By Roberto Bolano
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 912 pp., $30)
WELL, IT’S not dead yet. The modernist idea, which is really a Romantic idea, that the truest art comes from the margins, from the social depths, from revolt and disgust and dispossession, from endless cigarettes and a single worn overcoat, is still, in this age of MFA’s and faculty appointments, when Pound’s “make it new” long ago became Podhoretz’s “making it”—is still, still, however improbably alive. A young man can still get up in a Mexico City bookstore and declare war on the literary establishment, give the finger to coffeehouses and Octavio Paz, plunge like a burning wreck into willed obscurity, toil in poverty for twenty years, and wind up forging, at the cost of youth and health and finally life, works that mark a time and point a new way forward.
This was Roberto Bolano’s story, and beyond his works’ particular merits—which are indeed great, though not quite as great as generally claimed—their value is just this: the tremendous courage that they bespeak. The audacity of Bolano’s fiction, its disregard for convention and even probability, puts me in mind of a remark a friend once made after a jazz concert. I said I thought the keyboard player had really been taking chances, and he said, “No, he wasn’t taking chances, he was doing whatever the fuck he wanted.” In every sentence he wrote, every image he conceived, every compositional choice he made, Bolano did whatever the fuck he wanted. In his art as in his life, he left a record of headlong daring that will become a rallying point for young writers for years to come. His myriad-minded fiction adumbrates no theory and swears allegiance to no school, embodying instead an unending search for new aesthetic and moral questions. At a time when the novel, at least in this country, has retreated into caution, he demonstrates again what is possible in fiction—which is to say, anything. His forms are sui generis, there is no emulating them, but his form-making is exemplary.
It is hard to believe that scarcely a dozen years have passed since the publication of Bolano’s first significant work, Nazi Literature in the Americas, scarcely ten since the novel that made his reputation,The Savage Detectives, and scarcely five since his books started appearing in English. His work came out in a rush, and it has come upon us in a torrent. Bolano was born in Chile in 1953 but spent his formative years in Mexico, dropping out of school after his family arrived in 1968. He threw himself into the capital’s demimonde, cultivated the style of an enfant terrible and poete maudit and read everything he could get his hands on—literally, since he supplied his bibliographic needs by shoplifting. His literary idols were the French Symbolists and the Latin American avant-garde (he disdained Neruda as much as Paz, and as much as he would later disdain Garcia Marquez). His bookstore manifesto, “Leave It All Again,” sought to launch the poetic movement that he called “infrarealism,” which was designed to return poetry to poverty and risk, the streets and the road.
But Bolano took his own principles too seriously to sustain the group for very long. He left it himself the following year, in 1977, to follow the well-trod path of literary exile to Europe. Years of vagabondage followed, mostly in and around Barcelona, but the birth of a son in 1990 convinced him that he needed to find a better way to make a living than odd jobs and poetry. Fiction-writing would not seem to have been the wisest choice, but it proved a fortunate one. Though Bolano, like Thomas Hardy, never stopped regarding poetry as his true calling and the higher art, from then until his death in 2003 he produced at least thirteen volumes of fiction (posthumous publication continues). His models now were Borges and Cortazar, Melville and Mark Twain and James Ellroy and Joyce. (His reading, which remained voracious, would have put a committee full of academics to shame.) He knew since 1992 about the liver disease that would ultimately kill him, and he committed himself to producing at least one book per year, racing for immortality under the shadow of death.
