All too often, contemporary novelists create works of polite and studied formal perfection, smoothly polished and sturdily built, widely praised and unspeakably dull. Such novels are the luxury condo developments of literature, constructed with fine materials and functional layouts, but devoid of character, significance, or soul. And if some books are condos, Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously-published masterpiece 2666 is an expansive, teeming city, chaotic and vibrant, beautiful but rough around the edges, home to both gleaming towers and squalid holes.
In a note at the end of 2666, Ignacio Echevarría points to a passage in which one of Bolaño’s characters, a literature professor named Amalfitano, offers a passionate argument against technically proficient but passionless writing. Upon encountering a pharmacist who prefers to read only the minor works of great writers—“Bartleby the Scrivener” over Moby-Dick, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s rather than In Cold Blood—Amalfitano is disheartened:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
For Amalfitano, the books favored by the pharmacist are nothing more than exercises in literary sophistication, neat and formally perfect, but also bloodless and entirely too safe. Amalfitano wants his fiction to be fearless, dangerous, and uncontained, and his writers to be bloody, bare-knuckled literary brawlers, engaged in high-stakes battles with life’s greatest horrors and mysteries.
Amalfitano (a Chilean exile teaching literature in Mexico) is an obvious stand-in for Bolaño (a Chilean-born writer who spent much of his life in Mexico and Spain), and in this passage, he might as well be describing 2666 itself. Unfinished at the time of Bolaño’s death at the age of fifty in 2004, 2666 is a work of vast and uncompromised ambition. During the course of five interlinked novellas sprawling over nearly nine hundred pages, 2666 unfurls the stories of dozens of characters—including Mexican maquiladora workers, detectives, European literary critics, prostitutes, politicians, a Nazi war criminal, a former Black Panther, journalists, tourists, mechanics, boxers, writers, artists, soldiers, and members of the Prussian aristocracy—all of whom are connected (however distantly) to the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in the Mexican city of Santa Teresa.
Bolaño’s novel makes no pretense of conventional, formal, small-minded literary flawlessness; instead, it is messy, rambling, difficult, and huge. In the terms set out by Bolaño’s character Amalfitano, 2666 is, indeed, a “torrential” novel, brimming over with that “blood and mortal wounds and stench.” The book is deeply unsettling, sometimes outright terrifying, but at the same time includes both playfully crude humor and moving flights of poetic lyricism. Recondite meditations on the work of obscure writers give way to unblinking accounts of horrific violence and passages shot through with raw sexuality. The setting shifts in place from the desert borderlands of northern Mexico to the cultural capitals of Europe, and in time from the trenches of World War I to the present era of internationalization and free trade. None of the minor works beloved by Amalfitano’s bookish pharmacist could hope to contain even a small fraction of the material that Bolaño finds room for in 2666—and yet the book’s range is in the end less impressive than its depth. In the space of only a few pages, or even sentences, Bolaño often conveys the emotional and intellectual complexity of a full novel, imbuing many of his diverse narrative threads with lifelike vitality and startling power.
The novel’s employment of a multitude of stories and voices offers a compelling structural echo of its central theme: the idea that the invisibility and voicelessness of the poor and powerless renders them especially vulnerable to victimization. 2666’s Sonoran border town of Santa Teresa is a thin fictionalization of Ciudad Juarez, a real Mexican city in which several hundred women have been brutally slain since the early ‘90s. Like Ciudad Juarez, Santa Teresa owes much of its economy to foreign-owned maquiladoras—factories that employ low-wage workers just over the American border. Many of Santa Teresa’s residents are desperately poor migrant women from other parts of Mexico, who come to town in the hope of earning enough money to cross over to the United States. Cut off from their families in distant states, many maquiladora workers find themselves without a network of support. Thus when their bodies turn up in vacant lots and on the grounds of industrial parks, there is often no one who can identify them, nor anyone who will notice that they have disappeared.
When an American criminologist named Kessler visits an illegal dump in a desolate, deeply impoverished neighborhood in Santa Teresa, he ponders the fact that so few people seem capable of recognizing the extent of the devastation:
[The neighborhood looks] as if an atomic bomb had dropped nearby and no one had noticed, except the victims… but they didn’t count because they’d lost their minds or were dead, even though they still walked and stared, their eyes and stares straight out of a Western, the stares of Indians or bad guys, of course, in other words lunatics, people living in another dimension, their gazes no longer able to touch us, we’re aware of them but they don’t touch us, they don’t adhere to our skin, they shoot straight through, thought Kessler as he moved to roll down the window. No, don’t open it, said one of the inspectors. Why not? The smell, it smells like death. It stinks.
The poor of Santa Teresa always live on the edge of madness and death—and because no one wants to be reminded of this fact (nor of their own vulnerability and mortality), they do everything they can to avoid seeing the truth. At another point in the novel, Yolanda Palacio, the sole employee of Santa Teresa’s newly-formed Department of Sex Crimes, shocks a reporter by stating the simple and awful fact that ten women are raped in Santa Teresa every day. She notes that that the people she talks to always respond to this information with incredulity, “but when it comes down to it, no one remembers, not a word, and no one has the balls to do anything about it.” In 2666, Bolaño suggests that the blame for the crimes in Santa Teresa (or in its real-life analog of Ciudad Juarez) is widespread—that drug lords, jealous husbands, serial killers, corrupt police officers, uncaring government officials, violent gangs, and maquiladora bosses all share in the responsibility for what has happened in their community. But at the same time, Bolaño also points out the consistent failure of those in power to attribute any significance to the deaths of these voiceless and invisible women.
In “The Part About the Crimes,” the longest and most emotionally devastating of the five novellas in 2666, Bolaño offers determined resistance to this fact by resolutely and insistently lending voices and visibility to the murdered women of Mexico. For each of the dozens upon dozens of victims, Bolaño uses the clinical language of an autopsy or a police report to present a clear-eyed and unsensational account of the crime. But amid these cold, distanced descriptions of each murder, and of the abuses and tortures each woman suffered, Bolaño also takes care to include humanizing details: the color of her hair, the fact that she was carrying a bus ticket, matches, or a tube of lipstick; that she disappeared on the way home from school, or after leaving her family in the morning to go to work. Bolaño devotes nearly a third of 2666 to these accounts, and thus makes it impossible for the reader to ignore either the monstrousness of the crimes or the humanity of the victims.
The attention paid by Bolaño to the voiceless victims of 2666 reveals the novel to be at its core a stridently moral work. And for all the intellectual depth, dazzling range, and grand, fully-realized ambition on display in the book, it is ultimately Bolaño’s adamant compassion for his characters that makes 2666 so deeply involving and compelling. Although Bolaño frequently expressed doubts in his work about whether writers and literature possess the power to affect change in the world, with 2666 he has at the very least offered a towering testament to the novel’s ability to express the meaning and significance of human lives.