Last Rites: Robert Bolaño's 2666

The departed author follows up his acclaimed The Savage Detectives with a final epic

Like a premonition, Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives ended abruptly in the Sonora desert, with one poet couple taking refuge in Villaviciosa, "the northern Mexican town of lost assassins." In 2666—Bolaño's last, devastating, posthumous novel—Sonora looms again, ominous and deadly and painfully bright.

In the desert's vast expanse, the assassins too have returned. 2666—which ranges across decades, continents, and five intertwined but distinct storylines—has as its center the town of Santa Teresa, a thinly fictionalized stand-in for Mexico's Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of women have been found raped and murdered over the past two decades. The city's treacherous geography—"neighborhoods that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind"—unites Bolaño's disparate protagonists. Santa Teresa is a place where myth and destiny commingle, where a person "can be more or less dead."

As 2666 opens, a trio of bumbling European academics come to town in search of a reclusive German writer, the improbably named Benno von Archimboldi. Their host, a philosophy professor named Óscar Amalfitano, is rapidly going mad and, in the book's second act, virtually disintegrates out of concern for the safety of his own vulnerable daughter, Rosa. In the book's third section, Rosa is rescued by Oscar Fate, an African-American reporter who has come to the desert to cover a boxing match. But escape is the grace no one else in Santa Teresa will receive.

"Isn't reality an insatiable AIDS-riddled whore?" asks one fleeting character in 2666, which Bolaño wrote and finished as he was dying, in 2003, of a rare liver disease. The author was 50. Chilean-born but Mexico-bred, Bolaño died in Spain, where he'd settled after many long, itinerant years writing poetry and scraping by. Only in the last years of his life did he achieve recognition: The Savage Detectives won Latin America's most prestigious literary award, the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, in 1999, and the book made Bolaño's reputation here after it was translated into English, by Natasha Wimmer, in 2007. 2666, also translated by Wimmer, is a bulkier, more diffuse work, infused with little of the careening, freewheeling joy of The Savage Detectives; its protagonists are, in large part, anonymous and doomed women rather than ecstatic poets. But the obsessions remain the same: secret histories, lost masterpieces, madness, and death.

Like W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, in which the author dispassionately recounts the World War II destruction of whole German cities—42.8 cubic meters of rubble per Dresden resident, and so on—in an effort to express a fundamentally inexpressible calamity, so 2666 is at its heart a chronicle of Sonora's victims. In one endless, 280-page section entitled "The Part About the Crimes," Bolaño compiles a litany of bodies found next to factories, schools, industrial parks, storage sheds, and illegal dumps—women killed by boyfriends, husbands, pimps, johns, drifters, but most often by no recognizable culprit at all, the cases "neglected and forgotten," "closed," "shelved," "filed as unsolved." The women are stabbed, raped, raped "three ways"; they're bludgeoned with rocks, pierced by stakes, strangled, burned. The complicity, even culpability, of the country's high-ranking cops and politicians (and the drug dealers with whom they consort) is implied but never ascertained. The evidence is circumstantial, contradictory, inconclusive. "Being a criminologist in this country," says one professor tasked with assisting the investigations, "is like being a cryptographer at the North Pole. It's like being a child in a cell block of pedophiles."

The usage is telling. "Metaphors," says one 2666 character, "are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming." The particular genius of 2666—scattered, allusive, telling no one story in particular—is its ear for the thin noise that blankets atrocities like those that take place in Ciudad Juárez, the distracting human static that allows historical crimes to proceed unchecked. And perhaps 2666's most damning revelation—the one that links Bolaño's otherwise unrelated professors, reporters, and intellectuals—is that this obscuring static often emanates from the writer's most exalted subject: art itself. A painting, "in the center of which hung the painter's mummified right hand," obsesses the academics of the book's first section. The work—"the most radical self-portrait of our time"—is 2666's own, self-indicting metaphor, the aesthetic gloss on the carnage beneath.

The story of Hans Reiter, the book's lost writer, occupies 2666's final chapter: his childhood as the son of a one-legged World War I veteran; his time on Germany's eastern front, fighting Russians; his dim survival in a POW camp, where he commits his first murder—the killing of a Nazi administrator who confesses his crimes to the nascent novelist. It's this act that leads Reiter to change his name to Archimboldi, for fear of discovery, and to become the writer whose reputation will lead three academics to Sonora in search of him years later. In his person is embodied both a century of violence and a subtle, evading deception: Behind Archimboldi, the revered author, is Reiter, a killer.

The quest for a vanished writer is also, not coincidentally, the plot that animates The Savage Detectives. This theme posits searching—the act of being in motion—as the ultimate liberating force: the opposite, say, of the deadly stasis in Santa Teresa. "The important thing was to keep moving," says one of the more insane generals Reiter is forced to follow on the Eastern Front, "the dynamic of motion, which made men and all living beings, including cockroaches, equal to the great stars." This was the central premise of The Savage Detectives: The book's heroes, the visceral realists, walked "backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight towards the unknown." In the staggeringly intricate, vast, and brilliantly unnerving 2666, too, everyone is constantly moving toward the unknown, but this time, they're not alone. "Thanatos," says Archimboldi, late in the book, "is the biggest tourist on Earth."

 
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