In a long and fascinating article in The Nation, Marcela Valdes provides a great deal of valuable and fascinating information on how Roberto Bolaño was able to present such a vivid and detailed account of the murders in Ciudad Juarez in 2666. According to Valdes, Bolaño corresponded extensively with a journalist who played a significant role in breaking the story behind the murders—and Bolaño rewarded him for his assistance by making him a character in the novel (though the journalist himself was less than thrilled to receive the tribute). Valdes also offers a well-informed and nuanced review of 2666 in the context of the real events in Ciudad Juarez, as well as many details about Bolaño’s process in working on the novel over a period of several years.
Posts Tagged '2666'
Tags: 2666, Books, fiction, Marcela Valdes, Roberto Bolaño
Tags: 2666, book reviews, Books, fiction, Roberto Bolaño, Sarah Kerr
The New York Review of Books is presently running critic Sarah Kerr’s “The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño,” a terrific long-form review of 2666. In the review Kerr makes many incisive observations, but I was struck by this one in particular, in which she discusses the book’s fourth section, “The Part About the Murders”:
Fascinatingly, the United States appears as a part of characters’ remembered visits; a Mexican-American sheriff from Arizona crosses over to find out what happened to a blue-collar woman from his town. But the United States’s relationship to the drug trade and the history of the assembly plants are not explored directly or at length. Instead of belaboring the obvious, Bolaño seems to have chosen the challenge of representing something pervasive.
I think Kerr’s right on here: for Bolaño, the murders in Santa Teresa are made possible in part by the failure of anyone there to see the world in front of them for what it is. The violence in the book is less individual than cultural; it’s part of the air the characters breathe. In 2666, Bolaño takes a much broader view than the individual residents of Santa Teresa possibly could, in an attempt, as Kerr puts it, to reveal and “represent” the cultural, economic, political, social, and historical forces and ideas that pervade their lives. Most readers will already know about the details—about the horrors of the drug trade and the injustices of the maquiladoras. What Bolaño wants to show us is bigger than specifics—though it also includes them. He seeks to identify the ways in which grand-scale historical and cultural circumstances shape the lives and fates of individuals, and often in ways that those individuals cannot understand or imagine.
Tags: 2666, my reviews, PopMatters, Roberto Bolaño
My review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 runs today on PopMatters.
Tags: 2666, art in 2666, Books, madness in 2666, Roberto Bolaño, violence in 2666
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 contains a repeated image of a void, pit, or hole, which appears to characters in their dreams in various guises. The critic Pelletier dreams of bathers leaving a beach and leaving behind an emptiness that swallows his cries of fear and despair. Bizarrely, Boris Yeltin appears to the mad Chilean professor Amalfitano in a dream, speaking about how life is always in danger of toppling into “the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void.” He proscribes a Dionysian antidote, one involving sex, magic, drink, and play; he sounds like he’s talking about art. Florita the seer goes into a trance on Reinaldo’s television show, and has a vision of murdered women, which another guest, a ventriloquist, seems to recognize as “the kind of revelation that flashes past and leaves us with only the certainty of a void, a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.” This repeated image of a void or pit seems to bear some relationship to madness, art, and the murders of women in Santa Teresa—or, in other words, to the central ideas and events of the novel.
There’s no unambiguous indication in 2666 as to how this void or pit ought to be interpreted, but it’s clear that the characters who stare into it find the experience profound and disturbing. By the time he dreams of Yeltsin, the exile Amalfitano has already gone mad, perhaps because of the loss of his country and his wife, and perhaps also out of fear that his young daughter might fall victim to the killers of Santa Teresa. The void that Yeltsin describes to Amalfitano threatens to break life down and discard it in a garbage dump, and the remedy he proscribes against it is sex and art. But perhaps Amalfitano is already lost to the void, overcome by madness when faced with all the loss and horror he’s experienced in his life. He’s fled the violence of a brutally repressive government, only to find himself free in a town where women are murdered with disturbing regularity. In Amalfitano’s dream, Yeltsin disappears into the void, and Amalfitano can’t bring himself to look into it after him. Perhaps he’s already looked into the void enough, and his madness is the result.
At another point, the critic Norton tells her colleague Morini about the story of a brilliant English artist who one day went mad, severed his hand, and made it the centerpiece of his latest work. Norton describes the decayed industrial neighborhood that the artist lived in, and the artist’s reaction to it:
He liked the color of the streetlamps and the light that spilled over the fronts of the houses. The shadows that moved as he moved. The ashen, sooty dawns. The men of few words who gathered in the pub, where he became a regular. The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness.
The source of the artist’s pain is obscure to Norton, but she connects it to emptiness, a void that seems to swallow the people in his neighborhood whole, leaving them empty, becoming voidlike themselves. (Here Norton’s description seems to echo Florita’s fear of the nature of her revelation, that it is nothing but “a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.”) At first the London artist’s response to the void is to make great paintings; later, he goes mad and commits an act of violence against himself.
