Book Review - 2666 by Roberto Bolano
It's hard to know where to start talking about a book like 2666. That's partly because, in some ways, it's actually five books. Published posthumously, the book begins with "A Note from the Author's Heirs" explaining that, before his death, Bolano stipulated the book be published as five separate works. Instead, his friends and family opted to publish Bolano's novel as he originally would have – as one single volume divided into five parts. Ultimately the five parts belong together. They share several common themes and characters although each is very different. Some of the sections took me a few pages to settle in to it and sometimes I found it frustrating when a section ended without answering my questions. At the same time, that gave me drive to move on to the next section.
First off, I have to say that Bolano was an extremely talented writer. It's sad to read a great book by such a strong writer, knowing he died so young. That said, the book is long. The English translation has 898 pages; I ended up renewing it from the library twice and I don't think I'm a slow reader. I was pulled through it by its ambiguity and sense of mystery, as well as Bolano's strong prose. This guy is master of the sentence so long you're sure it's a run-on and yet it makes perfect sense.This is especially evident in the first section and I loved it. I know how hard it is to create long sentences well. The second and third sections were not as well fleshed out for me, which was disappointing after the strong first section. The primary character in the third section didn't feel fully developed. But the section was short and still dealt with some of the mysteries introduced previously; wanting to figure those things out kept me reading. I do wonder however, had Bolano lived longer, if there would have been a more edited final version.
I knew almost nothing about the book before I started, which is generally my favourite way of reading books, so I don't want to give much away here. The most interesting section for me was the fourth – "The Part About the Crimes". This is also the section where I almost stopped reading the book. In often explicit detail, this section describes the crimes of a fictional Mexican town called Santa Teresa. The crimes have been referenced since the first section of the book and by the time I arrived at the fourth section, I was ready to find out more about what was happening. These are violent crimes against women and there are many of them detailed in the book. I wonder sometimes about the value of including such descriptions in a novel – whether it's necessary or whether it glorifies violence and simply appeals to a base human lust for violence. I've always been bothered by the popularity of True Crime books as a genre (for example) and people's interest in reading about such things and I think Bolano feeds off that same interest in this section. The thing is though, this was a very true to life section. (While reading the novel, I didn't realize just how true to life. The crimes of Santa Teresa were based on murders in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, which makes it even more shocking.) As I read, I couldn't help but be reminded of Robert Pickton, who murdered almost fifty women over about ten years. Because Pickton preyed on prostitutes and drug users, the case took longer to solve or to garner public attention than if the victims had been middle class women or men. 2666 doesn't address this issue overtly, but a theme throughout the descriptions of the crimes is how quickly their investigations are shelved. The victims in 2666 are all women, many of them poor factory workers, many living on the fringes of society. In the novel, it is easier for the police to give up or arrest small-time thugs than pursue a real answer for these crimes and the victims' families – often living in poverty – are powerless. The tragedy of this – and why I think this section of the novel is so important – is how true to life this is. How easy our society makes it to ignore the deaths of the marginalized. Think of the high profile murders of the last few years, the ones you see on tabloid covers in grocery aisles – aren't they all white, middle class women or children? I'm embarrassed that I'd never heard of Ciudad Juarez before reading this book. This is part of the power of fiction – to shine light on real world problems.
In the end, I'm glad I continued the novel. The final section pulled a lot of things together, some of them in unexpected ways. It's also the section that I thought could potentially most stand alone. Its primary character – Hans Reiter – is unlike any I can recall reading before. Even now I have such a clear image of him in my mind. He haunted me; I still don't know if I judged him correctly. At the end of the novel I wanted to go right back to the beginning and read it again. Most definitely a sign of a good book.
2666 takes the reader across Europe and North America, and through the 20th century. It draws you into dark corners, places you might not have wanted to look. But ultimately, dark corners will remain dark and dangerous as long as people refuse to examine them.
Some favourite quotes:
"Inside that book with a yellow cover everything was expressed so clearly that sometimes Florita Almada thought the author must have been a friend of Benito Juarez and that Benito Juarez had confided all his childhood experiences in the man's ear. If such a thing were possible. If it were possible to convey what one feels when night falls and the stars come out and one is alone in the vastness, and life's truths (night truths) begin to march past one by one, somehow swooning or as if the person out in the open were swooning or as if a strange sickness were circulating in the blood unnoticed."
"Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature. That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine day (or dark) choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives. Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace. Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. Fear of dining alone and unnoticed. Fear of going unrecognized. Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers."