Sunday, December 14, 2008


Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


I don't use the term "mind-blowing" very often; or if I do, this time I really mean it. As I touched down on page 893 of Roberto Bolano's astonishing and sprawling 2666, I couldn't remember the last time I was so far into a book before realizing that it was a great one. That may sound like faint praise, as if it were merely slow to warm up, or it grew on me, or whatever; the actual literary impact is prodigious, as if one stretched Ravel's circling crescendo Bolero to a tome nearly the size of War and Peace.

Bolano (I still can't manage the tilda in his name, which is lame of me), the Chilean expatriate who lived in Mexico and later in Spain, died in 2003 at only fifty, the victim apparently of hepatitis C contracted from earlier heroin use. Since then he has become a posthumous literary superstar in the English-speaking world as his last novels are being translated. This book was included among the 10 most notable works of 2008 by the New York Times (Jonathan Lethem's review is here), and here is a useful post on it by Chekhov's Mistress.

A poet who reportedly turned to novels in his last years to support his family, Bolano was writing against time in this crowning work, and it shows, not at all in any sloppiness, but in the propulsive force of its sentences. I had the sense that Bolano was racing ahead, turning around now and then to urge haste, as I rushed to catch up to him before he got out of sight. The work contains everything expected of epic--family, love, sex, crime, war, politics, history--but in the most surprising contexts and contortions.

The framing device of the book, comprising five large, semi-autonomous and linked sections, is the fictional, extremely reclusive, and floridly pseudonymous German novelist Benno von Archimboldi. The appallingly dark heart of the book is the horrific epidemic of "femicides" occuring in Santa Teresa, Mexico, supposedly a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez (the real-life, drug culture-related mayhem of which is chronicled here). For three hundred pages Bolano provides a harrowing litany of women, many of them prostitutes but many factory workers or waitresses, who turn up raped and mutilated, dumped in ravines and beside desert roads. Many of them go unclaimed, and the police, whether inept or corrupt, can't make any progress in solving the crimes.

The intertwined themes of the book are beauty--the sheer indulgent delight of story--and horror--the reign of apathy in the face of absolute evil. Like all great literature, it aims to find redemption amid desolation and loss. Bolano's style strikes me as an improbable cross between Hemingway and Proust; individually, his sentences are flat, dispassionate and often wry, but their cumulative effect is noble, sweeping and reflexive, like a bird circling above a great expanse. The result is at once gritty and, at times, grandiloquent. Here is Bolano, grimly, on men and women:

Ingeborg laughed too. Then she began to talk about the way some women were attracted to men who killed women. About the high regard in which woman-killers were held by whores, for example, or by women who chose to love without reservations. In Reiter's opinion these women were hysterics. But Ingeborg, who claimed to know women of the sort, believed they were just gamblers, like cardplayers, more or less, who end up killing themselves late at night, or like the habitues of racetracks who commit suicide in cheap rented rooms or hotels tucked away on back-streets frequented by gangsters or Chinamen.

Here he is, using the very wide-angle lens, on nature:

"All this light is dead," said Ingeborg. "All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It's the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn't exist, life on Earth didn't exist, even Earth didn't exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It's the past, we're surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can't do anything to stop it."

Here he is describing Archimboldi's style, which captures his own as well:

The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

Bolano's way is narrative abandon, but crucially tempered by the constraints of mortality and human frailty. The book's first section recounts the quest of four European literature professors for the elusive Archimboldi whom they both love and specialize in. The academic life is depicted in all of its alternating profundity and vacuity. The long middle of the book, set in arid Mexico, is also a narrative desert; like a plant that struggles vainly to sprout despite lack of rain, the story can't seem to escape the squalid nightmare of Santa Teresa's murderous culture. But the last section, a chronicle of Archimboldi's amazing, bewildering life, erupts in narrative ingenuity, with one story found to be encased within another in a way that put me in mind of The Arabian Nights. The best word for this book is narrative plenitude, without superfluity.

That last section brings all of the book's disparate characters together, but not in a physical sense or even in a thematic one, unless one counts the detached contingency with which people, across continents and decades, come together--for a book, for love, or for murder--and then drift away into the murk of time or forgetfulness. The story comes to an end, like life, with finality but without resolution.

Read it; no review can give a sense of it. I am encouraged to find a contemporary novel this good. The holidays may not require great literature, but January definitely will. The solstice is less than a week away.


Anonymous said...

Sounds absolutely intriguing; like one of those books that makes everything else suffer by comparison, for at least a year afterwards.

Anyway, can't wait to read it.

Anonymous said...

I think that you are particularly perceptive when you comment about BolaƱo's writing style: '...individually, his sentences are flat, dispassionate and often wry, but their cumulative effect is noble, sweeping and reflexive, like a bird circling above a great expanse. The result is at once gritty and, at times, grandiloquent.' I think that's where B's merit lies, with simple tools he creates a whole worldview and manages to transmit to the reader his emotional experiences. He is a visceral writer.
I'm rereading 2666 with sheer joy at the experience and sadness about B's early death.
P Germaine