8.30.2010

Review: 2666, by Roberto Bolaño

Perhaps the title of his 890-page behemoth comes (as suggested by Ignacio Echevarría in the Note to the First Edition) from a passage in one of late author Roberto Bolaño's earlier works, in which the protagonist describes Mexico City's Avenida Guerrero at night as

      more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery
      in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the
      year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of
      a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassion-
      ate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up
      forgetting everything else.

                                                                                       (Bolaño, Amulet)

Or perhaps, as I've heard it suggested in other reviews, Bolaño is making use of his affinity for mirrors, affixing the future year 2,666 AD as an end point, a point of reconciliation, a point of forgiveness and exodus, just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt 2,666 years after God created the world.
The fact is, we shall never know for sure. Bolaño never mentions the number in the text, and his existing notes on the tome do not reflect any kind of method to the title.

What we do know is that Bolaño believed that it made more fiscal sense to split the book (already divided into 5 distinct, but related chapters) into 5 novellas, released a few years apart, thus securing his heirs' financial futures once he had passed away. But an author's posthumous wishes are not always granted. In this particular case, I support the decision of his heirs to keep it all as one very long volume. Some reviewers have been put off by this decision, and have even referred to the executors as simply ignoring Bolaño's wishes. But both the Note to the First Edition and the Note from the Author's Heirs (the latter which precedes the text) explain that, had Bolaño not been about to die, many of his decisions would have been radically different. Separating the volumes served a personal purpose, not an artistic one.

Separated, the chapters could be read any which-way, lessening the impact of the structure. Together, the effect is that of a multifaceted, multidimensional master work. After finishing it (finally, after two weeks!), I wanted to go back and read the first two chapters again, knowing that I would find motifs, signs, clues that I had missed on my first go-round. One could probably read 2666 in circular fashion a number of times while still finding new connections between the chapters which, of course, are arranged out of chronological order.

By the time I got to the third chapter ("The Part About Fate") I knew that I held in my hands something very complex. I was afraid, given the thickness of the book and the variety of characters, that I would miss something. So I started taking notes (on post-its, since libraries don't really like it when I write in their books). I thought I was being really quite intelligent about the whole thing, making note of Bolaño's themes, making note of where characters popped up now and again, jotting down theories (once you get to Chapter 4 - "The Part About the Crimes", your C.S.I. Law & Order Bones Nancy Drew mode is totally activated....if you have one of those...which I hear some people do....or maybe that's just me.

It wasn't until I was 46 pages from the end that I realized what Bolaño was doing...and I realized that he was laughing at me. All of these notes I was taking, all of them were so that I could go back and find a pattern, find a reason or a meaning. I had made a note every time Mexico had been mentioned when the focus was outside of Mexico during a chapter. I had made a note every time eye color was mentioned, knowing that it was a clue to something, if only I could get to the end and figure it out! And then Bolaño brought up Sisyphus. (If you don't know who Sisyphus was, or need to brush up before I go on, click here.)

The first time he does, on page 820, it's a long and rambling digression into Sisyphus' life, brought on by one character's consideration of the perpetual weight of "superficial trappings" (as represented by Sisyphus' perpetual rolling of the stone up the mountain, watching it fall, and rolling some more). I made a note here, because the digression was almost two pages long and has no significance to the surrounding story. In fact, it's all introspective, and the character thinking it immediately follows with "But the faces Junge was making didn't have anything to do with Sisyphus..." Great. Thanks.

But then, twenty-six pages later, that same character brings Sisyphus up in a letter to the author Benno von Archimboldi, whom we spend most of the book trying to figure out. Archimboldi's response to the allusion is to first explain the finer points of the myth, which his friend is mistaken about, and then to say that

      According to some, the punishment of the rock had only one purpose: to keep
      Sisyphus occupied and prevent him from hatching new schemes. But at the least
      expected moment, Sisyphus will devise something and he'll come back to Earth...

I could have smacked myself in the head. Not only is that an amazing way for the author to express himself upon his own impending death, but it's obvious now that Bolaño is laughing at me. All of these clues, these hidden meanings, these character names that may or may not be related...they're all distractions. They serve absolutely no purpose but to distract the reader from understanding the real meaning of the book until Bolaño is ready to reveal it. And what a way to characterize one's own impending death as but a simple distraction. Bolaño's good. He's really good. The circular motion of the book (what I was saying about reading it over and over again in circular fashion until I wear the clues out of it) proves that. And it's as simple as being all about death.

It's about life being inevitably controlled by, riddled with, questioning of and resulting in death. That is not to say that the reader should ignore the beautiful structure that Bolaño has built with his connections and motifs. They are the access points to the other-worldly and poetic illustration of death that Bolaño has painted. 2666 is very much (as, I suspect, Bolaño planned) like one of Giuseppe Arcimboldo's paintings - a thousand distractions arranged together to suggest one real idea.

The only thing I can really compare the experience to, is reading the bible out of order. Akin to reading St. Luke's Gospel, then Exodus, followed by Job, Revelation and then, finally, Genesis.  It's not really a fun task, but it's entirely worth it.

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