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.
Between reading 2666 for the first time (I finished the book in January 16) and revisiting each part months later, it has become clear to me that this book is one of the most challenging, multi-layered, indescribable pieces of literature I’ve experienced. In the three parts that proceed The Part about the Crimes (The Critics, Amalfitano, Fate), going back to these characters and narratives has been a hugely rewarding experience. There is so much more to gain, things I have missed, subtleties recognised. Crimes has been a little more difficult to revisit. Given the chapter focuses, in detail, on the titular crimes that are taking place in Santa Teresa – the murders of hundreds of women – it is harrowing and brutal in a way the previous chapters were not. They disturbed, or rather, they unsettled the reader with untold dread and unseen violence. Now they are unavoidable, the crimes, they are here. They are catalogued explicitly and in depth, and Bolaño’s delivery behind this technique is something that has caused a lot of debate.
Santa Teresa is Bolaño’s fictional portrayal of the northern Mexican city Ciudad Juarez. The events of 2666 are somewhat based on reality; a reality where hundreds of women have being violently killed since 1993 (from what I gather, the overall murder rate in the city, and the percentage of which are female victims, has declined steadily since 2010). The chapter marks a change in content and tone as Bolaño systematically delivers the murders of 112 woman in Santa Teresa between 1993 to 1997.
…January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.
Bolaño shocks the reader with the repetition of the discovered bodies, which read like police reports: forensic, detailed, frequently explicit. They feel detached and indifferent and seems to mirror the frightening lack of action being taken in Santa Teresa to combat the murders. It’s an incredibly difficult chapter to read. Hundreds of women (and many young girls) are found in various states of decay, having been shot or stabbed or strangled and their bodies discarded in Santa Teresa or the surrounding desert. Often raped. Sometimes tortured.
A week after the discovery of the corpse of the thirteen-year-old girl on the outskirts of El Obelisco, the body of a girl about sixteen was found in the Cananea highway. The dead girl was a little under five foot four and slightly built, and she had long black hair. She had been stabbed only once, in the abdomen, a stab so deep that the blade had literally pierced her through. But her death, according to the medical examiner, was caused by strangulation and a fracture of the hyoid bone. The victim, according to the police, was probably a hitchhiker who had been raped on her way to Santa Teresa. All attempts to identify her were in vain and the case was closed.
There are few patterns to the killings. The victims are female – generally, they are young, and often have long dark hair (but, as someone says, that fits the profile for many women in Santa Teresa), and many of the victims work in low-income jobs at the numerous maquiladoras across the city. But establishing motives and culprits is more difficult. Most, but not all, are raped, vaginally and anally. Most are strangled, but some are stabbed. Some of the killings exhibit common traits, many do not. The killings do not make sense, no matter how hard the police or the reader tries to link them – an effort which might go some way to making some sort of sense, and therefore an explanation, from the crimes. Some of the murders are by husbands or boyfriends, results of domestic violence, but the vast majority are carried out by unknown killers and remain unsolved. What is clear is the life of women here in Santa Teresa is cheap and violence is nothing out of the ordinary.
On November 16 the body of another woman was found on the back lot of the Kusai maquiladora, in Colonia San Bartolomé. According to the initial examination, the victim was between eighteen and twenty-two and the cause of death, according to the forensic report, was asphyxiation due to strangulation. She was completely naked and her clothes were found five yards away, hidden in the bushes. Actually, not all of her clothes were found, just a pair of black leggings and red panties. Two days later, she was identified by her parents as Rosario Marquina, nineteen, who disappeared on November 12 while she was out dancing at Salon Montana on Avenida Carranza, not far from Colonia Veracruz, where they lived. It just so happened that both the victim and her parents worked at the Kusai maquiladora. According to the medical examiners the victim was raped several times before she died.
Throughout the 300+ pages of the chapter the reports continued to have a profound effect on me. I would have imagined the repetition of the reports would start to lose their effect somewhat, but they do not. Perhaps the shock wears off – perhaps a sense of numbness to the reports of rape and murder – but that blunt trauma is replaced by an equally unpleasant anger and frustration at the inevitability of it all. Questions begin to be raised. When did this start? Is there a pattern? Who is responsible? What is being done to prevent this? Is the world watching? Does it even care? But one thing is certain; the murders continue to plague the city.
In The Part about the Crimes, the central characters are the crimes and the dead victims themselves. Bolaño intersects several narratives, following an ensemble cast that support and contextualise the chapter rather than drive it. Juan de Dios Martínez is one of the many police detectives in the city tasked with investigating the femicide as well as a serial church desecrator, and is romantically involved with the director of an insane asylum. Florita Almada, a seer and psychic who makes an appearance on local television to speak of the crimes. Harry Magaña, a US sheriff who arrives in Santa Teresa after a woman from his town becomes one of the victims, and becomes overwhelmed himself by the darkness.
Arguably the most intriguing subplot in Crimes revolves around Klaus Haas, the tall German inmate we were introduced to at the end of The Part about Fate. Haas becomes a suspect when a girl who once visited his computer store is murdered, and despite a lack of evidence is incarcerated in the Santa Teresa prison. The media celebrate and many believe that Haas had been involved in many more of the deaths, yet despite Haas being locked up, the crimes continue like before. Haas is a fascinating character, one that could be analysed in more depth, as so much is left open and unconfirmed by Bolaño. We don’t know whether Haas was involved in any of the murders – I suspect not – but he is clearly ‘different’. He thrives in the prison, making allegiances, obtaining cell phones and organising press conferences for himself. He is unsettling, resourceful, mysterious; for me, Klaus Haas is the character that most embodies what 2666 is all about.
While Haas does some awful things while in prison, I don’t believe he can be called an antagonist. I don’t believe there is an antagonist personified, which makes the crimes all the more hard to take – there is no one for the reader to hate, to detest, to pin the blame on. Let the catharsis of hate absolve them of the pain. The sense of injustice and inevitability is exhausting. On the whole, the lack police force appear corrupt and rotten to the core. Former bodyguard turned policeman, young Lalo Cura’s professionalism, honesty and dedication to the job is mocked by his peers. Fellow officers who reel off sexist jokes, gang rape incarcerated prostitutes, and are incapable of halting the never-ending string of death.
Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.
The Part about the Crimes is the dark, horrifying heart of 2666, the epicentre of all that has been whispered of, alluded to, seen through disturbing visions and vidid nightmares, overheard on the streets and seen in violent patches. Frightening but absolutely necessary, for without the crimes there is no book. Despite that it reveals next to nothing of the possible culprits, nor their motives. What can we understand of Bolaño’s cryptic and mystical personal view on the world? Is there anything positive we can extrapolate from such a view, when the book is concerned almost entirely by violence and death? After reading Crimes it’s hard to be optimistic.