Category Archives: 2666

You All Read the Incomplete Edition of 2666

The Literary Saloon informs me that they've discovered two new Bolano manuscripts–and a sixth section to the already massive 2666:

Two new novels by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño have reportedly been found in Spain among papers he left behind after his death. The previously unseen manuscripts were entitled Diorama and The Troubles of the Real Police Officer, reported La Vanguardia.

The newspaper said the documents also included what is believed to be a sixth section of Bolaño's epic five-part novel 2666.

So, everyone read the wrong book.

Seriously speaking, the fact that there was another volume of 2666 found with these papers just underscores the fact that, well, they weren't meant to be published. Obviously if Bolano wanted part 6 in 2666 he would have said so, and if he wanted to publish these new manuscripts, as well as the so-called "The Third Reich," he probably would have let someone know before he died.

And with La Vanguardia reporting a "sea" of material still to be sifted through, I'm sure we'll be seeing lots more Bolano manuscripts on the market:

El futuro del archivo, un mar de libretas y cuadernos de todos los
tamaños, una vez inventariado, será seguramente una universidad.
Adentrarse en sus páginas requiere la paciencia del paleólogo o del
domador de pulgas.

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:


By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.


Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.


2666. For quite obvious reasons.


There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.


A number of books tied for fifth place:


And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

Goldman and Wimmer Discuss Bolano

(On December 4, 2008, Natasha Wimmer and Francisco Goldman discussed Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 at Idlewild Books in Manhattan. Quarterly Conversation contributing editor Scott Bryan Wilson and Chris Dikenwere there. Words Without Borders also has a write-up of the talk.)

It’s a testament to the rapidly ballooning legacy of Roberto Bolaño that more than a hundred people turned out to hear Francisco Goldman, a Trinity University English professor who has written extensively about Bolaño, and Natasha Wimmer, the translator of The Savage Detectives and 2666*, discuss the writer’s sad, happy life and mesmerizing final novel.

Attendees who were not held rapt by the conversation between Goldman and Wimmer likely found themselves annoyed: The bookstore was hot and cramped, there were not enough chairs, and the speakers often neglected the microphone, causing those in back (and in front) to strain to catch the crucial tidbits, of which there were many.

But in the end, that annoyingness is what we all really want, right? We want people to be so excited by a book and/or author that they stand in doorways, tolerate obstructed views, and ask questions that, while not always incisive, at least prove they are curious about literature and the people who create it.

Goldman did most of the talking, his voice falling to a whisper when his reverence for Bolaño peaked, which was often. He began with a sprawling and digressive bio, notably touching on Bolaño’s (disputed) heroin use/addiction, mentioning that it was something the Chilean author did "in the early days."

Goldman didn’t know Bolaño personally,** but he is acquainted with, as he put it, "every young writer in Mexico," many of whom knew Bolaño. This far-reaching claim is believable coming from the mouth of a m an who has written three acclaimed novels about Central America and one book-length work of journalism that had some influence over Guatemala’s most recent presidential election.

These young*** Mexican writers, Goldman said, sought out Bolaño for advice—especially after the publication of The Savage Detectives, which made him a star—hoping that some of the magic might rub off. Bolaño was very warm and encouraging toward his acolytes, an affection that apparently extended to all things Mexican. According to Goldman, while Bolaño worked on 2666 in Spain he assaulted his friends in Mexico with blizzards of daily emails, asking for minute details about his beloved country: what a building on a particular corner looked like, do the poets there still wear beards, etc.

Wimmer was more reserved, and less of a storyteller, but in some ways her responses were more engrossing because they provided insight into the complex, unsung work of translation, which often enough ends up being work of interpretation. She described 2666 as easier to translate than The Savage Detectives, partly because she’d already done Savage when she started 2666, and also because The Savage Detectives is littered with slang from Mexico and nearly every other Latin American country—many of the colloquialisms are nearly impossible to re-create accurately in English. She mentioned the "phobias" section of 2666 as particularly problematic—some of the fears were so obscure that she wondered if Bolaño had invented them.

She said "The Part About the Crimes" was likewise challenging**** because there was so much specialized forensic language involved. Because the descriptions in this section were taken from real-life case files related to the Juarez murders (around which 2666 revolves), it was especially important to get these passages right. Wimmer said she undertook extensive research to render this part of the work. 

