‘What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.’
This quotation from ‘2666’ defines the work of Chilean Roberto Bolaño: submersion in the unmanageable, the feared and uncontrollable rather than the exquisite.
The black-and-white stills of Bolaño freeze the author mid-cigarette in his round glasses, wearing a shrewd beetlish expression: dishwasher and vagrant, traveler and poet, dead in 2003 at the age of fifty from liver complications, ostensibly from his hedonist bohemian adventures. It was four years after his death that Bolaño began to garner attention in the Anglophone literary world with the English publication of his ‘Savage Detectives’, a polyvocal literary manifesto. This reputation was cemented in 2008 with the obliquely named ‘2666’, widely regarded as not only Bolaño’s masterpiece, but – hyperbolically, one might assume – one of the masterpieces of the late twentieth early twenty-first century.
‘2666’ is constructed in five parts which share two spiritual centers: the search for a mysterious and obscure German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi, and the search for the answer to the unstinting femicide in the Mexican desert city of Santa Teresa, a stand in for the real violence in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
Could the comparisons with Cervantes, Proust, Musil and Joyce be awarded purely on the basis of size? (‘2666’ clocks in at just under 900 pages.) But no, the book lives up to its hype – spanning a century, both hemispheres, the safe and imperiled, civilization and savagery. At the base of this rich and dense novel are Bolaño’s perennial themes: fear, estrangement, and the surreal nature of reality. ‘2666’ is sprawling, epic, a Borgesian garden of forking paths which at any point might converge or split. It, like Bolaño’s other novels, gives voice to madmen and lovers, hysterics and vagrants, men and women who daily defy obliteration.
His debut ‘The Skating Rink’, released this year in paperback, brief and much narrower in scope than Bolaño’s later works, contains the seeds which will ripen and be returned to: possession and loss, culpability and unexpected communion, characters who are helpless to oppose fate, to rouse themselves and defy the unnamable, unavoidable delirium. In ‘The Skating Rink’, three male narrators – a petty government official, a middle-aged opportunist, and a wandering poet – take turns narrating the strange story of an ice rink built in an abandoned palace in a Spanish seaside town and the subsequent murder it houses. But don’t be afraid of ‘The Skating Rink’ being one of the ‘perfect exercises of the great masters’; it isn’t. But it is a warm-up act for what was to come.
To offer a pop culture reference, like Desmond in the second series of Lost, who saved Dickens’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’ in order to leave himself some comfort in his last hours, I struggle between wanting to read all of Bolaño’s novels in succession, and spacing them out. Despite his publishers promising a stream of translations to come, it is unavoidable that at some point the fountain will be sealed up. We are left with the finite, and yet Bolaño’s novels (at least the ones I’ve read) pursue the fissure between finite living and infinity, between knowledge and guesswork, contradictory truths, and the surreal unknown. As the omniscient unembodied narrator says in ‘2666’, ‘Great scientists, great mathematicians, great chemists, and publishers knew that one was always feeling one’s way in the dark.’ Tracing that path is some consolation.