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Review of 2666, by Roberto Bolano

Really, I don’t know why I persist in calling these posts ‘reviews’. They are more like thoughts. Anyway.

Unlike most people, I did not have problems reading the book, in fact I rather enjoyed it. That’s because I didn’t *read* it, but rather listened to it as an audiobook. Facetious, I know, but hey, I got through the book. And the experience was generally positive. I can imagine that as a book 2666 would present a huge challenge to me, because it’s very testing in places. But it was very easy to digest this monster of a book during my daily commute, as the story was being read out by supremely talented actors. Even as an audiobook there are sections of the novel that was hard to get through, but I did manage to get the complete 40 hours it required. But a little more on that later.

A bookish background then. My previous Bolano was By Night in Chile, which was the first 100-odd-page novel to defeat me completely. It was laced with so many South American literary, historical and cultural references that was just too much for your average Malaysian Chinese reader to truly relate to, not to mention the fact the book was narrated by a character who would fit right in with the Mad Hatter (if Bolano was an eccentric, slightly crazy Englishman). The psychedelic experience didn’t stop me from leaping at the chance to try 2666, though, as the waves of good reviews for the book meant that it was something that I had to sample. But I braced myself for a wild, barely coherent, ride.

Imagine my surprise that I actually could understand the novel this time. Not that it was easy, mind you.

There are 5 interlinked stories within this huge tome, each pretty much an own book in it’s own right. These stories are very varied and loosely tied together by a few commonalities. But the largest character in the story isn’t even a person; it’s the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, which is Bolano’s version of Cuidad Juarez, a place infamous for its rapid industrial growth and high crime rate. There’s a singular chain of violent events in Juarez that clearly inspired the backdrop for 2666.

The first story is about 4 literary critics of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi (and after a quick wiki search, I ascertained that Archimboldi was also fictional. Hey, Bolano sprinkled names of actual authors in there, ok?). They travel to Santa Teresa in hopes of finding this elusive author, and in the course of the story learns something of their journey and of themselves. The second, a story centered around a supporting character in the first story. The third is of an American journalist, who arrives in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but ends up working towards a story about the violent events in the city.

By far the most striking feature of the novel was the contents of the fourth book, which is made up almost entirely of a catalogue of murders that occurred in Santa Teresa. Clearly inspired by the real life events, in the book Santa Teresa is the setting where hundreds of women were killed in a short period of a few years, and Bolano took to listing out, almost hypnotically, how each of the murder was carried out.  How the body was found, how old the victim was (most were young), at what state the body was in, whether the victim was sexually assaulted or not, and so on and so forth (probably not every murder, but by the fiftieth killing you kind of lose track). The result was a hugely bleak and depressing novel. A lot of the victims were young teens barely out of their childhood, and this did not make easy listening. This section of the novel served, as a friend commented, to numb the reader to the violence, and by jolly did it succeed brilliantly. By the end of the section you have a sense of complete and utter helplessness, a silent fury at the authorities who seem impotent at addressing the issue. At parts the book even hinted at those in power being complicit in these crimes.

To tie it all up, the fifth story centres around a young German soldier called Hans Richter, who eventually grows into an author of some stature, and later in life discover ties that sends him to Santa Teresa.

The story is sprawling, with lots of jaunts to places that you aren’t always entirely sure whether it belongs to the larger narrative. In the first book, there’s an underlying history about a fatalistic artist who chopped off his own hand, had it embalmed and set it as a centrepiece of a huge work of art. The text goes some way into explaining the backstory of this fascinating individual, but there’s nothing there to indicate he’s directly involved in the main plot, besides serving as an allegory or as a metaphorical symbol that I cannot grasp.  And the dreams. Everyone dreams here, and the dreams are strange, haunting, frightening.

The writing is pretty interesting. There’s a languid, not quite plodding quality. At times rambling when describing the most mundane of coffeeshops, other times sparse like the desert surrounding the maquiladora in Santa Teresa. Bolano took his time with the words, and the one thing that I realized was how much more effort it would have taken to digest the work when actually read, as opposed to it having performed for you.

Speaking of performance, a word on the voice actors. Each of the 5 books were narrated by different male actors, and they did a magnificent job. The characters had at turns German, French, Italian, Spanish, American and English English accents, and the actors did a fabulous job on them.

The novel doesn’t have an ending in the traditional sense, as Bolano actually originally planned to have these five books to stand individually. Still, the novel attempts to bring the events in all the books to a full circle, and seemed to me managed it to some extent. I’m a stickler for a very tidy summation, and I have to say the story doesn’t answer all the questions, but still it made many people deliriously happy at this monument of a novel.

I cannot say I loved the novel, as it lays a little beyond my literary comprehension capabilities at present. It was surely enjoyable and incredibly educational journey.

And one last thing. The fifth book was about Archimboldi’s early life, his start into writing and his emergence as a prominent writing. Early part of his career his publisher asked a critic what he thought of Archimboldi’s work. The critic thought his work was reminiscent of a Malaysian writer! I’m not kidding – I almost fell off my chair when I heard this (except I was driving, and falling off my seat in the car would… nevermind). A couple of things crossed my mind: First, Bolano mentioned Malaysia, how cool is that! Second, Bolano almost certainly pulled that out of his ass, because there were no Malaysian authors of prominence that I could think of that would warrant a comparison (even to a fictional author!) at the time, unless he read Malay, which I’m willing to bet that he did not. Even then it seems unlikely.