Goldman related that Bolaño learned many details of the Juarez killings from Sergio González Rodríguez, a Mexican journalist who spearheaded an investigation of the crimes and wrote a book (not yet translated into English) about them. Bolaño, never afraid to put his friends and associates into his books, inserted a Rodríguez-esque character into 2666, leaving the reporter a bit shocked at how he appeared on the page—not because Bolaño had distorted him, but because he was saddened to see himself as a part of this landscape of evil and brutality and “scuzziness” (Goldman’s words). Goldman also said that Rodríguez had confirmed the veracity of passages in “The Part About the Crimes” in which Mexican prostitutes display no sympathy for murdered working girls.

(For more on the Bolaño-Rodríguez connection, check out Marcela Valdes’ article “Alone Among the Ghosts” in the December 8, 2008 issue of The Nation.)

Rumors that there would be 2666 t-shirts for sale turned out to be false.


*Goldman pronounced the title "Two-six-six-six," perhaps emphasizing the Number of the Beast association, while Wimmer opted for the lengthier but seemingly more correct "Twenty-six-sixty-six."

**Which leads to a favorite anecdote of the evening: You know how during every Q&A there’s always that person who wants to get a piece of the speaker? Well at this event some guy in front asked if either Goldman or Wimmer had met Bolaño, and both admitted that they hadn’t, sadly, and that they didn’t even start reading him until after he died. At which point the questioner remarked in a loud and disdainful voice: "SHAME."

***YoungER—it’s not like Bolaño was old when he died.

****Though she said "The Part About Fate" gave her lots of trouble as well because it was Bolaño’s stab at portraying of a black journalist from Harlem (Bolaño never visited the U.S.) who traveled to Mexico to cover a boxing match. Wimmer admitted that she was not an expert in any of these subjects.

2666 Review at Open Letters

Sam Sacks has one of the better reviews of 2666 that I’ve read. This is a nice observation:

An indescribable amount of things happen to an innumerable cast of characters in 2666—its nearly 900 pages are almost never static. But it must be reemphasized that, with one significant exception that I’ll look into later, every character, every occurrence, and every development of this book is brought into existence for the purpose of being negated. Nothingness is the single connecting motif of the five disparate sections, and it doesn’t bind them so much as drape across them like a shroud.

And then later:

The novel is never shoddy or unthinking, however; in fact, within its blinkered paradigm it’s ingeniously structured and endlessly allusive, the outgrowth of a brilliant mind in fierce, and I think desperate, concentration. Consider Detective Kessler once more, whose role in the novel is admittedly small but emblematic of so many of its weird organizing principles. Readers of 2666 with strong memories and perhaps too much time on their hands may vaguely recall that, 300 pages before he is invited to investigate the murders of section four, a white-haired man named Kessler is provided a confusing 3-page cameo in section three. In that quick walk-on, Kessler delivers a monologue on what he’s learned from the Mexican murders about cultural responses to death. Observing the media’s historical tendency to ignore mass slaughter but sensationalize isolated crimes, he remarks, “words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not revelation.”

The scene is so perplexing that it must have been designed to evade understanding. Section three takes place later in time than section four: this means that when we read Kessler’s conclusions on the murders he investigated (1) we don’t know who Kessler is and (2) we don’t know what the murders are. By the time the necessary context is granted (let me repeat: 300 pages later), the short scene has been buried so deeply beneath the debris of names and bankrupt information that it’s impossible to unearth any connection without engaging in something akin to biblical exegesis. This is the art of avoidance that Bolaño practices, literally the art of voiding any comprehensible patterns that might emerge from his stories. Echoes abound in 2666, but they only make you aware of the emptiness of the surroundings.

I’d encourage everyone to read the whole thing. There’s a lot in there, a lot that seems to have been missed elsewhere.