There’s also at least one literal pit in 2666: the one in which the Nazi Leo Sammer buries a trainload of Greek Jews who he has been ordered to “dispose of.” Sammer carries out his orders with horrifying coldness, but he’s also already a broken man, having lost his faith in the war after the death of his son in a battle. When pondering what to do, Sammer finds himself “plunged…into a deep, dark pit where all that was visible, lit by sparks from who knows where, was my son’s face, flickering between life and death.” He seems in some ways disturbingly sane, but also maddened by grief. His murder of the Jews is in part an act of calculated self-preservation, and in part an act of desperate grief. His response to the void is to create another one: a pit in which the Jews he has murdered are buried.
Many of the murders in Santa Teresa seem to have a similar origin. More than a few of the murderers are impoverished, desperate, frustrated, angry men, who use acts of horrific violence in order to attempt to gain some measure of control over their lives. In 2666 Bolaño makes much of the voicelessness and invisibility of Santa Teresa’s murdered women: they lead lives of anonymous struggle and suffering, ignored by those in power because no one wants to face the reality of their poverty and misery. But some of the killers are similarly desperate and voiceless: they also work in maquiladoras and live on the margins in the same filthy and dangerous neighborhoods. In some cases, their violence can be read as an attempt to be noticed and heard. Like Sammer, these men resort to violence in a twisted, horrifically misguided attempt to bury their own suffering and save themselves.
In one unsettling passage, a Mexican policeman named Ramírez unleashes a misogynistic rant, asking the American sheriff Henry Magaña (who is obsessively investigating the disappearance of a young American woman in Santa Teresa), “What do you see when a woman spreads her legs?…. A goddamn hole. A goddamn gash, like a crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California.” Here Ramírez is perhaps articulating part of what motivates the killers of Santa Teresa to attack the city’s women: they identify women with holes, gashes, cracks—with pits and voids, with disappearance and death. The men of Santa Teresa are displacing their pain and their fear of mortality onto women who are even more vulnerable to victimization than they are themselves. This isn’t entirely unlike what Sammer did, killing Jews while clinging to a grief-stricken vision of his dead son as a light in a void.
I think what Bolaño is getting at with all of this is the idea that art, madness, and violence are all responses to the void—or to the fundamental human fear of death, extinction, and oblivion. Everyone in the book wants to remain visible, to be heard, to make vital noise in the face of the ultimate silence and invisibility of death. For Bolaño, art doesn’t seem capable of actually defeating the void—at one point, Hans Reiter, aka Archimboldi, flatly states that “Voids can’t be filled”—but all the same art is certainly a better response than madness or violence. Pelletier’s dream of what happens after the bathers leave the void on the beach suggests that it’s always possible to at least locate a kind of hope and strength in art:
And then Pelletier began to weep and he watched as what was left of a statue emerged from the bottom of the metallic sea. A formless chunk of stone, gigantic, eroded by time and water, though a hand, a wrist, part of a forearm could still be made out with total clarity. And this statue came out of the sea and rose above the beach and it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.
Tags: 2666, Amulet, By Night in Chile, fiction about writers, Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives, writers and power
Those familiar with the work of Roberto Bolaño will not be surprised to hear that numerous writers, critics, and other literary types populate the pages of his newly translated posthumous masterpiece 2666. Normally I’m highly suspicious of novels about writers or writing—most often it’s an excuse for self-obsessed navel-gazing or indulgence in tired, predictable metafictional exercises. Either way, the results are almost always profoundly boring.
And yet I absolutely love the fiction of Roberto Bolaño. To date I’ve read four of his books—2666, The Savage Detectives, Amulet, and By Night in Chile—all of which feature writers as characters, as well as extensive discussions of writing and literature. Given my general distaste for this kind of content in fiction, it would stand to reason that I shouldn’t particularly care for Bolaño. But if you asked me right now to name the best novels of the past decade, 2666 and The Savage Detectives would top the list.
So, what’s going on here? What’s so special about Bolaño? Why do I like his novels about writers and writing so much?
One obvious possibility is the fact that Bolaño’s books are not only about writers and writing. Both 2666 and The Savage Detectives contain the voices of a multitude of characters from many different walks of life. 2666 is particularly notable in this respect: though it opens with “The Part About the Critics,” in which a handful of European professors obsessively track down a mysterious and reclusive German writer named Archimboldi, and closes with a section recounting the story of Archimboldi’s life, the book also contains the passages told from the perspectives of cops, prostitutes, soldiers, bureaucrats, Mexican feminists, German aristocrats, maquiladora workers, boxers, journalists, and many, many others. Writers are important to 2666, but they aren’t at its heart. Instead, the book turns on the lives and fates of the murdered women of the Mexican city of Santa Teresa—a fictional stand in for Ciudad Juarez, where several hundred women (many of them maquiladora workers) have been brutally raped and murdered since 1993.
