I’ve been braver in my choice of reading material all through this year–maybe because 2013 is the first time in a long time I’ve been free to do so, having quit my job in February (long ago now, it seems), and enjoying (though occasionally bemoaning) the slower, more deliberate lifestyle I’ve adopted since. I started the year with Dostoevsky, bringing my massive copy of The Brothers Karamazov on a trip to the beach, during which I promptly spilled a good amount of choco-banana milkshake on it. I am proud to report 2666 has sustained no such injuries.
Each of the novel’s five sections touches upon the Santa Teresa killings: hundreds of women and girls who have been kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed, whose bodies turn up in the desert or streets of the fictional city of Santa Teresa, near the American border. The only thing more shocking than the lengthy account of these brutalized bodies is that Bolaño draws these events from real life: Santa Teresa is a thinly veiled representation of Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, where serial killings of women have occurred for over a decade, and to this day no one can say who did it and how. Brief sections–some less than a page, others a few pages long, comprising a third of the entire book–are devoted to each crime, detailing the women’s names, injuries and circumstances, dizzying in its specificity.
All around it are a host of other characters–SS generals, European academics, American cybercafe owners, sports writers, politicians, fortune tellers, book publishers, plagiarists, small-time crooks, upright policemen, tourists and drug dealers–all of whom seem so far removed from these events, and yet whose stories somehow converge in Santa Teresa, though few of them are aware of it.
Roberto Bolaño hands us this book from the grave as if to say, You think this is just fiction? Wrong. This is the world you live in. Reading 2666 feels like reading an attempt at a summation of the world, of human existence–beautiful, frightening, full of wonder and injustice and gaping holes. To achieve this effect of totality, Bolaño draws from the preponderance of books, and books within books, and books within books within books, and all the life contained in them.
What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
Rarely do real-life stories end in resolutions, though we like to believe they do. Fiction supposedly resolves, and that is one of the main reasons we turn to fiction in the first place. 2666 does not offer that comfort, though it brings us full circle, in its way. It is one such torrential work–imperfect, an exercise in excess, but great in any measure.
P.D. I must say I liked The Savage Detectives much more–it was more personal, greater in its emotional intensity, perhaps precisely because it was a less ambitious work. A critic, borrowing from Dylan Thomas, described it as a story of young men “raging against the dying of the light”–and indeed, I agree it is the best way to describe the book. Also, I suspect the circumstances of my reading both books play a decisive role: I read The Savage Detectives while traveling through the places where the story was set. They were two weeks of living off adrenaline and tequila, which perhaps added to the intensity of my experience both of the place and the novel set in it.
Related post: The night before 2666