x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dead souls

Books Five years after Roberto Bolaño's passing, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie follows his newly translated epic across eight decades, two continents, 900 pages and 100 murders.

"Santa Teresa is the novel's heart of darkness"... <i>2666</i>.
"Santa Teresa is the novel's heart of darkness"... <i>2666</i>.

Five years after Roberto Bolaño's passing, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie follows his newly translated epic across eight decades, two continents, 900 pages and 100 murders.

2666 Roberto Bolaño Translated by Natasha Wimmer Farrar, Straus and Giroux Dh110

The explosion of interest in Roberto Bolaño has come late to English-language readers. Last week's publication of his enormous, enigmatic masterpiece, 2666, is the latest bang in a spectacular literary fireworks display and the culmination of five years of fervent translating activity. But in the Spanish-speaking world, Bolaño has been regarded as a rebel and a rock star for 20 years, and as a literary celebrity of historic proportions for 10. Susan Sontag, always ahead of the curve, described him as "the most influential and admired novelist of his generation." Carmen Boullosa, a poet and playwright, called him "a literary animal who makes no concessions," a writer who not only engages historical events in his novels but also "desires to correct them, to point out the errors."

In the minds of many, Bolaño - who lived in Chile, Mexico and Spain - was the first writer to shatter the illusion that Latin American literature would never break the monopoly of Gabriel García Márquez. Bolaño hated García Márquez, just as he despised Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. All of his writings - from the crystalline short stories and austere novellas to the longer, more luscious novels - offer a vicious rejoinder to magical realism, which appears intellectually, politically and emotionally bankrupt compared to Bolaño's unforgiving proximity to the real. Bolaño's brand of realism was not a matter of faithfully reflecting contemporary life, but was rather a means of touching the unfathomable horror that lingers beneath the surface of the everyday and then finding forms adequate to convey the trauma of the encounter.

Only in the past five years, however, has Bolaño's work been made widely available in English. Since his untimely death in 2003 (at the age of 50), New Directions has rolled out translations of a short story collection, three novellas and a novel, with plans to release a poetry collection later this month. Last year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published an English-language edition of The Savage Detectives, and the eruption of critical praise that followed made Bolaño an international star. Now comes 2666, the last book Bolaño worked on before he died.

If The Savage Detectives was Bolaño's rollicking road trip through the dazzling dreams of adolescence, then 2666 is his dark descent into the nightmares of adulthood. All of the key elements of his fiction are there - vagabond poets and literary detectives, radical rebellion and the romance of revolution, pulp fiction and the bracing experimentation of the avant-garde, young lovers dragging themselves through random cities while indulging their inexhaustible sexual drives, prostitutes, petty thieves, hard-core criminals, orphans and outcasts. But where The Savage Detectives was tender, tragicomic and exquisitely structured at 600 pages, 2666 is a beast, both unabashedly brutal and surprisingly bulky, its five sections only roughly connected, its ending abruptly inconclusive.

Still, 2666 is a masterpiece, a messy, monumental book about madness and monstrosity that rages across eight decades, two continents, 900 pages and too many major and minor characters to count. And it is far more ambitious than Bolaño's previous work. It is to The Savage Detectives what Finnegan's Wake is to James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: one book tells an artful coming-of-age story, the other orchestrates a huge, shattering epic that tackles history itself.

The premise of 2666 is a literary quest, with four academics in pursuit of an elusive German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi. The novel's first section, The Part About the Critics, finds them parsing every Archimboldi sentence, ripping through each new book and scouring obscure scholarly journals for clues to his whereabouts. At a conference in Toulouse, they get a tip from a Mexican professor: Archimboldi was seen in the Mexican frontier town of Santa Teresa just the other day. The critics are floored. Three of them follow the lead. The novel's second section, The Part About Amalfitano, picks up the story of a Chilean professor at a university in Santa Teresa whose path the critics cross. The third section, The Part About Fate, follows a journalist whose usual beat is ageing members of the Black Panther Party but who ends up in Mexico to cover a boxing match (there, he meets the Chilean professor and falls for his gorgeous Spanish daughter, Rosa). Only in the fifth and final section does Bolaño return to Archimboldi. Along the way, plot lines fracture, stories tangle and narratives diverge into wild digressions or dead ends.

