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Roberto Bolaño: 2666 (2666)

This book has been called Bolaño’s testament and, because it was his last book, it is. However, it is clear that he had not intended it to be, at least when he started writing it. Unfortunately ill health took him even before he finished this book. In the afterword to the book, at least to the Spanish edition, Ignacio Echevarría suggests that the book is substantially as it would have been, even if Bolaño had lived. One thing, however, is not clear. In a brief foreword, the heirs of the author (their term) state that Bolaño had suggested that the book should in fact be published in five separate volumes, though it seems that the prime motive for this was to provide extra income for the heirs. In the end, they decided to publish it as one complete volume, despite the size (it is 1125 pages in the Spanish edition). WWBD? (That’s What Would Bolaño Do?) Of course, we don’t know. The fact is that this is one novel, albeit with five partially autonomous parts but all linked.

The linking theme across the five parts is the murder of over 200 women in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in Northern Mexico, near the US border. Santa Teresa is clearly based on Ciudad Juárez, not just because of its location but because that city also had many women inexplicably murdered. There is also another linking theme, though only really important in the first and fifth parts, and that is the story of the German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, though he may or may not be linked directly or indirectly to the Santa Teresa murders. Indeed, the first part is about the quest for von Archimboldi and Santa Teresa and its murders only come into play at the end of the section. This first story concerns four literary critics who, for various reasons, have become interested in von Archimboldi’s work. They are Manuel Espinoza, a Spaniard, Jean-Claude Pelletier, a Frenchman, Piero Morini, an Italian and Liz Norton, an Englishwoman. All four are unmarried though, as we soon learn, resolutely heterosexual. All are interested in von Archimboldi who is something of a mystery. No-one knows who he is, where he is, where he came from and what he is doing or, at least, none of the four critics nor their German colleagues do. The story covers two main themes. The first is their attempts to find out more about him which, to a certain extent, they do, with the trail ending in Santa Teresa and a hint, but only a hint, that he might somehow be involved in the murders. The second theme is the sexual relationship between Norton and the three men. She has affairs (simultaneously in one case) with all three men and we follow the ups and downs of all these affairs.

The second part follows on from the first part, as it moves to Santa Teresa. We have met Professor Amalfitano, an expatriate Chilean professor of mathematics, interested in von Archimboldi, in the previous part, but this part is devoted primarily to him and his daughter, Rosa. Amalfitano’s wife had run off with a Spanish poet. Amalfitano is not a happy man, missing his wife, worrying about Rosa’s association with an abusive boyfriend and worried about the crimes taking place in Santa Teresa. The third part concerns a black journalist, Oscar Fate (though his real name is Quincy Williams) who works in Chicago for a magazine called (really!) Negro Dawn. He has come down to Santa Teresa to report on a boxing match. Prior to that, we learn of his mother’s death and his interview of Bobby Seaman (a thinly disguised Bobby Seale) who, like Seale, was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. In Santa Teresa, he is there to report on Count Pickett, a black boxer, fighting a Mexican. Pickett is being tipped as a future champion. However, Fate soon gets involved in the local life and tries to persuade his editor, without success, to let him stay on and report on the murders. The next and definitely least interesting part is a litany of the various murders – who died, who is suspected (often the boyfriend/husband) and what happened. It also includes a few other crimes, such as an attack on a church.

The final section brings us back to von Archimboldi. He has been glimpsed in the second and third parts but this part is his story. It is a fairly conventional story of a German who served on the Eastern front during the war, saw many atrocities and then ended up in bombed-out Cologne. On the way we also get the stories of two other people, the first a Russian writer and the second a German soldier-bureaucrat who is responsible for the slaughter of 1500 Jewish prisoners, more out of bureaucratic ineptitude than malice (and clearly preceding, in its theme of the banality of evil, Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones)). Von Archimboldi meets Ingeborg, who subsequently dies, and writes his novels. After the death of Ingeborg, he travels around – even his publishers do not know where he is – often in Italy and also all over the world. For various reasons, he ends up in Santa Teresa in the early years of the 21st century.

So does it work? Well, it is Bolaño, so it is well written but, sadly, it does not really hold together for me and is clearly not patch on Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives). The link between the five parts is often tenuous and the story lines while not banal do not always seem to be particularly original and daring as we have come to expect from Bolaño. It is his last book and one he was writing under the pressure of illness and one which he did not complete so we should make allowances for that but, ultimately, we can only judge a book on what is there, not on what might have been, and, on that basis, this is a book worth reading but certainly not a masterpiece.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008
Translated by Natasha Wimmer