BOLAÑO’S OUTPUT includes novels, novellas, short-story collections, volumes of poetry (the first, The Romantic Dogs, is now available in English) and the unclassifiable Nazi Literature, a sort of Borgesian taxonomy. But above this broad range of work two great mountains loom, The Savage Detectives and 2666. The Savage Detectives, at over six hundred pages, is a portrait of the artist on an epic scale and an act of selfmythologization to rival Joyce. It tells the stories of Arturo Belano, the author’s alter ego, and Ulises Lima (whose name provides another point of Joycean contact), fictional avatar of Mario Santiago, the fellow infrarealist who accompanied Bolano on his European escape before heading off on his own trail of wandering and return. But it tells their stories in a cunningly oblique way, through the depositions of some thirty-eight characters, spread across eight countries and twenty years, who collectively produce a picture not only of these two elusive “visceral realists” (as the movement gets renamed for fictional purposes), but of their whole sprawling milieu: Mexican dives, Parisian crash pads, Californian suburbs, Spanish squats; cafes, studios, newspapers and jails; hot sex and heartbreak, crackdowns and crack-ups; poetry, politics, madness and death; hookers and thugs, earth mothers and fatherly sages, social-climbing scribblers and slumming upper-class poets manques; lawyers, generals, secretaries, professors and finally even the great Paz himself—everything and everyone that Bolano encountered along his odyssey.
The variety of Bolano’s invention is exhilarating, the range of his sympathy immense. A master syntactician, he can conjure up a distinct, intimate, urgent voice in the space of a few lines:
I’m the mother of Mexican poetry.
I know all the poets and all the poets
know me. I met Arturo Belano when
he was sixteen years old and he was a
shy boy who didn’t know how to drink.
I’m Uruguayan, from Montevideo,
but one day I came to Mexico without
knowing exactly why, or what for,
or how, or when.
Discipline and a kind of ingratiating
charm, those are the keys to getting
where you want to go. Discipline:
writing every morning for at least six
hours. Writing every morning and
revising in the afternoons and reading
like a fiend at night. Charm, or ingratiation:
visiting writers at home or going
up to them at book parties and telling
them exactly what they want to hear.
What they desperately want to hear.
... Rafael and I were still living in
Mexico and we went to see a Cuban
poet, let’s go see him, Rafael, I said,
you are a man of the people and that
faggot will have to recognize how talented
you are whether he wants to or
not, and Rafael said: but I’m a visceral
realist, Barbarita, and I said don’t be
a dumb shit, your goddamn balls are
visceral realist, will you face the fucking
truth for once in your life, darling? so
Rafael and I went to see the great lyric
poet of the Revolution ...
This last from a sentence that runs for a full page, from a monologue about a pair of characters only tangentially connected to the two principals. Bolano’s method is a kind of controlled sprawl. His larger narrative units are as brilliantly constructed as his sentences, each vignette as polished as a short story, every chapter precisely balanced, all of them adding up to a massive coherence. As the novel slowly completes its Homeric return, coming back around in time and space and theme, the emotional momentum becomes overwhelming. Like the great modernists, Bolano is a classicist in disguise, giving form to the contemporary chaos by containing fragmentation within a larger harmony.
But with a postmodernist’s distrust for the totalizing explanation, he also deliberately fractures his forms. Wrapped around the testimonies of the thirty-eight is the narrative of Juan Garcia Madero, a teenage bohemian who tags along with Belano and Lima on an expedition to the Sonoran desert in northern Mexico. The trip’s dual purpose is to protect a prostitute from her vengeful pimp and to track down Cesarea Tinajero, a long-lost avant-garde poet with whom the two visceral realists are obsessed. In Parts I and III, Garcia Madero’s story, Belano and Lima race immediately north ahead of their pursuers, the kid and the hooker in tow. In Part II, they occupy the same interval of time by spending the night in Mexico City with an old acquaintance of Tinajero’s, and they are unaccompanied by anyone else. In I and III, Garcia Madero becomes a friend of theirs. In II, no one has ever heard of him (or, except for a lunatic, of the whole journey north), and Bolano pointedly begins the section’s last chapter with the testimony of an academic expert who swears that he never existed. In II, Belano and Lima wind up in Africa or back in Mexico; in I and III, they wind up in oblivion. In other words, there is simply no way to reconcile the novel’s two halves, as if Bolano had passed his narrative through a prism, splitting it into two divergent trajectories.
