Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Broken Book

There could be nobody better suited to describe the hilarious, improbable triumph of Robert Bolaño than Bolaño himself, which is a terrible shame because he's dead. At the time of his death, from liver disease, in 2003, Bolaño was a major writer in the Spanish-speaking world but virtually unknown and untranslated in English. Why that should be is not much of a mystery. Bolaño, who was born in Chile and spent most of his life in Mexico and Spain, is a difficult, angry, self-reflexive writer who lived an erratic and occasionally unpleasant life. And Americans, as the head of the Swedish Academy has annoyingly but rightly pointed out, don't read much fiction in translation.

But when Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives--a massive, bizarre epic about a band of avant-garde Mexican poets--was published in the U.S. last year, it instantly became a cult hit among readers and practically a fetish object to critics. Bolaño's other major novel, 2666, is even more massive and more bizarre. It is also a masterpiece, and its publication in English translation by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Nov. 11 is the most electrifying literary event of the year. With 2666, Bolaño's posthumous conquest of America is complete.

The 898 pages of 2666 are divided into five parts. The first concerns four literary critics--three men and a woman, all friends, all Europeans, all authorities on a mysterious German novelist named Archimboldi, whom none of them have ever met. Eventually they get a tip that Archimboldi has been seen in a backwater town in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa. But by the time they get there, the trail has gone cold.

From that suspended moment--with the smell of revelation in the air but the actual article nowhere to be found, as if the author had accidentally left it in his other coat--2666 tacks sideways into the mind of a philosophy professor who teaches in Santa Teresa and may slowly be going insane, and then again into another genre entirely, a hard-boiled yarn about a journalist sent to Santa Teresa from New York City to cover a boxing match. It becomes clear only in the book's fourth section that Bolaño is performing these lateral leaps the better to observe from all sides the book's true subject: the horrific serial rape and murder of hundreds of women in and around Santa Teresa.

Part 4 (it's called "The Part About the Crimes," as if it were a Friends episode) consists of a ruthlessly precise forensic catalog of those killings, complete with torn nylons and vaginal swabs, along with the stories of the victims and the investigating detectives. It is a police procedural straight from the precinct of hell. It is also as bravura a display of novelistic mastery and as devastating a reading experience as you are likely ever to encounter. By the time Archimboldi does show up in Part 5, a belated Godot, we are very far past the possibility of any redemptive epiphany.

2666 is not a novel that any critic could describe as brisk or taut. (Not like all those other brisk, taut 898-page novels.) Bolaño is addicted to digressions, unsolved mysteries and seemingly extraneous details that actually do turn out to be extraneous. He loves trotting out characters we will never encounter a second time--a habit that can be exhausting. And whenever a character falls asleep, the reader should prepare to hear about his dreams.

But the meandering quality of 2666 has its own logic and its own power, which hits you all the harder because you don't see it coming. How can art, Bolaño asks, a medium of form and meaning, faithfully reflect a world that is blessed with neither? That is in fact a cesspool of randomness and filth? An orderly book, all signal and no noise, would not be a true book. To mirror a broken world, to speak the unspeakable, you need a broken book. That Bolaño should have died and left his book an orphan might even have struck him as appropriate.

by Lev Grossman

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