THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A liquid masterpiece in five enigmatic parts

ROBERTO BOLAÑO ROBERTO BOLAÑO (©Mathieu Bourgois)
By Adam Mansbach
November 30, 2008
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2666
By Roberto Bolano
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
898 pp., $30

Reviewing Roberto Bolano's "2666" is like reviewing the ocean. To call it a thing of nearly unfathomable breadth elides the intimacy of experiencing it; to focus on the relentless, pounding rhythm of its violence does no justice to its shimmering beauty. One strains to make sense of it, intuits forces moving in the darkness far below the surface, and tries to divine their purpose from what can be seen. That its cross-currents will converge into a tsunami seems both impossible and inevitable - the imposition of order on chaos, and the mapping of a specific nightmare onto an ancient, diffuse one.

Bolaño was born in Chile, and spent most of his life in Spain and Mexico City. A titan of Latin American literature, he is just now beginning to be widely read in English. "2666" is his final novel, completed shortly before his death, in 2003. Bolaño wrote it feverishly, working against a demise he knew was imminent. It is a book of furious energy, and the same is required to read it.

Each of the five parts of "2666" is written in a distinct style. The first, "The Part About the Critics," is a romantic farce about four amorous European academics tracking a mysterious German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, to the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa. The offbeat quests of literary figures are a staple of Bolaño's fiction, and this section is both more typical and lighthearted than any of what will follow.

One reason writers find Bolaño so compelling is his flummoxing of narrative expectations. He sidesteps the scenes toward which he seems to be building, leaves their ramifications implied - and makes it work. Here, the woman at the center of a love triangle proposes that she and her suitors go to bed together. When it finally happens, it is summarized in one bloodless sentence, a treatment both enigmatic and satisfying.

Like the great post-bop jazz drummers, Bolaño prizes implication over statement. Reams of information and anecdote swirl toward the black hole at the novel's center, knowable only by the force of its gravity.

That black hole is Santa Teresa, a faithful rendering of the factory town of Ciudad Juarez. The site of more than 450 unsolved murders of young women in the 1990s, it is the place to which Bolaño's characters are drawn; one might say that the genres they represent are subsumed by it. Salvador Dalí believed the train station in the French town of Perpignan to be the center of the universe; for Bolaño, it is Santa Teresa. Here, human life is worthless, impossible to preserve against the forces of globalization, exploitation, and senseless violence.

"The Part About Amalfitano" is a touching, eerie portrait of a widowed professor whose life has run aground. In the gesture that starkly conveys his condition (and the power of literature to Bolaño), Amalfitano hangs a book for months on a clothesline outside his house "just because, to see how it survives the assault of nature."

"The Part About Fate" follows not a concept but an American reporter, Oscar Fate, who journeys to Santa Teresa to cover a ludicrous boxing match, and stays long enough to glimpse something of the city's horrors. Fate's section is a sophisticated noir set piece - a Chester Himes novella infused with touches of David Lynchian creepiness and something of the muscular sports journalism of Norman Mailer and Gay Talese.

To convey the emotional or topical polyphony of any of these sections would be impossible. I have said nothing, for instance, of Amalfitano's wife's adventures in Spain, which include several visits to a painter who has cut off his hand and attached it to a canvas, or of the speech Fate hears a Bobby Seale doppelganger deliver at a Chicago church on the topics of danger, money, food, stars, and usefulness. Everywhere in Bolaño's work, there is an unquantifiable precision to the absurdity; when a character insists that she believes in the existence of nothing except storms and Aztecs, the declaration makes sublime sense even before the explanation comes.

"The Part About the Crimes" is the book's longest. Structurally, it is a truncated police procedural. Psychologically, it is grueling. All that has come before recedes as Bolaño forces the reader to confront an interminable series of gruesome rapes and murders. Characters proliferate; we follow the cops investigating the crimes, the criminal cartels suspected of committing them, the television psychic who sees them in her visions, the German national jailed for them. But most of all, there are the victims. Bolaño catalogs hundreds of them with the chilling, airless precision of a forensic analyst, and yet the weight of their humanity is crushing.

Finally, "The Part About Archimboldi" resolves the now-secondary mystery of the German novelist, tracing his life from birth to his arrival in Mexico, and bringing together at least some currents of this liquid masterpiece. But no true convergence is to be had. Like a nightmare, the novel changes direction whenever an epiphany or death blow looms. It seems not to want to end, as only a book written by a dying man can.

Whether Bolaño knew where "2666" was going is a matter of conjecture; two pages from the end, he is still introducing new characters, telling new stories, revealing new layers. But whether he knew or not, he got there. This is a work of devastating power and complexity, a final statement worthy of a master.

Adam Mansbach's most recent novel is "The End of the Jews."

2666 By Roberto Bolaņo

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

898 pp., $30

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