Roberto Bolaño's 2666 may be the Great American Novel
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 11, 2008

DIABOLICAL: Bolaño’s tantalizing, often unfinished digressions are part of his genius.

2666 | By Roberto Bolaño | Translated by Natasha Wimmer | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 912 pages | $30
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the desert as a labyrinth without walls or center, unending and inescapable. That's a fair description of Roberto Bolaño's last work (he died in 2003, age 50), the 912-page opus 2666. His book, however, does have a circumference of sorts, a circular narrative that begins, like his previous novel, The Savage Detectives, with academics (in Detectives they were poets) searching the wastelands of the Sonora province of Mexico for a legendary writer and ending . . . well, it's hard to say, somewhere in that general vicinity. It offers innumerable passages that cohere into a sense of immanent revelation, some of them contained in single multi-page run-on sentences, before dissolving like blowing sand. Like Moby Dick, it confronts the nature, the ubiquity, and the elusiveness of evil. And as such it can also make a claim for being the Great American Novel, both North and South.

The academics' story is told in the first of five sections, "The Part About the Critics." They include four literature professors from different European countries, three men and a woman, who share an obsession with Benno von Archimboldi, a mystery author who over the decades has turned out novels with titles like TheLeather Mask and Bifurcaria Bifurcata. Little is known about him except that he is Prussian and very tall and that he served on the Eastern Front in World War II. The quartet attend conferences on Archimboldi and engage in passionate discussion, and their bonds heat up into something more than Platonic. At last, following up a lead, they head to Mexico where a sighting of the octogenarian legend has been reported.

Sounds deadly? Not when every page veers off on a tantalizing, often unfinished digression — like the one about the painter whose masterpiece is a canvas adorned with his own severed hand — or includes tossed-off descriptions of the everyday like "It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness." [9] Or when the quartet arrive at their destination, Santa Teresa, a fictional city where — as in the real city of Ciudad Juárez, on which it is based — hundreds of women, mostly workers in local factories, have turned up raped and brutally murdered, a serial-killing spree that's been going on since 1993.

"No one pays attention to these killings," says the man imprisoned — falsely he insists — for committing them. "But the secret of the world is hidden in them." Whether the secret of 2666 is hidden in them as well is another story.

Bolaño examines the killings in clinical detail, describing them with the brutal euphemisms of a police report in the book's longest and penultimate section, "The Part About the Crimes." He interweaves this numbing repetition of violence with the sometimes cynical, sometimes earnest, mostly inconclusive efforts of those trying to track down the perpetrator. The leads and connections strain toward clarity and then fade, subsumed into a litany of atrocity. As for the sole suspect, Klaus Haas, a tall, near-albino German-American immigrant who might have been sprung from a Robert Harris novel, he has dreams of an approaching giant. Like a prophet he declaims his vision: " . . . Haas called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now."

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Related: Year in Books: Word plays, Amy Stacey Curtis's Sixth Solo Biennial Exhibit, Strange world, More more >
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