Similar things happen at lower levels of structure. The witnesses in Part II observe Belano and Lima from every conceivable angle, but their accounts contradict one another. Belano, especially, looks like a different person to everyone who knows him. The method resembles Cubism; it is no accident that one section makes repeated reference to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The effect is to make the two characters seem at once more solid and more flimsy. As one of their acquaintances says, “it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.” At the level of the sentence, the novel’s language is equally spongy with doubt. Characters are constantly revising their testimony, questioning their memories. Sentences run on past certainty into “or maybes” and “then agains.” The tissues of the narrative disintegrate in our very hands. These characters are telling stories, and their stories, just like the ones in real life, are full of holes. Memories fail, motives are obscure, bias occludes the object of interest like an eclipsing moon. Stories are not answers, and lead only to more questions—which lead to more stories. We can play the detective, even savagely, as Belano and Lima do with Tinajero, but ultimately we are unknowable to one another. Finally, because all we have is our memories, and memories are just another set of stories, we are unknowable even to ourselves. Bolano spends a whole book pursuing Belano with bloodhound and magnifying glass, hot on the trail of himself, but at both ends of the forking path, the trail goes cold.
HAVING WRITTEN an epic of the self, Bolano turned to something even more ambitious: an epic of the world. In the paradigmatic terms established by Joyce for the modernist literary career, he moved from A Portrait of the Artist to Ulysses. In the terms set out by Bolano himself for fiction in the Americas, he went from Huckleberry Finn to Moby-Dick. The subject of The Savage Detectives was the journey: from youth to middle age, idealism to experience, urgency to banality, even, implicitly, from poetry to prose. The subject of 2666 would be nothing less than the nature of evil.
The question had been one of Bolano’s obsessions since at least as far back as Nazi Literature in the Americas, as the title of that volume suggests. Bolano had arrived in Mexico City in 1968 shortly before the massacre of student demonstrators at the Autonomous University, an event memorialized in Amulet, the novella that followed The Savage Detectives. In 1973, he returned to Allende’s Chile just in time to get caught, briefly, in the right-wing coup, and the complicity of artists and intellectuals with the Pinochet regime forms the subject of two of his finest short works,Distant Star and By Night in Chile. Central to Bolano’s historical identity was his sense of belonging to a generation blighted by the dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Amulet ends with a vision of these “ghost-children” marching “into the abyss,” “a whole generation of young Latin Americans led to sacrifice.” Last Evenings on Earth, a short-story collection, speaks of “the violence that will not let us be. The lot of Latin Americans born in the fifties.” Violence and the threat of violence are everywhere in Bolano’s work. His very similes tend toward violence, often for no apparent reason—”my hand hung limp, like a dead ballerina’s”; “The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower”—as if violence were his essential frame of reference, the root condition of his imaginative universe.
In the mid-1990s, events in Mexico, his beloved and adopted, abandoned and regretted home, began to provide Bolano with the materials with which to raise the question of violence and the evil it embodies to the highest level of intensity. In about 1993, the city of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, started to experience an almost inconceivable series of killings that continues to this day. By now, more than four hundred women have been murdered, most of them young, many of them raped, some of them tortured, nearly all of them dumped in garbage heaps or empty lots or out in the desert. Arrests have been made, but the real criminals have yet to be found, and it seems increasingly clear that the murderers have connections to and are being shielded by some combination of corrupt politicians and policemen and powerful narcotics traffickers and industrialists. (Juarez is a center of both the drug trade and maquiladora manufacture.) The victims, many of them teenagers, tend to be factory workers who have migrated north in search of employment: poor, rootless, vulnerable, without rights or protections, the weakest of the weak—a new lost Latin American generation.
It is around these events that Bolano constructs his novel. Ciudad Juarez is renamed Santa Teresa and shifted west to his old imaginative haunt of Sonora. (The fictional city had been named in The Savage Detectives as one of the places through which the ghostly Tinajero has passed. Bolano was already wrestling with 2666 when the earlier work was being drafted.) The novel’s longest section takes us through the first five years of killings in an almost forensic fashion, 108 case reports that constitute both a steady drumbeat of depravity and a kind of epic enumeration, a fulfillment of art’s most basic function, to bear witness:
The next dead woman appeared in
October, at the dump in the Arsenio
Farrell industrial park. Her name was
Marta Navales Gomez. She was twenty
years old, five foot seven, and she had
long brown hair. She had been missing
from home for two days. She was
dressed in a bathrobe and stockings
that her parents didn’t recognize as
hers. She had been anally and vaginally
raped several times. The cause of death
Threading these accounts together—Bolano again demonstrating his mastery of narrative structure—is a whole set of through lines that work in mutual counterpoint, the stories of some dozen characters connected in one way or another to the crimes, mostly, because the perpetrators remain mysterious, as investigators: a rare conscientious detective, a clever young cop, a journalist, a seer, a Mexican Congresswoman, an FBI profiler, an enigmatic, terrifying and possibly insane German suspect who thinks he’s discovered the secret of the crimes from his prison cell.
Again, events are being examined from all sides, themes refracted in every direction. The torrent of sexual violence is surrounded by episodes of love—the detective’s mournful affair with an older woman, a rude prison romance—and endless instances of violence—narco shootouts, jailhouse beatings, church desecrations, and on and on. Throughout Bolano’s work, violence is often a twisted substitute for sex, the only way his isolated figures can connect with other people. One of the most disturbing things about the Juarez killings, as Bolano’s litany shows, is just how many of them are not the work of anonymous hands. A large minority fall into the category of routine domestic murder—women shot or stabbed by husbands or boyfriends out of jealousy or sheer hatred. In one scene, a cop regales his buddies with a long string of misogynistic jokes (”how is a woman like a squash ball?... the harder you hit her, the faster she comes back”). In gradually shading in the larger context of the crimes, Bolano shows that they have been able to continue for so long, with so much official indifference, because of the utter cheapness with which female life is held in Juarez. Women there, as the novel’s imagery of waste pipes and trash heaps continually suggests, are little more than garbage.
But Bolano is not content to set the murders within their immediate socio-economic framework. He also places them at the center of a much of vaster structure. The crimes are recounted in Part IV. Parts II and III takes up outside figures who come to find themselves connected to them: in II, a Chilean academic named Amalfitano who has washed up in Santa Teresa after a career in Spain; in III, an African-American journalist called Oscar Fate who has come down to the city to cover a prizefight but ends up involved with Amalfitano’s beautiful teenage daughter, who seems marked out for the next victim.
Around these three sections, as in The Savage Detectives, Bolano wraps yet another story, this one also about the search for an elusive writer. In Part I, a quartet of European academics in pursuit of their scholarly obsession (and, romantically, of one another), a celebrated but elusive German novelist who goes by the pseudonym of Benno von Archimboldi. In Part V, Archimboldi himself, his life story from fairytale forest childhood to service in Hitler’s army to decades of artistic reclusion. These stories, too, meander their way to Santa Teresa, as the academics catch rumors of their quarry’s presence there, rumors that prove improbably true.
IT IS HERE that 2666 begins to betray its weaknesses. Each of its parts is brilliantly paced, and aside from the first few dozen pages of the third, consistently compelling. All are connected not only by the crimes, but also by a myriad of interwoven motifs. But the whole thing does not hold together. Bolano goes too far this time in the centrifugal direction. The difficulty is not the novel’s heterogeneity of form. Just as The Savage Detectives offers a crowd of voices, 2666 gives us a virtuosic range of narrative modes: academic satire in I, minimalism in III, reportage in IV, the bildungsromanor fictional biography in V, allegory and surrealism in places throughout. There is no problem with Bolano’s implication that to know something one must speak about it in different ways. The problem is that there is no single central something about which the novel attempts to speak.
Where The Savage Detectives grew directly out of Bolano’s experience, he worked up 2666 at a distance. Bolano never returned to Mexico after his initial departure, relying on a friendly journalist for information about the crimes, and while Archimboldi is an intriguing conception, he never becomes more than that. The novel finally lacks a unifying emotional impulse. Its five parts divide, without integrating, Bolano’s lifelong concerns. Parts II-IV are about evil, Parts I and V about art.
