2666: First Impressions

Now that I’ve knocked off a good inch of 2666, I feel like it’s time to say a little about my reactions to it.

At this point, I can’t say I’m very much reminded of The Savage Detectives (other than in terms of some very general themes that seem to be present in every book Bolano wrote); that book was about youth and what happens to youth as it grows old and forgotten. It focused on people above society–by that I mean it was about rendering a certain kind of emotional response to a life gone awry. The book was more concerned with this than making you understand a certain condition, the way Sebald makes modernity palpable. As a result the people in The Savage Detectives almost always felt fresh and read, and the main characters of Ulises, Belano, and Madero remain vivid in my mind.

2666 is, perhaps, precisely the opposite. It is a sprawling book seemingly most concerned with instilling something of the melancholy and isolation of late-late (or maybe post-late) capitalism, and to that end I feel as though the people are being given short shrift in favor of the set on which they perform.

The book it most brings to mind right now is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Both of these books feel like a sort of requiem towering over and gazing back at their respective subjects. They are both slow reads in which you feel like you’re being taken down more than a few blind alleys, until, tens or hundreds of pages later, you finally see the purpose in where you were taken. Both of these books are immense, sprawling affairs, books full of many
discrete parts that I can somewhat see coming together if I continue
the lines they trace in my mind.

For example. Here are a few of the items I’ve encountered so far in 2666: a book (probably imaginary) arguing that one of Chile’s founding fathers was part  Native American; a philosophical-geometrical tract that a character discovers packed in his moving-box, and then takes out and hangs on a clothesline like a Duchamp ready-made; the text of a sermon of a black preacher who publishes cookbooks to make ends meet; a film whom the possessor claims was the first movie that director Richard Rodriguez ever made. On and on.

The thing about these pieces is that at this point they are by and large more memorable than the characters themselves, which, although they are far from poorly rendered, do not match up to characters from other Bolano books that I have read. Furthermore, these pieces are imbued with a sort of DeLilloesque instability–first they feel like they are about one thing, then another, then perhaps back again. To my mind they remain mysterious and enigmatic, resisting attempts to say exactly what they are about. They also feel startlingly contemporary, as in the case of a radical Muslim sect that marches in New York City under a banner bearing the face of Osama bin Laden.

Some of the writing even sounds, in a way, a little like DeLillo. Here are some quotes that have impressed themselves in my mind:

. . . though not just any nest but a postnuclear nest, a nest with no room for any certainties but cold, despair, and apathy.

. . . the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.

The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly began to think, in vain.

I suppose Bolano and DeLillo have more than superficial similarities, as they both are innovators when it comes to writing about the political in their books. 2666 is no less political than any other Bolano book I’ve read, but, like them, in this one the political is both omnipresent and non-obtrusive. To see exactly what I mean, look how the political ghosts through this paragraph before finally, momentarily, flaring up into outright palpability:

It goes without saying that most of the attendees of these curious discussions gravitated toward the hall where contemporary English literature was being discussed, next door to the German literature hall and separated from it by a wall that was clearly not made of stone, as walls used to be, but of fragile bricks covered with a thin layer of plaster, so that the shouts, howls, and especially the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion, notable larger than the sparse and earnest audience attending the German discussion. Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it’s common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mas conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they’re put into words.

And then we get to the book’s two biggest items, two shadowy images that seem to stand like poles at either end of this book. The first is the author Archimboldi. When the book starts he is an obscure German author–he is nothing. Then a translation, a fortuitous review, some interest from scholars, and suddenly there are Archimboldi symposiums as far as the eye can see, titans of the Archimboldi industry fighting for power of interpretation, willing disciples on each side, and, of course, the perennial Nobel watch.

The Archimboldi part is fleshed out in the novel’s first section, about a hundred pages, and to my mind it’s the most consistent, interesting part of the novel I’d read so far. I don’t know if this relates to the fact that 2666 was never really completed, but the first section feels by far the most polished; there are enormous, page-spanning sentences here that unfurl segment by segment, perfectly paced rocking from comma to comma with their own peculiar logic. And there are many of them in a row. The effect is dazzling,a nd I have yet to see something that compares after the first section.

This part of the book ends with the Archimboldi scholars being brought to Santa Teresa in northern Mexico in a vain, you might say pointless, attempt to finally meet up with the reclusive author, and thus we are brought to the book’s opposite pole, the bit-by-bit murder of hundreds of Mexican women in Santa Teresa. These are ghastly, unsolved murders that have been going on for years, and the residents of Santa Teresa seem to react to them with an odd mixture of outright fear and disinterest. And Santa Teresa seems a little ghastly itself: it’s a huge, ever-growing city made up part of desert, part of sweat-shop style factories. Bolano spends much time evoking Santa Teresa, and I think he does it because in this book Santa Teresa represents something very substantial–I can’t say quite what, but something along the lines of a beleaguered retreat, a final resting place, our collective future.

Still aching for more Bolano? Here are some links to past Bolano coverage:

* Our interview with TSD and 2666 translator Natasha Wimmer

* Our interview with Bolano translator Chris Andrews

* Find out where 2666 fits in to the rest of Bolano’s collective works with Javier Moreno’s awesome Bolano triangle, part of his Quarterly Conversation essay in which he offers a theory of how Bolano’s books fit together.

* Read my own Bolano essay from the same issue of The Quarterly Conversation. In it I take a close look at By Night in Chile and consider how the theme of parents and children works in Bolano’s books.

* Read our coverage of The Savage Detectives as part of Reading the World 2007

* Read my column where I compare two Latin American deathbed confession novels: Bolano’s By Night in Chile with Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz

More from Conversational Reading:

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  2. 2666 Apparently, Natasha Wimmer has been awarded a grant of $20,000 to translate robert Bolano’s novel 2666. That’s fair, since it’s about 2,666 pages long. Aside...
  3. Mucho Bolaño Among other offerings in a strong, new edition of HermanoCerdo, you can read two essays dealing with Roberto Bolaño. One is by me and deals...
  4. 3x Bolaño in The Nation Roberto Bolaño gets triple coverge in The Nation, including, impressively, a review of one of his titles not yet available in English. Happy as I...
  5. May Letras y Libres For the Spanish-reading among us, some interesting articles in the May issue of the Mexican magazine Letras y Libres. First off, just in time for...

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It seems kind of odd for you to discuss stylistic similarities in the writing of Bolano and DeLillo, because the writing you’re reading is by Natasha Wimmer.

a philosophical-geometrical tract that a character discovers packed in his moving-box, and then takes out and hangs on a clothesline like a Duchamp ready-made
This is a direct nod to Duchamp, who did (or had his sister do) exactly that with his “Unhappy Readymade” from 1919 – when he was in Argentina, for what it’s worth.

Dan,
Yes, and in fact Bolano mentions Duchamp and his sister.

Hi Scott,
I only made it about 200 pages into The Savage Detectives. I felt like the writing was way, way, too loose. I haven’t really explored any dissenting opinions about Bolano, and when I have the time, I’ll get to 2666, but my immediate thoughts were that he way, way, overwrites. I like DeLillo a lot, and while he does some really nice things (“gothic snuggeries” in Mao II), I feel like the few lines you’ve given us of 2666 represent the worst in DeLillo:
“. . . the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.”
Is this really all that fresh? I don’t know the context, but hasn’t this been said before? Didn’t Nabokov write an incredible book on this very subject?
Feel free to prove me wrong, etc.
J

Bless you, Scott, for sharing with us. As for “he is nothing. Then a translation, a fortuitous review . . . and suddenly there are Archimboldi symposiums as far as the eye can see. . . ” So how much of his own future did he foresee?
Please keep us posted.

Dan,
I’ve wondered about parallels between Archimboldi and Bolano. I don’t think there’s enough there to make me believe they’re related yet, but I am considering it.
jh,
I liked TSD a lot, and I’ve generally found Bolano’s writing tight, so we may just be of different minds.
I’ve found previously Bolano books rather fresh, and I’ve written about why on this site . . . I’ll probably have more to say about 2666 in the future, but perhaps Bolano just isn’t to your taste.

“and to that end I feel as though the people are being given short shrift in favor of the set on which they perform.”
I read this comment as I was myself about halfway through “The Part about the Crimes,” and it resonated at the time and then reappeared in the book itself, in the Archimboldi volume:
“It wasn’t long before Archimboldi’s fourth book arrived at the publishing house. it was called Rivers of Europe, although it was really about only one river, the Dnieper. One might say the Dnieper was the protagonist and the other rivers were the chorus .”
I’m being very literal, of course, but some of the other titles of the Archimboldi books, particularly Bifurcaria Bifurcata, also give the impression that the Archimboldi books take places or tangible specimens as their subjects. Maybe that’s part of how we’re supposed to look at the relationship between Archimboldi and Bolano in the context of the approach Bolano took to 2666.

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