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 an 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 over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.
Óscar Amalfitano is a Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa. Also, he is an expert on Benno von Archimboldi, and acted as a guide to the critics when they came to Mexico in Part 1. They did not think much of him at first…
The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place…Espinoza and Pelletier saw him as a failed man, failed above all because he had lived and taught in Europe, who tried to protect himself with a veneer of toughness but whose innate gentleness gave him away in the act. But Norton’s impression was of a sad man whose life was ebbing swiftly away and who would rather do anything than serve them as guide to Santa Teresa.
But it was clear to them all that the Chilean professor was distant, not entirely functioning and present in his own mind. Something is affecting Amalfitano; inner turmoil, the effect of Santa Teresa, stress, a cry for help. Help.
“Amalfitano was here today,” said Pelletier.
In his opinion, the Chilean professor’s nerves were shot. Pelletier had invited him to take a dip in the pool. Since he didn’t have bathing trunks Pelletier had picked up a pair for him at the reception desk. Everything seemed to be going fine. But when Amalfitano got in the pool, he froze, as if he’d suddenly seen the devil. Then he sank. Before he went under, Pelletier remembered, he covered his mouth with both hands. In any case, he made no attempt to swim. Fortunately, Pelletier was there and it was easy to dive down and bring him back up to the surface. Then they each had a whiskey, and Amalfitano explained that it had been a long time since he swam.
And in Part 2 it becomes obvious that Amalfitano appears to be losing his mind. Madness is contagious. This line is uttered not once but twice in this chapter, and whether or not Amalfitano is crazy, or is going crazy, is certainly up for debate – but Amalfitano is at least aware enough to realise this fact for himself, as he struggles to cope in the spiralling hell of Mexican desert that is Santa Teresa.
I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.
Amalfitano moved to Santa Teresa from Barcelona with his daughter Rosa, of whom he alone has raised since she was two. Her mother, and Amalfitano’s (ex?)wife Lola, walked out a long time ago, and Lola’s travels and letters to Amalfitano form the first half of Part 2. Already a healthy dose of ‘unhinged’ characters have appeared in 2666, and Lola certainly fits the bill. She has an obsession with a young poet whom she believes she can cure of his homosexuality. She seems to seek madness. We read of Lola’s bizarre relationship with the poet, with a truck driver named Larrazabal, her journey across Europe to cemeteries and insane asylums – although it’s worth mentioning that at all times I was sceptical of Lola’s exploits for she does not strike one as a reliable narrator. Lola’s quest and adoration for the poet is not without similarities to the critic’s search for Archimboldi in Part 1. Eventually Lola returns to Amalfitano and Rosa, but not for long – even more distant and somewhat clairvoyant, she leaves again and Amalfitano does not hear from her again, but he strongly suspects she is dead.
One afternoon while sorting through boxes of books Amalfitano discovers the Testamento geométrico, by Rafael Dieste, a book detailing complex geometry – ‘a subject that meant next to nothing to Amalfitano’. And he cannot remember for the life of him where he got this book, why he would have brought it back from Barcelona, and rather than let it go he allows the mystery to consume him.
At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste’s book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?
Unable to let go of this small perplexity Amalfitano becomes obsessed with Dieste’s book, and decides to hang it from the clothesline in his back garden, ‘leaving a geometry book hanging exposed to the elements to see if it learns something about real life’, transforming it into a Duchamp-inspired ‘readymade’. This is referenced neatly in Part 1 as the critics take an interest in the book one afternoon when having lunch at Amalfitano’s house.
Amalfitano watched them from the window, biting his lip, although the look on his face (just then at least) wasn’t of desperation or importance but of deep, boundless sadness.
When the critics showed the first sign of turning around, Amalfitano retreated, returning rapidly to the kitchen, where he pretended to be intent on making lunch.
And so the book transcends into something much more than a book. Subconsciously he draws triangles, he lists the names of philosophers and formulas. Supply+demand+magic. Perhaps hope that, left, to nature, the book can become, something more, a compass that can steer him out of troubled waters amid blood and mortal wounds and stench, something thus far his mind has been able to do. Like Amalfitano, the book is now rootless.
Amalfitano’s madness could all too easily be related on the deaths of the young women in Santa Teresa, yet the crimes are never explicitly spoken or thought about by Amalfitano. Strange, considering he has a young daughter who frequently goes out late into this city. If Amalfitano’s descent into madness is caused by the worry for his daughter’s safety in such a violent and dangerous place, then why does his response seem to be inaction? Is Amalfitano’s inaction his way of rationalising the things that are occurring in Santa Teresa, happening all around him? And soon a voice begins to speak to him (never a good sign). The voice(s) Amalfitano hears, portrayed to be his father’s, or possibly grandfather’s, asks him a series of questions that he can’t answer. Why are you here? What are you doing here? Are you a homosexual?
And you’ve also thought about your daughter, said the voice, and about the murders committed daily in this city, and about Baudelaire’s faggoty (I’m sorry) clouds, but you haven’t thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand. That isn’t true, said Amalfitano, I have thought about it, I have. If you had thought about it, said the voice, you’d be dancing to the tune of a different piper. And Amalfitano was silent and he felt the silence was a kind of eugenics. He looked at his watch. It was four in the morning.
Because unlike Amalfitano, the voice does speak of the murders in Santa Teresa. Which made me think that when the voice considers them, perhaps this is the only way Amalfitano can confront the fear he has been trying to suppress. Is it Amalfitano’s subconscious? Perhaps berating himself for not taking Rosa and himself the hell away from Santa Teresa? The voice could have a point – why, when Amalfitano has a 17 year old daughter, who goes out and stays out late like young girls do, does he not take action, in a city where such heinous and unstoppable crimes are being carried out? Or does he feel like there is no escape? That the problems lie not just in Santa Teresa?
The son of the University of Santa Teresa’s Dean Guerra, Marco Antonio Guerra spends some time with Amalfitano towards the end of Part 2, and together the critics suspect the two of being gay, but later decide ‘the bond between the Chilean professor and the dean’s son was more socratic than homosexual, and this is some way put their minds at ease, since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano’. Young Marco Antonio is full of youthful and privileged arrogance but displays menacing aggression and perversely admits to Amalfitano of purposely getting into fights at bars against homophobes, whom he seems to try and bait, to elicit combat. Violence is everywhere in this city. I did like this quote that he tells Amalfitano very close to the end of Part 2, however.
“I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry – and let me be clear, only some of it – is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”
I can’t help but feel this is a playful jab at literature, and maybe even self-reference. Because to me, Bolaño’s prose is poetry. It ebbs and flows. The Part About Amalfitano is so wonderfully intrinsic compared to Part 1, and despite the ongoing themes of darkness and insanity and violence, it remains remarkably calm for the most part. On first read it may seem meandering and inconsequential, but subsequent visits reveal so much more. I regard Amalfitano as a man almost at peace with his descent into madness. As if it has caught him in its tendrils and hope is lost. But perhaps there is a way he can save his daughter Rosa, more of whom we will see in Part 3.