Instances of evil arise in the outer parts, but they point to a second weakness. Two of the academics assault a Pakistani cab driver for insulting a third. Archimboldi sees horrors during the war and hears about the Holocaust afterward. Colonialism and American slavery are mentioned elsewhere. But though the novel piles up examples of evil, it finally has little to say about it. The contrast withMoby-Dick is telling. By focusing on one confrontation with evil or between evils, the evil of Ahab’s monomaniacal will and the cosmic injustice against which it stakes itself, Melville achieves an immeasurably profound understanding of that phenomenon in its psychological and metaphysical and even political dimensions. But while Bolano shows us the socio-cultural conditions of murder in Santa Teresa and the psychology of violence among the academics and the banality of extermination in the Holocaust, his instances do not add up to a larger comprehension. Examples, no matter how numerous, do not explain themselves. The most common mistake in the history of epic literature is the reliance on profusion rather than concentration to create a sense of plenitude. The Iliad compresses its story of a ten-year war into the space of a few weeks.
To the extent that Bolano does reach for a wider understanding of evil, he relies on a pair of abstractions that simply kick the problem down the road. The first is madness. The killings are frequently referred to as acts of insanity, but the idea only begins there. The German suspect is mad. Archimboldi’s wife is mad. Amalfitano starts to seem like he is going mad. The detective’s lover runs an insane asylum. The smart young cop is called Lalo Cura, a Spanish pun meaning lunacy (la locura). Parts I and II each contain an artist who has been confined to an insane asylum, and Archimboldi accidentally spends the night in yet another.
Madness, for Bolano, is a figure for the inexplicable in human nature, the cavity in which evil and genius reside. It is thus a kind of blank, and forms a pair with his other metaphysical crutch, the name he gives to evil in the cosmic sense: “the abyss.” This is a venerable trope in modern thought, typically employed with a great deal of self-pity and a great want of precision. Bolano sometimes uses it to mean death or oblivion, and 2666 is pockmarked with pits and craters and mineshafts and ravines, images of the grave. But as is often the case, he also wants to make it stand for something more. For all his hardheadedness, Bolano is not immune to the Ibero-American tendency towards spiritual bombast. Death is just death, but to speak of oblivion as an abyss is to give it a spurious glamour, while to talk of “the abyss”—the abyss that we are all dancing on the edge of, or tragically circling, or whatever—is to seek to recover the Christian Hell, in all its metaphysical significance, under a different name. The idea, like the thing itself, is empty.
PERHAPS I AM carrying modernist expectations to a postmodern work. I am looking for explanations, which Bolano distrusts, and for a certain kind of explanation in particular: psychological analysis, the sifting of motives. For modernism—for Freud, most typically—people are dark but interpretable. For Bolano—and in this he is exemplary of much of the serious literature of our time—they are not. We never do understand what impels Belano and Lima in all their extreme behavior. All we can know is what they do. All we can do is watch.
One of Bolano’s favored narrative strategies—ubiquitous in Last Evenings on Earth, predominant in Part III of 2666—involves the telegraphic notation of action, without comment or interiority, in a minimalist style:
Quincy Williams was thirty when his
mother died. A neighbor called him
“Honey,” she said, “Edna’s dead.”
He asked when she’d died. He heard
the woman sobbing at the other end
of the line, and other voices, probably
other women. He asked how. No one
said anything and he hung up.
It is as if the narrative were numb, unable or unwilling to feel anything, a blunting of affect that registers the numbness of the characters themselves. The Savage Detectives is full of figures, the two principals above all, whom others call “zombies.” In 2666, the more common word is “ghosts.” Not people who are dead, people who are alive and dead at the same time. People, like Belano and Lima, who are both there and not there. Walking corpses, deprived of volition and feeling.