Every one of the novel's five sections is riddled with anecdotes and asides about people who are either driven to or broken by unconscionable violence. Examples: A British painter hacks off his hand, mummifies it and slaps it onto a canvas in an act of extreme self-portraiture. Madness follows and he spends the rest of his days in a Swiss asylum. A Romanian mathematician grows feverish with the certainty that "mysterious numbers" lie hidden between seven and eight, devotes his career to understanding and applying them and likewise loses his mind. Three of the literary critics, who occasionally share the same bed, take a cab ride together in London. After a verbal altercation, two of them drag the driver out of the car and beat him nearly to death, half-crazed, they tell themselves later, by frustration and desire. (The third critic abandons them both and jumps into bed with the fourth).

There's more. A young German soldier named Hans Reiter, who will later take up the pen name Archimboldi, lands himself in a North American-run prisoner-of-war camp in the wake of the Second World War. In silent rage Reiter listens to the galling confessions of an idiotic war criminal, then strangles the man in his sleep and slips away. Years later, Archimboldi and his wife Ingeborg rent a room in a house near the Austrian border. One night, when Ingeborg falls gravely ill, the owner of the house admits to Archimboldi that he killed his own wife - threw her into a ravine, collected her battered body and told the neighbours she died of sorrow. "When you die of sorrow it's as if you've broken all the bones in your body, bruised yourself all over, cracked your skull. That's sorrow," he says.

And there's still more. The fourth, longest and most harrowing section of 2666 delves into the murders of more than 100 young women, most of them Mexican factory workers, most of them multiply raped and mutilated. Their bodies are found in and around Santa Teresa, a fictional stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city on the border between the Mexico and the United States, where, since 1993, more than 250 young women have been murdered in a horrific (and shamefully underreported) crime wave. With clinical precision, Bolaño details the location of each body, the date of its discovery, the state of its decomposition, the name of the victim, her age, what she was wearing and where she worked. Into this chilling sequence Bolaño slides the sad stories of various detectives, police investigators, medical examiners, journalists, an eccentric clairvoyant and an elite congresswoman who try to solve the crimes but fail to crack the wall of corruption and complicity that surrounds them. (The serial killings in Ciudad Juárez have also gone unsolved and continue to this day, albeit at a slower pace.)

Although characters and stories crisscross the globe, Santa Teresa is the novel's heart of darkness. Every major figure - the critics, the Chilean professor, the New York journalist, Archimboldi himself - is somehow tethered to the crimes. But the brutality is everywhere, and touches everyone. It swallows and spits out lives from one decade, one country, to the next. "Thanatos," Archimboldi says to himself at one point, "is the biggest tourist on Earth."

All of this would be unbearable were it not for the fact that Bolaño holds out literature - of all things - as the only hope and the only way out. After restaging an experiment originally designed by Marcel Duchamp (hang a geometry book by strings on a balcony so the wind can go through it and choose its own problems), which convinces his daughter that he too has gone mad, the melancholy Amalfitano ponders random phenomena:

"Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one's own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity."

This is essentially Bolaño's thesis and statement of intent. In a way, 2666 probes the deepest wounds of the 20th century and then imagines the scar tissue that will remain far into the 21st (to the year 2666, perhaps). The novel portrays history not as a streamlined narrative but as a haphazard collection of fragmented images, not as a succession of defining moments but, as Archimboldi describes it: "a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness." The only way to bear the sprawling chaos and destruction is to contain it within fiction. The only way to beat time is to fight it with a story that will endure, a story whose meaning may only be made fully manifest in the hands of future readers. The idea, as one character says, is not to read and understand such a story, but rather to read it and change.

Bolaño often spoke of the violence that stalked like-minded members of his generation, those who never recovered from the pain and disillusionment of Augusto Pinochet's coup against Salvador Allende. They wanted a revolution that would allow them to build a better society. Instead, the revolution devoured them. In 2666, Hans Reiter discovers the hidden notebooks of a Russian Jew named Boris Abramovich Ansky, who either perished or vanished in 1939. Ansky thought that revolution would abolish death. "That was precisely it," he said, "the whole point, maybe the only thing that mattered, abolishing death, abolishing it forever, immersing ourselves in the unknown until we found something else. Abolishment, abolishment, abolishment." It didn't work. "Ansky lived his whole life in rabid immaturity because the revolution, the one true revolution, is also immature." Reiter becomes a writer, becomes Archimboldi, because of Ansky. He writes to fulfil Ansky's lost promise but also to take it further, to the point where revolutionary fervour matures into lasting literary work, to the point where literature wrestles the terrifying senselessness of history into the plausible creation of meaning, to the point where literature takes over the drive to abolish death, to the point where literature makes it possible to find something else.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.