Review of Roberto Bolano’s 2666
This is my third time through "2666", and for me, it gets better with each re-reading. I’m beginning to think that this work will hold up against the fearful test of time, as truly a masterwork of the early 21st century. Probably, to put things in perspective, as a writer of fiction, I read differently than most folks who’ve commented on "2666": I read to understand certain narrative techniques that Bolano has used to move the story forward or backward in time, techniques to engage the reader at an emotional level, perhaps using a combination of the 36 plots that Polti has designated are at the core of all dramatic work. Each re-reading has amplified my knowledge and appreciation of Bolano as a fictional writer of great power. "2666" is a liberating work for every reader. You breathe more freely with each paragraph, each character you meet, each scene or landscape you embrace. "2666" is not simply a novel: it’s a complete prose epic, like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” comprised of four distinct narrative forms: the novel, romance, confession, and anatomy. Joyce worked madly to integrate those aggregate forms into a unified whole; Bolano’s life was cut short in that effort, so that "2666" may be appeared more disjointed, even fragmented in its composition. Yet, as a prose epic, you get a taste of something that appears to have been solely missing in much of contemporary fiction: the power of literature to embrace a huge swath of history and bring it to life.
Others have written in greater detail and depth about the plot, the characters, the city of Santa Teresa, the catalog of horrors at the center of the work, dealing with the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in that city. I can’t think of much else to add to those conversations and reviews. For me, I like the looseness of the narrative in "2666", the fact that things don’t add up, aren’t conventionally explained, that hundreds of characters come and go, whom you never meet again at the end, that long, convoluted paragraphs with stories within stories challenge your comprehension of the work as a whole. This is what makes great literature, IMHO. This is why Bolano is, to a large extent, a writer’s writer.
In that context, I wonder if this work had been written originally in English, whether an American publisher would ever let it see the light of day. Probably, a wise editor would pick up on it, pitch it to his boss, but be unable to move it through the corporate machinery of his publishing house. He would be told: too many red flags, too much violence, incoherence, too offensive to the majority of readers because of that violence, too scattered over exotic destinations, too long (over 900 pages), too literary in its references, too inconclusive in its ending. The list would go on like that, for sure. Good luck, Bolano, getting this into print in English. The fact that it’s in Spanish, with an excellent translation, and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and has reached a surprising number of English-language readers is encouraging, though not necessarily for American writers.
If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably learn Spanish, write in Spanish, seek to find a small cadre of passionate readers in that language, and hope that one day my work would be translated into English, where I might find my most receptive audience, like Bolano has.