One of the central ideas of 2666 is that the voicelessness and invisibility of the book’s poor, uneducated migrant maquiladora workers leaves them especially prone to victimization. Because they live on the margins, no one pays their lives or deaths much attention, and it takes several dozen murders before those in positions of power begin to admit that there’s something more going on in Santa Teresa than just “ordinary” crime and violence. For Bolaño, having a voice and being heard translates to power, and it’s the powerlessness of the impoverished women of Santa Teresa that permits them to be so egregiously victimized.
But Bolaño is also very skeptical of the idea that writers will be able to use their powerful voices for any kind of positive change. In The Savage Detectives, the young Mexican avant-garde poets who set out at the novel’s beginning to conquer the world through their energy, vision, and art ultimately end up old, poor, powerless, and in some ways failed. For all their idealism, optimism, talent, and achievement, the world defeats them at best, and at worst badly compromises their integrity. In By Night in Chile, Bolaño asks hard questions about the ways in which artists and writers can become complicit in the unjust exercise of power by the state. And Amulet tells the story of the “Mother of Mexican Poetry,” who hides in a university bathroom during the tumultuous events of 1968, and the book offers a sometimes critical examination of the relationship between literature and revolutionary change.
When Bolaño writes about writing, his central theme is the relationship between creative expression and power. This is an extremely rich subject, and also one which novelists (or artists of any sort) rarely tackle seriously. Most are content to sit in academic offices and write about the agony of wrestling with their muses, and seem to give very little thought to the great privilege and luxury that has made it possible for them to do so. Again and again in his fiction, Bolaño insists that that this isn’t enough: that writers, critics, and other artists and intellectuals have a moral responsibility to examine their relationship with power.
For Bolaño, anyone who a voice but chooses not to speak is complicit in the victimization of the powerless. For the critics in the opening section of 2666, the writer Archimboldi is the center of their lives, to such an extent that when they come to Santa Teresa, it’s because they’ve heard a rumor that he might be there. They’re told about the murders, but they don’t give them much thought: their obsession continues. And in the closing section, we’re given Archimboldi’s life: he’s a child of World War I, and a German veteran of World War II, and he has purposefully sought invisibility as a means of running away from his past and of finding peace. Yet, when his connection with the murders is revealed in the novel’s final section (and I won’t say more than that, to avoid a major spoiler), it’s clear that he cannot avoid moral responsibility altogether, no matter how much he might like to do so. Bolaño draws a through line between the horrific abuses of power in Nazi Germany and those in Santa Teresa, and suggests that no number of beautiful novels by Archimboldi can erase those horrors, or hope to counter the parts of human nature that bring this kind of evil into the world.
I think one of the reasons that Bolaño’s work is so compelling is that he combines a deep ethical skepticism about the relationship between creativity and power with a passionate and hopeful belief in literature’s ability to move us, inspire us, and to show us what it means to be human. On the final pages of 2666, Bolaño offers a portrait of the life and works of a Fürst Pückler, obscure travel writer who became better known for “lending his name to a combination of three flavors of ice cream” than for his creative ouptut. All the same, Bolaño assesses his achievement favorably:
And so he wrote and published, and in his own way, humbly but in fine German prose, he raised his voice against injustice. I think he had little interest in knowing where the soul goes when the body dies, although he wrote about that too. He was interested in dignity and he was interested in plants. About happiness he said not a word, I suppose because he considered it something strictly private and perhaps, how shall I say, treacherous or elusive. He had a great since of humor, although some passages of his books contradict me there. And since he wasn’t a saint or even a brave man, he probably did think about posterity.
Before he died, Fürst Pückler spoke out against injustice, spoke for dignity, studied the world and its wonders, and created a flavor of ice cream that is “pleasing in spring and fall.” For Bolaño, this is a substantial and admirable legacy.
Tags: 2666, Books, reviews, Roberto Bolaño
My review of Roberto Bolaño’s monumental posthumous novel 2666 should run on PopMatters sometime soon. (Update: here it is.) I won’t offer a detailed assessment of the book here (though I probably will write some more about it once my review has posted). Suffice it to say that I loved the book, and that the current torrent of gushing critical praise for it is fully justified.
At I’ve Been Reading Lately, Levi Stahl has posted a helpful roundup of 2666 reviews. He observes:
Since I finished my review, I’ve read a handful of others, and what’s been most striking is the way they collectively demonstrate the capaciousness of the novel: each emphasizes some different aspect, and hardly any of us draw on more than one or two of the same quotations in the course of describing and appraising the book.
Since I knew as I was working on it that my review would be running later than most, I feared that I might inadvertently latch onto some of the same ideas or passages as another critic whose work would reach the reading public sooner. But as it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried about it. As Stahl points out, there’s so much going on in 2666 that every critic is likely to take something different from it.
So far, the best of the 2666 reviews I’ve read is probably Jonathan Lethem’s take on it in the New York Times Book Review. I think he comes the closest of any critic I’ve read so far to fully capturing the novel’s most important themes and ideas, and he also does an admirable job of the surprisingly difficult task of simply summarizing the plot.