Such figures, too, are exemplary. The postmodern self is typically represented as lacking affect as well as motive. The reasons for this are sometimes obscure, but in Bolano they are perfectly lucid. They are political. The emotions his characters suppress are those that arise from a knowledge of the workings of power. This suppression, in turn, suppresses all. Amulet speaks of “an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” In By Night in Chile, the suppression is self-exculpatory: the narrator wants to forget his complicity with the crimes of the state. In 2666, it is self-protective. If you let yourself think about what is going on in Santa Teresa, you would have to try to do something about it. And if you tried to do something about it, as the novel reminds us again and again, you would be killed. Latin American authoritarianism—whether the juntas’ in the 1980s or the narcos’ today (both of them sponsored, let us not forget, by American cash)—turns some people into corpses, the rest into living corpses.
So while numbness is one mark of powerlessness, emasculation is another. 2666, like The Savage Detectives, is also replete with characters whom others call “faggots”—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that they have surrendered their masculinity to fear. When Amalfitano starts to lose his mind, he is visited by a voice that taunts him to “be a man, not a queer,” by which it seems to mean, protect his daughter. The Congresswoman, disgusted at the universal impotence of police, politicians, and journalists to stop the crimes, declares that “this is a macho country full of faggots. The history of Mexico wouldn’t make sense otherwise.” Of all the novel’s gruesome moments, the most terrible is not one of the killings of women, but a scene in which the idea of emasculation by power becomes terrifyingly literal. One of the murdered teenagers turns out to be a rich girl who was stabbed to death by her lower-class boyfriend and his gang-mates, and when the killers get to prison, her father sees to it that they pay a horrifying, public price. (I don’t know if Bolano read Foucault, but much in his depiction of the operations of power accords with the French thinker’s ideas.) Earlier in the novel, the director of the asylum had regaled the detective with a long catalogue of phobias, as if terror were a universal condition. The impulses in Bolano tend to be the primal ones: desire, aggression and fear. But above all, fear.
The texture of Bolano’s prose registers the dynamics of self-suppression in a second form. He is there not only for the numbness, but also for the moment when it finally gives way. Among his many uses of the long sentence, the most important is to signal the breakdown of internal resistance—the recovery, if not of agency, then at least of feeling. Characters talk and talk until they finally start blurting out what they really want to say, confessions and curses tumbling out in a rush. Sentences shuffle along for a few clauses until they stumble upon their true subject, take a sharp turn, and shoot off for dozens of lines in an unexpected direction. (Barbarita, the character who reels off the uninhibited page-long sentence I quoted before from The Savage Detectives, is American. She doesn’t have any resistance, because she doesn’t have any fear.)
The larger movements of Bolano’s prose tell the same story. One of the most consistent and striking features of his writing is its mixture of a frank, gritty, ironic realism with baroque and enigmatic passages of hallucination, vision, allegory, and dream. Time and space crack and warp; probability pitches like a ship in a storm. The fabric of everyday reality, everyday sanity, suddenly tears, disclosing mad and terrifying truths that we—and one senses, even Bolano—can only dimly glimpse. The normal gives way, if only for a moment, to the actual. As we go on from these passages, trying to return as we can to the plain sense of the story like a man who has stumbled past a corpse on his way to work, their memory lingers in the mind like a nightmare of obscure portent. They seem to come from another world. They certainly come from another genre. In their hermetic posture, florid and idiosyncratic imagery, and loose associative form, they are Symbolist poems in prose. Bolano did not renounce his poetry, after all; he simply concealed it inside his novels. As he has Archimboldi announce, “all poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction.”
Finally, in their own looseness of form, extravagance of vision, and distrust of explicit articulation, Bolano’s novels themselves approximate Symbolist poems on a vast scale. A tension lies at the heart of his work. The figure of the detective remained for him the master metaphor of his enterprise. The writer was someone who could throw off fear, return to the scene of the crime and figure out the truth. Indeed, discovery happens much more frequently in his novels than we expect. Missing people are found, criminals are punished. Yet at the same time, often in the same act, the larger meanings slip through our hands. Bolano gives us artists as detectives, but he also gives us artists as seers (including, in 2666, an actual seer), otherworldly oracles whose promises of transcendental disclosure remain unfulfilled.
