Tuesday, 10 February 2009

'the world is a strange and fascinating place'

by Roberto Bolaño

Near the end of The Savage Detectives we are told of an encounter with the poet Cesárea Tinajero, holed up in Santa Teresa, armed with a knife, in fear of her life and with a detailed, hand-drawn plan of a factory on the wall,

Cesárea spoke of times to come, and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn't help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could barely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

It is a doom laden close to the novel and a prophetic date which has appeared elsewhere in Bolaño's fiction. The book which carries this date like a brand on the front cover is weighted down with expectation, not only as a potential master-work but its very real position as his final work. It is laden with so many different characters, styles, symbols, portents, images, thoughts, and ambitions driven by a fierce wave of creativity and fear that it's little wonder that your feeling on finishing it might be similar to mine and indeed his presumably when he finished writing it. Relief.

I felt like I might need a few days to marshal my thoughts together but after a few days I realised that in order to really do a book like this justice I would probably have to read it again, go to university to study Classics, history of art, South American political history, literary criticism, then probably read it once more, think for a few more weeks about it and then, perhaps I might feel better equipped to be a bit more definitive. And I don't really have time for all that. Or any of it. So I shall try to make some kind of an impression on a book which readers will no doubt be unravelling for years to come.

Just before that, it's worth mentioning that I found writing my thoughts down after each section incredibly valuable. You can access those here or by finding '2666' in the labels list on the right, you'll find they contain more specific thoughts and quotes (although be warned that they will display in reverse chronological order).

The picture above is Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, French Symbolist painter, details of which make up the cover of both the UK and US editions of this book (For the record I prefer the US one, the horrible digital font on the UK version makes everyone think you're reading sci-fi). According to the myth the mortal Semele, lover of Jupiter, asked him to appear to her in all his divine splendour (after having been given some bad advice by Juno, Jupiter's wife!), thus bringing about her own violent death in the face of his divine thunder. It is a brilliant painting to have chosen, encompassing some key themes from the book: sex, death, regeneration, fear and adoration of women, and what it means to be human (it also neatly symbolises my experience of reading the book - a bit overwhelming). Moreau himself commented on the painting:

"In the midst of colossal aerial buildings, with neither foundations nor roof-tops, covered with teeming, quivering vegetation, this sacred flora standing out against the dark blues of the starry vaults and the deserts of the sky, the God so often invoked appears in his still veiled splendour…At the foot of the throne, Death and Sorrow form the tragic basis of Human Life, and not far from them, under the aegis of the eagle of Jupiter, the great Pan, symbol of Earth, bows his sorrowful brow, mourning his slavery and exile, while at his feet is piled the sombre phalanx of the monsters of Erebus and Night…"

One particular sentence stands out there: 'Death and sorrow form the basis of human life.' This book is steeped in both of those; from the serial murders of women in Santa Teresa, to the battlefields of the second world war, mortality and the characters awareness of it seems to drive so much of what they do. Oscar Fate is still clearly reeling from the death of his mother and even a character like Morini, ill and confined to his wheelchair, acts like a living reminder of our fate and yet becomes the man that Norton allies herself with at the end of part one. All four of the critics use sex as the means to connect with one another, above and beyond the dry academia that initially brings them together, filling the void left in their lives by the mystery of Archimboldi's whereabouts. Archimboldi himself, in his fevered couplings with Ingeborg, shows their defiance at her illness and the slaughter that has surrounded them - sex as regeneration in the face of death.

The strengths of the work are closely related to its weaknesses. The epic structure of the book is bookended by the two sections dealing with Archimboldi, the first a neat novella, the second a sprawling personal history with plenty of dead ends. In between we have a portrait of mental degradation, sports reportage combined with creeping paranoia and a mind-numbing macabre litany. Each section differs stylistically recalling the work of Haruki Murakami, Denis Johson, Herman Melville, Don DeLillo and David Lynch. And those are just the styles I can give name to. There are startling images, piercing moments of perception, long runs of page turning prose, humour, insight and learning. But, and it's a big but, with all this variety there is confusion, inconsistency and spirit-sapping pages of tedium. The editors feel that this is as close to being a final text as could be hoped for. It means that there are times when the writing flows with the energy of a man driven to get his final thoughts down, but also moments where a red pen and a firmer editing hand were clearly needed. That said there is one person who deserves unqualified praise and that is Natasha Wimmer for her brilliant translation. I don't say this from having any experience of reading the Spanish language version (ha ha ha) but from the clear skills employed to bring out the different styles, character voices and idioms. Bolaño couldn't have asked for a better interpreter of his final words.