Natasha Wimmer’s Notes on 2666

Although it’s somewhat buried, Macmillan has a page of useful annotations to 2666 made by its English-language translator, Natasha Wimmer. For instance:

p.45:  “And speaking of the Greeks, it would be fair to say that
Espinoza and Pelletier believed themselves to be (and in their perverse
way, were) incarnations of Ulysses”:    In an essay on Bolaño titled
“La batalla futura,” the Mexican novelist and critic Juan Villoro (see
note to p. 257) suggests that the characters of 2666 can be
seen as “individuals removed from the vacillations of the inner life
who, like Greek heroes, advance toward their destiny with their eyes
wide open.”  This sets them in sharp contrast to the characters of The Savage Detectives, who endlessly plumb their inner lives.  Classical mythology is a touchstone for Bolaño in 2666,
and allusions (often eccentric) to the Greeks proliferate.  Perhaps the
most bizarre is the suggestion-mocked by Amalfitano in Part II-that
there is a direct kinship between the ancient Greeks and the Araucanian
Indians of Chile.  In Part III, Professor Kessler, overheard by Fate in
a roadside diner, declares that the Greeks invented evil.  And then
there is Archimboldi’s dreamlike encounter with a statue of what he
believes to be a Greek goddess during the battle for the capture of

There’s also this funny story involving Bolano and the author Rodrigo Fresan:

Rodrigo Fresán tells the following story about Bolaño
the practical joker:  “I remember that afternoon:  we left Kentucky
Fried Chicken and Bolaño went down the stairs to the platform of his
commuter train and I went back home and half an hour later Bolaño rang
my doorbell, again.  He was soaked by the storm and wild-eyed and
shaking as if barely withstanding a private earthquake.  “I’ve killed a
man,” he announced in a deathly voice; and he came into my apartment,
headed for the living room and asked me to make him a cup of tea.  Then
he told me that as he was waiting on the platform, a couple of
skinheads had come up to him and tried to rob him, that there was a
scuffle, that he managed to get a knife away from one of them and stab
the other one near the heart, that then he ran away down corridors and
streets, and that he didn’t know what to do next.  “What should I do?
Should I turn myself in?”  I said he shouldn’t.  Bolaño looked at me
with infinite sadness and said that he couldn’t keep writing with a
death on his conscience, that he wouldn’t be able to look his son in
the eyes anymore, something like that.  Moved, I said that I understood
and I’d go with him to the police station; to which he responded,
indignant:  “What?  You’d turn me in just like that?  Without mercy?
An Argentinian writer betraying a Chilean writer?  Shame on you!”  Then
Bolaño must have seen my desperation:  because he gave one of those
little cracked laughs of his and, fascinated, said over and over again
“But you know I couldn’t kill a mosquito…How could you believe a story
like that?”

2666 Review at Seminary Co-Op

Quarterly Conversation contributor Levi Stahl has published a review of 2666, and it’s a pretty good one.

2666 is another iteration of Bolaño’s increasingly baroque,
cryptic, and mystical personal vision of the world, revealed obliquely
by his recurrent symbols, images, and tropes. There is something
secret, horrible, and cosmic afoot, centered around Santa Teresa (and
possibly culminating in the mystical year of the book’s title, a date
that is referred to in passing in The Savage Detectives as
well). We can at most glimpse it, in those uncanny moments when the
world seems wrong—”The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery
that suddenly begins to think, in vain”—or when the characters succumb
to dark dreams, like the vague horror animating this dream from one of
the critics:

When Pelletier opened his eyes he thought about the
bathers’ behavior. It was clear they were waiting for something, but
you couldn’t say there was anything desperate in their waiting. Every
once in a while they’d simply look more alert, their eyes scanning the
horizon for a second or two, and then they would once again become part
of the flow of time on the beach, fluidly, without a moment of

Perhaps this whole universe is a nightmare—a worker in the
maquiladoras of Santa Teresa imagines the world as “an endless
shipwreck,” while Bolaño describes the city’s policemen as “soldiers
trapped in a time warp who march over and over again to the same
defeat”—and 2666 is when we will awake? Will we awake to a greater
horror, or to some ultimate expiation? Or maybe there is no answer as
clear as that: if there is a system underlying Bolaño’s fictional
universe, in which characters and symbols recur across multiple
volumes, it is one that we can only intuit, one whose meaning seems
always to be turning the corner just ahead of us. The hermetic
qualities of Bolaño’s work bear some of the false coherence of the
insane; perhaps this novel’s meaning is ultimately singular, fully
penetrable only by the author himself.

