(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.