Flawed masterpiece. It's a phrase you hear a lot (just recently poor Sebastain Barry had his moment of glory punctured slightly by Costa judge Matthew Parris using the dreaded f-word at the same time as awarding him the top prize for The Secret Scripture) and I used it myself to describe Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson's Vietnam era opus, which was one of my top novels for 2007. I guess what it means is that you forgive those authors whose books dare to reach that little bit further, whose ambition has them attempting to name the unnameable, forgive them those moments when they don't quite pull it off, or do so in an ungainly fashion. It is often books like these which seem to endure through time; nobody would describe War and Peace or Moby Dick as flawless (or short - and some wouldn't describe them as masterpieces either), the question only remains does it accomplish enough? 2666 didn't quite come together enough for me and whilst it remains a book that I admire, and am still slightly in awe of, it isn't a book which is easy to recommend.

If you want to read some in depth reviews then you could try Sam Sacks' piece in Open Letters which has the most brilliant opening to a review I've read in a long time (and which also picks up on my own observation of the negating aspect to Bolaño's work) or Scott Esposito's in The Quarterly Conversation.


Trevor 10 February 2009 at 15:11  

I think you've expressed my feelings exactly. And the more I think about the book, the more I think I will always feel this way. It was powerful in places, but that power was diminished by the incoherence. And I believe the incoherence was on purpose, and I can sense how it advances the book's overall view of the world and the people in it, but 900 pages for that? Glad I read it, but I wouldn't know whom to recommend it to.

William Rycroft 11 February 2009 at 12:16  

I believe you're right Trevor. As I understand it, Bolano's fiction is filled with that view of the world and other examples of 'the void', the 'negative' and his tendency to undercut your expectations of what comes next. Some find this exciting, others frustrating. What it's sure to make his work is influential. It'll certainly be a while before I attempt any more of his writing.

kevinfromcanada 11 February 2009 at 16:52  

You and Trevor are doing a marvelous job of explaining why I don't have to read this book. Please keep up the good work and I will invest my time in something more enjoyable. Cheers, Kevin

William Rycroft 11 February 2009 at 17:20  

Glad to be of service Kevin. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for an alternative form of reviewing, highlighting the big books that you needn't waste your time with. It's quite similar I suppose to the Digested read column in The Guardian.

kevinfromcanada 11 February 2009 at 21:31  

There are reviews that make you want to read a book (and even worse an author). And then there are others where you say, oh, interesting, I don't have to read that one. I hate to say it, but I do love that last category. 2666 will not be on my list.

underthought 14 April 2009 at 22:34  

Thanks for this interesting review.

I've just finished 2666 and I'm in that awkward purgatory situation of trying to work out what on earth I'm missing and why on earth everyone else likes it so much.

I guess the backstory helps -- death is always a good career move for an artist. I also wonder if Bolano's preoccupation with horror, death, murder and the problem of evil makes the book look impressively serious. But for me that simply means it invites comparison with Dostoevsky, Conrad and other great purveyors of grim but worthy literary suffering, and Bolano is hardly in that league.

William Rycroft 15 April 2009 at 13:18  

Thanks for your comment underthought. Post-tome purgatory is a feeling I'm very familiar with. This book seems to have been a big hit with literary critics and writers, far less of one with 'ordinary' readers. It certainly isn't a very enjoyable read and books like that, however impressive they may be, are always easier to admire than recommend. After trawling through such an incoherant beast it's no wonder that people have been left feeling as battered and bruised as the taxi driver from Part 1.

underthought 16 April 2009 at 09:46  

"After trawling through such an incoherant beast it's no wonder that people have been left feeling as battered and bruised as the taxi driver from Part 1."


Personally I can't think of any other critically acclaimed novels that are quite as unenjoyable as 2666 is, but maybe I've done well to avoid them. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones got a similar reaction and I've so far avoided that.

William Rycroft 16 April 2009 at 22:21  

I nearly mentioned The Kindly Ones, which I haven't read and will be keeping well away from. I remember reading three volumes of documentary testimony about the Nazi period for my A-Level History and that was enough for me thank you.

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