More 2666 Reviews

Couple more review for 2666. First, there’s Jonathan Lethem’s review in the NYTBR (reprinted in the International Herald tribune). This pretty much sums it up:

Well, hold on to your hats.

After Kirsch’s love letter, I’m beginning to get a little disappointed in the coverage, as these reviews seem altogether too credulous. There are plenty of sky-high, arcing statements about redefining the form of the long novel, etc., etc., but I’m seeing little critical engagement beyond a few generalized insights that sound quite similar from review to review. Perhaps these reviewers believe that they can back up these broad statements they’re making, but I do not see much evidence forthcoming from them.

Of course, part of this is a space issue. Lethem wasn’t allotted nearly enough space to get the job done (and neither was Kirsch). I suppose if you only get 1,500 words you’re going to have to triage and go with what’s most basic. But let me be clear: Anyone who thinks they can properly consider this book’s context, faults, successes, and (quite simply) its basic functional order in 1,500 words isn’t paying close enough attention.

So I don’t know if this is purely a space issue or what, but it’s disturbing that this book is being treated with a very hands-off approach, especially after The Savage Detectives met with virtually universal adulation. In my opinion, now that Bolano’s wave is higher than ever, there is an immense onus on critics to be absolutely clear in their critique of future books from him. Since 2666 is about as hyped as any book will be this year, and such much of the hype is coming from people who are well-respected, there is an especially large responsibility to justify your praise or criticism of it.

Perhaps Lethem and Kirsch do really think 2666 is the single greatest thing to happen to the English language in decades, but the very least we, the reading public, deserve is a more coherent explanation of why than we’re getting. Anything less is simply not serving the function that a critic for a publication like the NYTBR should serve.

In the LA Times, Ben Ehrenreich seems to altogether abandon the idea of evaluation, as his review is even more descriptive than Lethem’s or Kirsch’s. In his favor, I will say that he does a nice job of placing 2666 in the context of Bolano’s oeuvre, but by the time he actually gets around to the book at hand, there’s not space for much more than cliches:

This is no ordinary whodunit, but it is a murder mystery. Santa Teresa is not just a hell. It’s a mirror also — "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant, useless metamorphosis." It is a city of migrants drawn from points south by the proximity of the United States and work in the foreign-owned maquiladoras: "[b]adly paid and exploitative work, with ridiculous hours and no union protections, but work, after all." The many currents of the contemporary globalized economic order, with all its inequities and waste, converge there. Santa Teresa is, quite literally, the secret of our world, the blood-stained back door to the frail stage-set of North American affluence.

First 2666 Review

Adam Kirsch in Slate has the first review I’ve seen for 2666. I imagine this kind of opening will become pretty standard fare in the 2666 coverage:

By this standard, there is no doubt that Roberto Bolaño is a great writer. 2666,
the enormous novel he had almost completed when he died at 50 in 2003,
has the confident strangeness of a masterpiece: In almost every
particular, it fails, or refuses, to conform to our expectations of
what a novel should be. For one thing, though it is being published as
a single work (in a Bible-sized single-volume edition and as a
three-paperback set), 2666 is made up of five sections that
are so independent Bolaño originally planned to release them as
separate books. These parts relate to one another, not as installments
or sequels but, rather, as five planets orbiting the same sun. With
their very different stories and settings, they seem to describe a
single plummeting arc—the trajectory of a universe on the verge of

I don’t want to say too much about my evaluation of the book since I’ll be publishing my own review in The Quarterly Conversation in December, but I do find it interesting that Kirsch claims these 5 sections are so independent of one another. They’re not really. Yes, each has its own plot, and maybe even something of its own logic, but these section are no more independent of one another than, say, the various sections of Underworld were independent of each other.

Kirsch does have this exactly right, though:

Imagine reading case reports like these, one after another, for almost
300 pages, and you will get a sense of the bludgeoning effect of "The
Part About the Crimes." The violence becomes simultaneously banal and
unbearable in its sheer reiteration; at times, it requires a real
effort to keep turning the pages. Yet in this way, Bolaño succeeds in
restoring to physical violence something of its genuine evil, in a time
when readers in the First World are used to experiencing it only as CSI-style entertainment.

