Roberto Bolaño, 2666. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 912 pages
If he had somehow managed to live past the age of fifty, would Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean/Mexican/Spanish novelist and poet have been bemused by the current stratospheric heights of his fame? Would he have calmly cashed in further on it, wryly incorporating and recycling it into his plots? Bolaño’s books have become—as I think one bemused editor recently put it—something like a must-follow Harry Potter-type series for adult intellectuals. Here, I will not bother to trot out the Bolaño biography and myth that any internet search will return you to. Instead, I want to ask, what explains his wide appeal across continents?
The most charming, immediate aspect of Bolaño, evident in the sharp gestures of his short stories and the tight economy of his novellas as much as in the expansiveness of his long novels is, of course, his easy knack of mixing together colloquialisms and street knowledge with an erudite and experimental poetics. However, to go further to understand his appeal, we might locate him in relation to the writer he is very often counterpoised against, the slightly earlier phenomenon of world literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez represents the culmination of an effort, centuries old, to give a distinctive and sometimes parochial cultural identity and pride to the Latin American novel. Bolaño’s worlds are, by contrast, relentlessly urban, naturally cosmopolitan, broadly contemporary and even futuristic. Cultural identity is still present here, but it has been shorn of any simplistic reliance on cultural authenticity, folk tales learned at your grandmother’s knee and other such saws; if Bolaño is still talking, say, about what it might mean to be Mexican (he was not quite Mexican himself), he knows well that this question cannot be addressed without a wink, a certain degree of irony and distance. Bolaño is transparently both a victim and a subject of globalisation. At the same time, the special appeal and excitement of his work is that it does not reflect the total dominance of a homogenising Anglophone North American culture. Instead, it stakes its claim at a peculiar, stubborn and complicated angle.
This is never more true than in 2666, Bolaño’s last and greatest book, translated by Natasha Wimmer and released in English late last year. In 2666, the main character is, arguably, the city of
Is 2666, indeed, a classic, like all the other reviewers are saying? One is wary and embarrassed to admit as much only four years after the book’s original release in Spanish, but—yes, I think so. It is both unlike any other book I have read and, in significant ways, unlike anything else that Bolaño himself had managed to write before it. The writing itself makes for a quick and accessible read— seemingly raw and unpolished (though Bolaño’s effects are calculated), in the style of someone who accosts you in a bar and yabbers away— and it is by this very velocity that you are plunged into an epic and thoroughly unpredictable roller-coaster ride, with single sentences that dog on for pages and pages, dream sequences, lectures, rants from unreliable and sometimes insane narrators on a range of subjects from multiplex theatres to mass murder to etymology to German literature, daringly improvised plots and subplots that might twist and turn and suddenly run into violent blind alleys, picking up somewhere else altogether, with the language veering all the while from violence to irony to metaphysics.
By the time you reach the last section of the book, in which a writer weighs his life and legacy, you begin to see that 2666 is one author’s way of literally writing himself to death—almost in the same way a typical Spanish lover in an earlier, comic section of the book might try to screw himself to death— pushing as far and as hard as he can, taking each sentence as far as possible into the unrelenting shadow of failure, making use of everything that he knows and is, squeezing in every atom of what he is. Naturally in such a work there are boring passages, irrelevant passages, highly indulgent passages, places where you can clearly see Bolaño pushing his fiction writer’s confidence game too far; yet, the whole of 2666 is such a masterly and awe-inspiring performance that the reader settles into and clings to it as one settles for the world.