IN ONE OF his most daring and provocative conceits, the meaning of which itself remains obscure, he has someone explain to the young Archimboldi that the purpose of the great mass of mediocre writing is not to set off the masterpiece, but to camouflage it, to conceal it, as a forest conceals a cave. So much of Bolano’s writing is about reading, and readers, and readers who are themselves also writers chasing other, greater writers who seem to have vanished into thin air. Belano and Lima pursue Tinajero. The critics pursue Archimboldi. Both sets of detectives, when they are not searching for clues on the ground, debate interpretations of the master’s texts. This, Bolano tells us, is what reading is: an endless search for truths that will never be revealed.
And this, he also tells us, is what writing is. The seer is no more aware of the truths that he tries to utter than anyone else. Bolano’s fiction insistently gestures towards another realm or “planet” where artistic truth dwells—a utopian world of which literature is always dreaming. In yet another of his magnificent conceptions, he has Archimboldi re-imagine the myth of Sisyphus (whom he calls “the craftiest man in the world,” as if to make him sound like that archetypal artist, Ulysses). Sisyphus’s punishment, Archimboldi says, is just a way for the gods to keep him busy. “But at the least expected moment, Sisyphus will devise something and he’ll come back to Earth,” escaping from the realm of the dead with which Bolano insistently identifies our world to return back home to the land of the truly alive.
It is this realm of true vision of which his novels are always dreaming when they fall into their trances of allegory and metaphor, madness and nightmare. Bolano the detective is a superlative realist—meticulous, skeptical, unsentimental, with a hard-boiled ability to ferret out the secrets of character. Bolano the seer is perpetually in search of something that will take him beyond realism. It is the quest that Spanish-language fiction has been on since Cervantes sent Don Quixote on his travels. Infrarealism, visceral realism, surrealism—anything, for Bolano, but magical realism, which he saw as the exhausted mode of an earlier generation. “I’m sick of Mexicans who talk and act as if this is all Pedro Paramo,” the Congresswoman complains. Juan Rulfo’s novel, one of magical realism’s foundational texts, concerns a man who returns to his parental birthplace to discover that it has become a village of ghosts. Bolano’s historical experience made it impossible for him pretend that the dead are still alive. The question, for him, was whether the living are.
The struggle of detective and seer was endless for Bolano, and endlessly fertile. In one of the many self-reflective moments through which he sets out his artistic creed in this, his final statement, Archimboldi is praised for being “a person who didn’t pretend to reconcile the irreconcilable.” Perhaps the deepest source of Bolano’s greatness was the courage with which he pushed beyond his own conceptions, heaped questions upon answers, accepted failure as the price of discovery, followed the clues of his prodigious image-making power into the cavern of his genius. Nothing is more irreconcilable in him than his ideas about the artist. Archimboldi, who wore a Nazi uniform, comes to Santa Teresa as an avenger of wrong. Is the artist evil’s lackey or scourge? The Mexican seer who has visions of the crimes also dispenses diet advice—a typical gesture, for Bolano, of undercutting bathos. How can we tell if someone, even Archimboldi (whose works we know very little about, and whose publisher himself stops reading them), is a genius rather than a hack? There is much talk in 2666 of names and their perishability, and the novel’s very last note concerns a writer who is remembered for having invented a kind of snack. Bolano was always skeptical about literary glory. If true art is hidden, is the reward of greatness immortality or oblivion?
This is the very question that the novel’s title raises. The date, which in a characteristic touch does not appear in the work, contains the numerical formula of evil, and its very size suggests the magnitude of the novel’s length and ambition. But its most important significance lies in its science-fiction remoteness. The date seems talismanic for Bolano, for he has referred to it several times before. In Amulet, the narrator thinks of “a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery.” 2666 is the year by which we will not only all be dead, our very deaths will be dead. For all his references to “ghosts,” he almost never uses the word in the typical literary sense, to describe figures who remain imaginatively present. People in his novels are rarely visited by their dead grandmothers or the spirits of ancient elders. His characters sometimes live a disturbingly long time, but once they are gone, they are gone. The women in Santa Teresa are murdered, and then they are forgotten. One of the novel’s hidden surprises is that Part IV, the part about the crimes, predates the other four parts by several years; from the perspective of the rest of the book, some of its principal figures are already dead. Bolano’s work is often referred to as apocalyptic, but the very opposite is true. It is anti-apocalyptic. One of its highest messages is that the world goes on without us, and will keep going on, all the way to 2666 and beyond.
