2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.
Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So in coming weeks I intend to cover each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.
2666 is apocalyptic, dark, complex. For a long time I have wanted to read this book but its length, among other factors, has pushed it back. But in December 2015 I finally started (and finished) 2666, and it matched, surpassed and shattered my expectations all at once. But The Part about the Critics was an…interesting opening that did not comply with my assumptions for the book; at least, not at first. Part 1 consists of a mere 159 pages, but those pages are strewn with feverish ideas and a dark foreboding.
As the title of the chapter might suggest, Bolaño introduces us to a group of European literary critics: Jean-Claude Pelletier of Paris, Manuel Espinoza of Madrid, Liz Norton of London, and Piero Morini of Rome. These four academics share an expertise is one particular author, the German Benno von Archimboldi, an elusive, seemingly introverted figure largely unknown by most of Europe. But these critics meet, and their shared passion for Archimboldi leads them to form a fiercely loyal clique in which they frequently talk on the phone and travel together to meet at conferences and literary gathering across Europe.
Initially the relative mundanity of literary academia shouldn’t be as compelling as it is – but it is compelling. We are given a glimpse into the world of the critics. We hear the Archimboldi-obsessed critics compare the author to the greats of German literature, the likes of Mann and Goethe, yet we are never really given a reason as to why, nor any evidence of his literary accomplishments. They are possessive of Archimboldi. They regard other critics outside of their group as inferior, below them, and that they are the defining rule on Archimboldi. Note, that all four critics are not German themselves.
The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier’s fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.
I feel there is the possibility of self-reference, in terms of Bolaño and the cult of Archimboldi – maybe Bolaño is poking fun at himself, and academic satire is rife in this first chapter – but at this stage I know relatively little about Bolaño’s career and work; indeed, 2666 is my first experience of the Chilean author, but it won’t be the last.
The academic friendship between the critics grows into something much stronger as time passes, especially between Norton, Pelletier and Espinoza, the three of whom become entangled in a bizarre sexual relationship, of which there is no jealousy between the two men, rather an enhanced form of camaraderie and a shared love for Norton.
What I adore is the dark and unsettling tone the chapter has – a feat especially impressive because I still can’t put my finger on what, or why, this is. Yes, there are outbursts of violence and disturbing dreams towards the end of the chapter, but the sense of ill-feeling comes well before all that. A steadily increasing and menacing threat of violence, of a descent in madness. Finally it comes to a head, in a brutal and sudden attack by Espinoza and Pelletier on a cab driver, with Norton looking on.
When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the ménage à trois they’d so often dreamed of.
As mentioned violence is present in the traumatic dreams, or nightmares, that haunt the critics, particularly in, but not limited to, Santa Teresa. Part 1 may not share the blunt and descriptive brutality of Part 4, but violence is visible throughout, from the mentally unstable artist Edwin Johns (who cuts off his own hand in the name of art and money), to the brawling ‘war’ between taxi drivers and bouncers in Mexico City. Violence begins to cloud the minds of the critics, bringing both subtle and hard eruptions of disagreement and confrontation. Indications of darker times ahead.
How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.
The catalyst for the change is the search for Archimboldi. Through anecdotes and visits, the critics manage to pin down the author in a Mexican city named Santa Teresa (…the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape…) and they all agree to fly out to Mexico in the hopes of finally meeting their revered writer. Interestingly, at the last minute, Morini (who is permanently wheelchair bound due to an accident earlier in his life) chooses not to travel; perhaps he anticipates a change in the normally (once?) civil Espinoza and Pelletier, and fears things can only get worse in Santa Teresa.
They were convinced the city was growing by the second. On the far edge of Santa Teresa, they saw flocks of black vultures, watchful, walking through barren fields, birds that here were called turkey vultures, and also turkey buzzards. Where there were vultures, they noted, there were no other birds. They drank tequila and beer and ate tacos at a motel on the Santa Teresa-Caborca highway, at outdoor tables with a view. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
The critics are well-versed in Archimboldi’s work, but are seemingly out of their depth in the actual hunt for the elusive writer. In Santa Teresa, their behaviour and states of mind become increasingly chaotic as they struggle to rationalise their environment. In Santa Teresa, even intelligent people can be easily lost. The critics obsess over finding Archimboldi, but instead they find – Santa Teresa? Standing on the precipice of a void, unfathomable to such an extent that they will never comprehend it without losing their sanity.
These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. But Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn’t understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them…And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself…