Roberto Bolaño — 2666

April 14, 2009 at 8:50 pm 4 comments

I think it’s fair to say that the gushing press reviews of 2666 (2008) have glossed over its shortcomings. In dwelling on them here, I don’t mean to diminish the status of Roberto Bolaño’s achievement in this opus postumum, newly translated into English by Natasha Wimmer. 2666 is a serious and weighty work that will no doubt be studied in academia for many years to come.

But critics don’t always see the wood for the trees. 2666 has a verdant clump of postmodern trees (it’s self-referential, ironic, amoral, hypertextual, digressive, transgressive, subversive… ) but the wood has somehow gone AWOL — the novel is exhausting, dispiriting and almost unreadable. It would be futile to attempt a plot synopsis here. There are countless strands, each appearing from nowhere and ending abruptly. 2666 is a panorama of dreams and hallucinations and murders and rapes; a book populated by one-armed painters, mad poets, sacraphobes and Nazis; enormous and disjointed, violent and grotesque, and very difficult to actually enjoy at any stage.


Everything is done to ludicrous excess: this is a book in which individual sentences can last five pages and paragraphs even longer. It’s a book in which, infuriatingly, three hundred pages are given over, virtually without interruption, to forensic descriptions of the violent murders of women. The problem with this sequence is not that it wallows in depraved violence, but that the grim repetition is numbingly tedious. Emotionally, for all its absurd scope (why read ten different novels when you can read one by Roberto Bolaño?), 2666 is as cold and dead as its female characters.

I’m not blaming Bolaño. 2666 is a first draft. Tragically, Bolaño died before editing and redrafting could take place. He left behind manuscripts for a series of five books, which his estate decided to cobble together and publish in a single volume, under a possibly meaningless numerical title Roberto had once suggested. All five parts involve the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa, but the links between the parts are pretty tenuous and the book reads more like an anthology than a novel. This can’t be helped. But it can’t be papered-over either.

Ah well, say the critics: one book can’t have everything, and this does have all kinds of postmodern bells and whistles. My reply: sorry, but it doesn’t get the basics right. Of course great authors take the novel far beyond the conventional “A to B via C” storytelling of its more populist forms, but, in so doing, they remember their readers. From Dostoevsky to Coetzee, Dickens to Bellow, Faulkner to García Márquez, great authors never forget to make you care about what happens next. In Bolaño’s hellish postmodern creation, the silent contract between reader and author is broken: there’s nothing to care about, nothing at stake, and no reason to keep reading.

I suppose most people who have read it so far think differently. Me and 2666 enjoyed each other’s company even less than me and The Da Vinci Code. If you’re looking for a cleverer review than mine, try Open Letters — this is quite brilliant. And there’s more at Just William’s Luck.


Entry filed under: Bolano Roberto, Book Reviews. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. claire  |  April 14, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, very insightful. I’ll be reading this next month, but will read each of the five stories separately, as suggested to me earlier, and take each as a separate whole. I’m a bit afraid I won’t like it, as I really want to. But then, yes, I’ve heard it’s not for everyone. I did try reading the first page and loved it. I hope it doesn’t stop there.

  • 2. William Rycroft  |  April 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    You make a good point about this being an unfinished work in that Bolano himself still hadn’t finished tinkering with the text. I’m not sure how much more he would have done to be honest, or whether it would have made it any less of a behemoth. As I understand it he had always thought of it as being a single work, the idea to publish the five books seperately only coming when he knew his days were numbered and wanted to maximise the potential financial gain for his children. As a reader I certainly found treating the five books as seperate entities a huge benefit, if only to give myself a mental break after each section.

    Thanks for the link by the way.

  • 3. KevinfromCanada  |  April 15, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Thank you for an excellent review. Various blog reviews (much more useful than the paid ones, I must add) on both the positive and negative sides of this book have indicated to me that I would be wasting my time reading it, whatever others may think. The lucidity of this review, I think, captures all of my concerns — I definitely will not be investing time in this book. I couldn’t finish The Savage Detectives, which I understand to be an “easier” book for the read — I don’t think I want to go through the authorial self-indulgence which is this book.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  April 16, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Claire — it’s probably a good idea to treat each book as a separate whole. William makes the same point.

    Certainly books 1, 3 and 5 are quite readable in isolation, though I’m sure they would have made less of a splash if published separately. But then there’s Book 2, which feels like a brief diversion rather than a full-fledged book, and Book 4, which is a nightmare to battle through however you approach it.

    Good luck anyway!

    Keven — that sounds wise. If you dislike “authorial self-indulgence” 2666 isn’t ideal. It sounds like a blunt assessment but for large sections of the book I find it hard to disagree with.

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