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.
The Part about Archimboldi is the final chapter of 2666 and follows the life of Hans Reiter, who from humble beginnings in Prussia goes on to fight in the Second World War, before turning to writing and transforming into the elusive Benno von Archimboldi. The very same, Nobel Prize nominated Archimboldi that the academics from The Part about the Critics travelled to Santa Teresa in the hope of finding.
Once again Bolaño delivers the unexpected. After The Part about the Crimes the reader may have expected to continue in Santa Teresa, perhaps getting closer to the reason behind the violence, or to the identity of the perpetrators. But no, and now, having read the chapter and had time to reflect, I am completely fine with that. At first I was disappointed that the final chapter we have for 2666 focuses solely on the life of Hans Reiter. While there are some fascinating and beautiful pieces of Bolaño prose, it does not initially address (at least, not directly) the events in Santa Teresa. But is that a problem? Given the sprawling nature of 2666, would it have been naive to expect answers to the questions; what is the truth behind the killings? what is wrong in Santa Teresa? who is responsible? Perhaps these questions are too narrow, too focused. Are these the questions Bolaño really wants us to ask?
Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers.
Some stories don’t need answers, or can’t be answered. Some problems can’t be solved. In fact I’m sure I wasn’t alone in a sense of relief and peace of the beginnings of the life of Hans Reiter; a far cry from the horror and bleakness that the previous chapter had inflicted. Sure, there are some dark and ominous overtones that are present throughout each part of 2666.
But the introduction to Hans Reiter is an almost pleasant change of pace after the bludgeoning Part about the Crimes. The Part about Archimboldi reads like a fairy-tale (or perhaps a more accurate term I’ve seen used for this part, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale of German origins). We are introduced to the strange child of a one-legged man and a one-eyed woman, taller than boys twice his age and obsessed with seaweed, feeling more at ease underwater than on land. As time passes Bolaño fills Reiter’s life with a plethora of strange and fascinating characters and relationships (some indirect).
Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone. Hans Reiter was an exception. He feared neither the healthy nor the diseased. He never got bored. He was always eager to help and he greatly valued the notion — so vague, so malleable, so warped — of friendship. The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man’s sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then, too, then, too, then, too.
A friendship with the son of a lord, whose manor is full of collected paintings of dead women. The readings of the journal of a Soviet writer, Ansky, and in turn, Ansky’s friendship with Soviet science-fiction writer, Ivanov. The intense, sexually charged, terminally-ill Ingeborg, the love of Reiter’s life. Mr. Bubis, the owner of a publishing house and Archimboldi’s editor (once Reiter turns to writing after several disturbing and haunting experiences at war). The Baroness Von Zumpe (later Mrs. Bubis), with whom Archimboldi shares a relationship once Ingeborg passes, and whom continues to support and publish Archimboldi when Bubis dies (his prolific and expansive body of work eventually gains him a nomination for a Nobel Prize, and of course a critical following).
Yes, there are frequently stories within anecdotes within spiralling narratives that allow Reiter/Archimboldi/Bolaño to speak in depth on literary circles, publishing, history and politics in particular during and after the Second World War, what role if any can art and literature play in tolerating this inherently evil world. In tones satircal and philisophical. It’s difficult to tell which is which at times. And are there moments when it is all overblown, it can be too much, where we start to wonder if Bolaño is showing off? Maybe. But few and far between. In all honesty Bolaño’s prose often leaves me with a big grin.
Reiter said the first thing that came into his head.
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi.”
The old man looked him in the eye and said don’t play games with me, what’s your real name?
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi, sir,” said Reiter, “and if you think I’m joking I’d better go.”
For a few seconds both were silent. The old man’s eyes were dark brown, although in the dim light of his study they looked black. Archimboldi’s eyes were blue and to the old man they looked like the eyes of a young poet, tired, strained, reddened, but young and in a certain sense pure, although it had been a long time since the old man stopped believing in purity.
“This country,” he said to Reiter, who that afternoon, perhaps, became Archimboldi, “has tried to topple any number of countries into the abyss in the name of purity and will. As far as I’m concerned, you understand, purity and will are utter tripe. Thanks to purity and will we’ve all, every one of us, hear me you, become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same. Now we sob and moan and say we didn’t know! we had no idea! it was the Nazis! we never would have done such a thing! We know how to whimper. We know how to drum up sympathy. We don’t care whether we’re mocked so long as they pity us and forgive us. They’ll be plenty of time for us to embark on a long holiday of forgetting. Do you understand me?”
But going back to those loose ends; towards the end of The Part about Archimboldi, and the conclusion of 2666, Benno von Archimboldi is an old man in his eighties, and his sister Lotte calls on him for help. For Lotte’s son, and Archimboldi’s nephew, is none other than Klaus Haas, the German living in Santa Teresa whom has been accused of the rape and murder of several women. And it’s here I remind myself of an earlier confrontation between Haas and his cellmate, a rancher.
Don’t cover your head, he said aloud and in a booming voice, you’re still going to die. And who’s going to kill me you gringo son of a bitch? You? Not me, motherfucker, said Haas, a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he’s going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. . .A little while later, however, Haas, called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.
Foreshadowing in the form of a gangly and tall Reiter, a man who fought in the war, killed and murdered, a man who is capable of incredible violence.
“It’s me,” said Archimboldi, “your brother.”
That night they talked until dawn. Lotte talked about Klaus’s dreams, the dreams in which he saw a giant who would rescue him from prison, although you, she said to Archimboldi, don’t look like a giant anymore.
“I never was a giant,” said Archimboldi as he paced Lotte’s living room and dining room and stopped next to a shelf that held more than a dozen of his books.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Lotte after a long silence. “I don’t have the strength. I don’t understand anything and the little I do frightens me. Nothing makes sense,” said Lotte.
In part one Archimboldi was almost mythical. His story builds him into a figure of unearthly power, and yet here we are at the end of the book, with an eighty year old man. A brilliant writer yes, but what kind of a man is he? What kind of a life has he lead? And what will he be able to do in Santa Teresa (which he does at the end of the novel, confirming his presence in the country in part one), that the rest of the world can not? Is he going to free his nephew? Or does he hold a much larger role to play, in the stopping of the crimes?
“Look, the sun is coming up. Would you like some tea, coffee, a glass of water?”
Archimboldi sat down and stretched his legs. The bones cracked.
“Will you take care of it all?”
“A beer,” he said.
“I don’t have a beer,” said Lotte. “Will you take care of it all?”
…Soon afterward he left the park and the next morning he was on his way to Mexico.
I expect the obliqueness of a piece of work like 2666 will not appeal to all and The Part about Archimboldi is no different in its certainty to divide readers. Some may expect a novel that hits nearly 900 pages to deliver a little more in terms of definitive answers. In a piece of work this diverse I don’t believe answers are necessary, nor would they add to the novel in any meaningful way. Truthfully they would change the very essence of the story Bolaño is trying to tell. It’s taken the best part of six months since finishing the novel to fully absorb this novel, and even then I feel the surface has barely been scratched, and nor am I under any illusion that justice has been done. 2666 showcases Bolaño’s obscenely gifted imagination, remarkable grasp of language, and a willingness to create a piece of literature that is not bound by accord or expectation, but instead will have the power to challenge and induce debate for decades to come. In other words, 2666 is a masterpiece.