaken, was in the north, the northwest, on the border with the United States. He imagined her traveling by bus, a long way from Mexico City to the desert lands of the north. He imagined her talking to Subcomandante Marcos. He imagined her in the Mexican capital. Someone there must have told her what was happening in Sonora. And instead of getting on the next plane to Italy, she had decided to buy a bus ticket and set off on a long trip to Sonora. For an instant, Morini felt a wild desire to travel with the reporter. I'd love her until the end of time, he thought. An hour later he'd already forgotten the matter completely.


A little later he got an e-mail from Norton. He thought it was strange that Norton would write and not call. Once he had read the letter, though, he understood that she needed to express her thoughts as precisely as possible and that was why she'd decided to write. In the letter she asked his forgiveness for what she called her egotism, an egotism that expressed itself in the contemplation of her own misfortunes, real or imaginary. She went on to say that she'd finally resolved her lingering quarrel with her ex-husband. The dark clouds had vanished from her life. Now she wanted to be happy and sing [sic]. Until probably the week before, she added, she'd loved him still, and now she could attest that the part of her past that included him was behind her for good. I'm suddenly keen on my work, she said, and on all those little everyday things that make human beings happy. And she also said: I wanted you, my patient Piero, to be the first to know. Morini read the letter three times. With a heavy heart, he thought how wrong Norton was when she said her love and her ex-husband and everything they'd been through were behind her. Nothing is ever behind us.

Excerpted from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2004 by the heirs of Roberto Bolaño, English translation copyright (c) 2008 by Natasha Wimmer. All rights reserved.