Wednesday, February 03, 5666

In the Interstices of the New World - a review of 2666

My review of Bolaño's 2666, from the Literary Review over at The Hindu, February 1, 2009. I give the piece here as I have it on my computer (although the title, "In the Interstices of the New World" is from the Literary Review's editors, and I quite like it):

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 Santa Teresa, a fictional reconstruction of Ciudad Juarez, the sprawling Mexican city that lies along the US border. In Bolaño’s rendering, Santa Teresa is a city with a view of the desert kept in the green by drug brokering, cut-rate American tourists and complexes of maquiladoras—outsourced, “duty free” assembly plants for US corporations with lax labour laws and a largely female workforce. Santa Teresa, depicted as thoroughly as possible, as much for its somewhat stifling provincial university and its overexcitable and mediocre reporters as for its brothel bars and vast illegal dumping grounds, stands for Bolaño as the emblem of a troubled and lost city that is, on first sight, at the far periphery of the global system. Yet, interestingly, Bolaño also sets out to present Santa Teresa as the centre of this system and even as its future, as the novel’s mysterious title suggests. Santa Teresa, like the real-life Ciudad Juarez, is somehow one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Bolaño’s earlier novel, The Savage Detectives, wandered from Europe to the Middle East to Africa but ended back near Santa Teresa. Similarly, in 2666, both tragic and lightly comic characters converge on Santa Teresa from everywhere: a quartet of trendy European academic literary critics; a philosophy professor at the University of Santa Teresa who is recreating an experiment of Duchamp’s in his back yard and slowly coming unstuck; a hard-boiled African American reporter covering a boxing match and thinking about his mother’s death; a small town US sheriff; a major world novelist who writes in the German language. These characters in turn circle the heart of the novel—in its longest, most difficult, most painful and also most brilliant section—where lies a “police procedural” case of more than two hundred serially murdered women, many of them prostitutes, migrants and maquiladora workers. A local computer store owner with an intense, almost superhuman presence is arrested as a suspect, but the murders seem impossible to solve or even understand, perhaps because of the intricate complicity of mafias, police and the local elite. At the great risk of being repetitive, Bolaño sets out to narrate the parallel stories of each and every one of these forgotten women, to recover, humanise and mourn them.

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.

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