Nazi Literature in the Americas, the imaginary catalog of fascist writers, includes a number of figures whose lives extend into the 2010s and 2020s, as if the book were written from somewhere in the future. In Amulet, the narrator has a vision of literary posterity: “For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033”; “Franz Kafka shall once again be read underground throughout Latin America in the year 2101”; and so forth. The effect is a kind of reverse belatedness. The lapse of twenty years between Bolano’s youthful experiences and the start of his novelistic career can make his works themselves feel belated, as if his stories of authoritarians and bohemians in the 1970s were already beside the point. The impression, however, is deliberate. Belatedness was one of Bolano’s subjects from the beginning. Not for nothing did he title his founding manifesto “Leave It All Again.” The reference is to a poem by Andre Breton, just as the term “visceral realists” is said to revive the name of an older, forgotten group. By the end of The Savage Detectives, Belano and Lima and the rest of the new visceral realists have themselves already passed into oblivion. Nothing is new, everything gets old, names fade, immortality turns to dust. We are dwarfed by both the past and future, belated by the one, forgotten by the other.
THERE IS A HOMOLOGY here with the Latin American predicament as Bolano imagines it. Latin America, not Chile or Mexico, was the name he gave his homeland, and in 2666 he sought to write its story. The novel is not a global epic, as its inclusion of European and North American characters and scenes has led some to claim, but the epic of a particular geopolitical configuration. For the essence of the Latin American story is precisely the region’s provincialism, its subordination to outside powers: to Europe, historically and in terms of high culture, and to the United States, economically and in terms of popular culture. So Part I gives us Europeans who come to Mexico for cultural reasons, and Part III gives us an American who comes there on business. The presence of these outsiders is not supplemental to the contemporary Latin American story, it is the contemporary Latin America story. “How paltry we are,” the Congresswoman says, “and how spectacularly we contort ourselves before our own eyes and the eyes of others.” Santa Teresa, Bolano’s center of imaginative gravity, is situated at the region’s very verge, the nexus of Latin America and El Norte, and everything that happens there—the narcos, the maquiladoras, the killings—depends on that fact. The place is a kind of knot where European, North American, and Latin American histories converge, the magnet towards which every story, willynilly, is drawn. Just as the present in Bolano is colonized by both past and future, so is Latin America defined and dwarfed by alien powers. Evident in this conception are Bolano’s left-wing commitments (which were emotional rather than ideological, for he had seen tyranny arrive from both ends of the spectrum), but so, too, is his self-tormenting fascination with the provincial condition.
To the despotisms of time and force Bolano opposes a utopian hope—not political, but artistic. The Savage Detectives also alludes to the black-magical date of 2666. An old friend of Tinajero’s tells the visceral realists that one day the poet spoke to her “of times to come,” and the friend “asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesarea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something.” In a second occult connection between the works, Bolano intimates that Lalo Cura, the “crazy” young cop who seems to be the only figure with the patience and cunning to someday solve crimes, is the offspring of none other than Belano and Lima (both of them, somehow, at the same time) during their passage through Sonora at the end of the earlier novel. Lalo’s mother meets two students from Mexico City who are wandering lost in the desert. “They looked as if they were high on something and they talked a lot. ... They talked, for example, about a new revolution, an invisible revolution that was already brewing but wouldn’t hit the streets for at least fifty years. Or five hundred. Or five thousand.” Art is the only human thing with the power to rival history. It works its way into the womb of time, siring heroes at an immense distance. Bolano is dead, but his dark, complex work is only just beginning its epic journey.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic who writes for a variety of publications.
By William Deresiewicz