Man who saw tomorrow

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003. But his work is only just beginning to revolutionise fiction

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published: February 8, 2009 12:04 pm

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003. But his work is only just beginning to revolutionise fiction
Of all the literary genres,the one that the centrifugal form of the novel resembles the most is the epic. Now,Jorge Luis Borges didn’t write a single novel. But he believed that the epic would make a return,and bring back the god-like poet who would sing his story,so much so that we won’t be able to tell the singer from the song.

Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño,who died in Spain in 2003,of liver failure at the age of 50,has a layered pedigree. He placed himself against the “Boom” — whose brightest stars were Márquez,Mario Vargas Llosa,Julio Cortázar,Carlos Fuentes. A realist,but not a disciple of Llosa,Bolaño is the inheritor of the spirit,if not the art,of Borges. And his last,posthumous novel,2666,was as much his memento mori,as it is an early “epic” of the 21st century. Its geographical and cultural embrace is vast. The book spans 1,100 pages in the original Spanish,almost 900 in the English translation. It has five parts,each of which Bolaño had willed to be published separately as a novel over five years,the sales providing for his children. But Bolaño’s heirs overturned the dead man’s will and published the whole of it realising the “literary value” of the work; a work which “speaks to the Americas”,in the Latin American fashion,but retrieves for itself the European High Modernist tradition.  

Bolaño plays with the genre. A prominent character disappears or an enticing narrative thread is abandoned. If one must identify a centre,there are in fact two — Benno von Archimboldi,an obscure German writer brought to critical prominence and Nobel contention by four European academics whose own lives and careers have been shaped by Archimboldi in absentia and three of whom must,in the end,pursue this reclusive,unseen German to the Mexican town of Santa Teresa. Bolaño has had a literary investigation there in The Savage Detectives (1998),where the protagonists go looking for a forgotten icon of Mexico’s avant-garde poetry. The second centre is Santa Teresa itself. But when they reach the town,it’s not Archimboldi they find but the serial murders of hundreds of women. In the second part,we follow Amalfitano,a professor in dread of his teenage daughter being caught up in the fate of Santa Teresa’s raped and murdered women. The third part concerns Oscar Fate,an Afro-American journalist sent to cover a boxing match,and fascinated by the murders,comes to believe they reveal some dark,hidden truth about the world. In the next part,we meet the disappeared women,as corpses. The factual basis of these crimes is the Ciudad Juarez murders of the ’90s,a spin-off of the drug trade and industry.

The final part brings us back to Archimboldi. The recluse’s identity and biography are revealed,not to the academics,who have disappeared from the narrative,but to the reader. His real name is Hans Reiter (the historical Hans Reiter was a Nazi doctor at Buchenwald). But the fictional Reiter discovers writing to be his vocation post-war and endures obscurity and personal tragedy to polish his art. What can be made of his life is an example of moral nobility. We don’t of course ever know what his writing is like.

The name Archimboldi refers perhaps to the 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo,famous for his depiction of human faces made of fruits,vegetables,flowers,books. But,the special significance of Arcimboldo’s paintings is the sense of organic unity which holds the whole together. Whether 2666 holds together is a difficult judgment to pass. But what then is 2666 about,if that naïve question may be asked and if a novel must be about something? We don’t know. What we are left with is an image: that of our broken contemporary world,a dystopia where what underlies the finest aspirations of civilisation such as literature is nothing less than violence. The vision is powerful and chaotic,but not paranoid.

2666 makes its own attempt at the totality of experience,at creating a universe of words,ideas and metaphors. It succeeds,because it fails. But a Bolaño book is not structured to round things off; it raises questions,and then leaves them unanswered. What,for instance,does the title mean?  There’s no reference to the figure or date 2666 in the book. But it does occur elsewhere,in an earlier Bolaño novel. As Henry Hitchings remarked in The Financial Times,perhaps it’s a reference to the Exodus,which biblically happened 2666 years after Creation. But is it? All we know is that “2666” might have been Bolaño’s working title. One suggestion: buy this essential book. Bolaño sings his story,with erudition,wit,passion and violence. As with the two schools of Archimboldi criticism,you can read the Dionysian or the Apollonian into 2666.

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