It looks like Slate didn’t allot this review a single word more than what’s normal, and that’s a shame. It’ll be a surprise if any reviewer manages to discuss 2666 without invoking its unusual heft and quasi-legendary status (already), but I doubt that this will translate into much more space than is usually given to books. This isn’t a matter of Bolano-Bolano-Bolano-fever . . . any book of this size and being granted this kind of pre-publication esteem deserves space. You just can’t adequately address such a book in less than a couple thousand words.

In any event, those of you who want to try it out for yourselves can do so next Tuesday. If you do choose to take on 2666, I recommend going in with some context. Here’s our previous coverage of Bolano, for those who want a little primer material:

Murders in Ciudad Juarez–Art and Video

If you know one thing about 2666, it’s probably that the plot circles around the murders of hundreds of women that have occurred in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S./Mexico border. Bolano’s novel isn’t the only recent art to consider the meaning of these grotesque events and the (post-)urban environment that seems to be a part of their cause.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s another new novel exploring this issue. There’s also a new art exhibit in New York City considering it.

Most visitors stumble upon the unmarked gallery, where a small framed
note on the wall invites them into the raw basement to see the piece.
Shabby stairs lead viewers underground and one cannot help but be
submerged in the somber mood of the installation. Such a departure from
a safe guarded gallery in the rest of Chelsea drastically changes the
usual gallery experience. The installation includes sound recordings by
Watson, shrine elements and an intricate cut out portrait of Silvia
Elena by Swoon.

For those who, like me, can’t be in NYC to see the exhibit, have a look at this video:

Bolano and Imperfection

After breezing through the first hundred pages of 2666, I had the feeling that I’d finish the book in a week. I read By Night in Chile in a single sitting, Amulet in two, and Distant Star in perhaps three at most, so by extrapolating out, a week seemed perfectly reasonable.

2666 turned out to be a much slower read than I anticipated.

I think, probably, if it was like a 1,000-page version of By Night in Chile, I would have read the book in a week; but I’m not even sure what I just wrote makes sense. I’m not sure that By Night in Chile could ever be a 1,000-page work. By Night in Chile is so tightly wound that every word feels like it absolutely needs to be there. It is a book that, though complex, deals with very precise phenomena, and deals with them in a sharp, surgical manner.

I would argue that books the size of 2666 simply aren’t meant to do what books like By Night in Chile do. Books like 2666 take on the biggest themes their authors can imagine, and these themes are so large that it takes serious novelistic real estate to even establish them on paper. They end up being so complex and ambitious that even the best authors can get lost in them. This is all a way of arguing that perhaps there is no way to make a book like 2666 feel as clean as By Night in Chile.

I’m a big fan of imperfection in literature. Although I can admire the tautly constructed small novel for the endless arguability and interpretability offered by its enigmatic clarity–think of The Metamorphosis, for instance–I like the imperfect, large novels for the very reason that I can feel things getting lost and going awry within them. It’s these detached or misshapen pieces that often become the most compelling moments in the novel for me.

In his afterword to the first edition of 2666, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano’s literary executor, appropriately quotes this passage from the novel:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to tak eon 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.

I can’t imagine that Bolano wasn’t writing this self consciously; 2666 was his last book, by far his most ambitious. It followed a number of those "perfect exercises" and The Savage Detectives, which seems like his attempt to break out of the short novels into something large and ambitious, a midway station between them and 2666.

2666 is also, as far as I know, the only one of Bolano’s novels that directly deals with Nazi fascism, a matter that is discussed indirectly everywhere in Bolano’s works. I imagine that in writing about this Bolano was engaging in the "real combat" mentioned in the quote.

In addition to the Nazis, 2666 is a book about voids–the void represented by death, by cosmic boredom, by literary insignificance, by senseless violence and death. 2666 engages in real combat with all of these, and now that I have finished the book I want to go back and consider how well Bolano has waged his battles, how well he has added to these concepts, how deeply he has probed them, and how well they function as complements, placed, as they are, side by side in the 5 "books" that comprise 2666. This, I think, will be the true measure of the success of the last book Bolano wrote.

More 2666 on Conversational Reading:

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