Notes on Roberto Bolaño: 2666

Okay, let’s do this. Here’s the first sentence in the book:

An excerpt from “The Part About the Crimes” first appeared in Vice.

And with that preview, let’s begin. When I reviewed The Savage Detectives, I said that it was not Bolaño’s best or tightest work (I rate By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth as his best), so I was curious to see what he would do in his other large work. It’s told in pretty much the same sprawling, episodic manner as the earlier book, but at least in the first section, which I just finished, Bolaño sprawls within tight boundaries, detailing the quest of four scholars to locate the target of their studies, the mysterious writer Archimboldi. 160 pages later, after three of them have taken a long trip to Santa Teresa, Mexico, they have not found him.

Note that Bolaño is using a similar mechanism to the one of The Savage Detectives, in which the two poets central to the narrative (one of whom was Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s surrogate) never spoke for themselves during the major part of the book and were left only to be elucidated upon by a host of figures who had interacted with them over their lives. Here, though, Archimboldi remains wholly elusive, as Bolaño gives only tangential information on him and his work, using him as a MacGuffin for the drama that plays out between the scholars. The four of them, each of whom hails from a different country, are all seeking something in their obsessive search for the man, but whatever it is, it is subordinated to the quest narrative itself, and the romances that develop among the scholars.

So the Archimboldi mythology so far reads to me as a mostly generic mythology, except for the great specifics given to his supposed final location, Santa Teresa, where the hundreds of murders to be detailed later in the book (and partly in Vice) have already taken place. I connect this to the greater reality given to the first and last sections of The Savage Detectives, the parts narrated as a real story rather than as hearsay, and whose second part ends in Santa Teresa as sort of a culmination of a youthful poetic pilgrimage. And thus the first part of 2666 reads as a tentative return to a place outside the civilized world which Archimboldi has fled, a place that is more real or at least more alive as literature. When the scholars meet the less refined translator and Chilean exile Amalfitano in Santa Teresa, their priorities are summed up:

“Exile must be a terrible thing,” said Norton sympathetically.

“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”

“But exile,” said Pelletier,” is full of inconveniences of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important.”

“That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano.

So, onto the abolishing of fate. Following this section, which reads as prelude, the next part is about Amalfitano.

[One other thing: some people asked me why I thought Bolaño didn't do female characters well, and now I cite Liz Norton in 2666 as evidence. She serves too much as a Deus ex machina, sleeping her way through the characters without ever becoming more than an enigmatic cipher. (Her somewhat interminable letter at the end of the section is weak and offers no explanations that elaborate on her character.) She reminds me of a similar woman-as-other character, La Maga in Hopscotch]

7 thoughts on “Notes on Roberto Bolaño: 2666

  1. I’m glad you’re doing this! I don’t think this book has gotten as much critical examination as it really should have for all the adulation it’s received – a lot of it seems really clunky. Like the sentence you quoted:

    “That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano.

    Can one reasonably have a sentence like this when the third section of the book is entitled “The Part about Fate” and it’s about a journalist whose name is Fate? Maybe that’s a translation issue? Presumably his name is “Fate” in the original Spanish. But having a character whose name is Fate, even if it’s in another language . . .

    (Actually, wouldn’t it make more sense for Amalfitano to be talking about abolishing chance, à la Mallarmé? I really wonder what the original says here.)

    The way women are dealt with does seem problematic – there’s a lot to be excavated there, I think. Maybe looking at this vs. Robbe-Grillet’s later novels, which are similarly questionable?

  2. It’ll be interesting to see your reaction after having read the whole book.

    At least your response to the first three sections so far doesn’t seem as over-the-top rapturous as the typical reviews I’ve seen. The worshipful, almost cult-like, attitude so many critics have adopted toward Bolano and his work – 2666 in particular – seems to have gotten out of hand. Indeed, it seems many have abandoned their critical faculties altogther when it comes to dealing with Bolano.

    Having read 2666, I find my attitude toward it rather ambivalent. I thought parts 1 to 3 brilliant and engrossing, but I was highly disappointed, and found my interest in the novel flagging ever more strongly, in parts 4 and 5. Those overly enthusiatic critics may be right in saying it’s the best book of the year (the translation, I know the original was in 2004) – perhaps even the best novel of the century so far – but I also can’t help feeling it’s simultaneously the most overrated novel I’ve read in a long time. Certainly it didn’t live up to the expectations I had based on the critical build-up around its release.

    For some reason the book kept reminding me of Krasznahorkai’s War and War, with it’s similarly enigmatic quartet of world travellers searching for God-knows-what, but I found Krazsnahorkai’s characters more engaging than Bolano’s, and the book more stimulating intellectually.

  3. absolutetly right in the comparison between Cortazar´s character… there´s something slightly misoginistic there

  4. if she’s like La Maga, then she’ll be fascinating to me. she was one of my favorite parts of Hopscotch. in fact, the more he got away from her in the book, the less i liked it. the thought of the portrayal being misogynistic never crossed my mind. make of that what you will (i make nothing of it).

  5. Well, nobody wants to remember this, but it was the very Cortázar who talked about the ‘hembra’ reader, that is, the female reader, eager to absorb, willing to be penetrated…

  6. To Cortazar’s credit, he later changed his definitions to the “Active” and the “Passive” reader, admitting his earlier chauvinism. Bolano refers to the active reader in Amalfitano’s section.

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