Thursday, April 16, 2009

book review - 2666

It is with some trepidation that the task of pulling together some coherent thoughts about Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is begun.

What you remember throughout the book are the words of the forward with the explanation of how the original vision had been to publish the five books that make up 2666 separately. After his death Bolano’s family decided that for practical reasons putting them all together made more sense. But the fact they went against the author’s wishes lingers in your mind as you set out on the journey.

The first part concerns itself with three critics, a Spaniard, Italian and German, who have dedicated their academic lives to studying an obscure German author Archimboldi who has never received widespread critical acclaim. As they share a love for his work they also get involved with each other and the introduction of a British female academic who takes two of them as lovers spices it up a bit.

But this is also about the hunt for the lost author and the attempt to pull him out of obscurity not just academically but also literally. The hunt takes them to the last known citing in an industrial town in Mexico. Leaving the aging Italian at home the others head off and find a landscape of dreams, murder and drug trade fuelled madness. They almost lose themselves, particularly mentally, in the hunt for Archimboldi.

Having left the critics the second section turns to one of the Mexican professors they met at the local University. He displays signs of madness and in many respects apart from his connection with the critics from book one he doesn’t appear to be taking the story forward.

But then it starts to become slightly clearer that this is as much about Mexico and the killings of numerous women in Santa Teresa as it is about the reclusive author. The awareness that the priority is shifting to focus on the hundreds of murders in Mexico creeps up on you and rather disappoints because having invested a chunk of time in the critics in part one they clearly have served their purpose and have exited stage left.

Although the question is whether or not they really had. Because of the way the story ends unfinished there are many questions that you circulate round the mind and one of them is whether or not the critics would have reappeared.

Part three concerns an American journalist who is sent to Saint Teresa to cover a boxing match and starts to become interested in writing about the murders. He overlaps with the Mexican professor ion part two by running away with his daughter. But there seems to be little about Archimboldi, nothing about the critics and all about Mexico and murder.

That sets things up for part four where the novel becomes a catalogue of murder descriptions which provide the reader with an insight into the extent of the problem but none of the answers about who is responsible. The potential suspect, who winds up in prison, is a German born computer salesman who happened to have a brief acquaintance with one of the victims. He denies it and importantly the killings continue.

Things go back in time to tell the story of Archimboldi and his emergence as a literary talent. Against a backdrop of the Second World War and his experience on the Eastern front the young German uses the war and his experiences to relaunch himself. He maintains a relationship with his publisher but his constant movement across the globe makes him appear reclusive.

Many times you ask yourself as you plough on through the 900 plus pages where this is going. The problem is that after a while you stop caring about whether or not Archimboldi comes out into the light and if he is able to stop his nephew from going to prison for the murders in Mexico.

If anything this book is about mystery. The mystery of the Mexican landscape and the impact on a town by the drugs trade. The mystery of academic ambition and the reclusive writer. But also the mystery of writing with the story something that you never quite capture like a heat haze on one of the highways on the outskirts of the Saint Teresa that Bolano describes so well.

By the end you feel frustrated, puzzled and tired. But there are ideas and images that you take away that make the investment of time worth while. The problem is waiting for the puzzlement to go away and the more positive thoughts to collate. That can take almost as much time as reading the book.

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