At one point in "2666," the enormous, posthumously published novel by Roberto Bolaño, a character complains about the meager ambitions of modern readers, accusing them of being "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"—he cites Melville's "Bartleby" and Kafka's "Metamorphosis." "They want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." ¿Quién es más macho?
Since this observation occurs in a novel that, in its English translation, runs to 898 pages, it seems reasonable to assume that the character is speaking for the author. Certainly there is nothing modest about this book, which contains dozens of principal characters, covers more than 80 years of history and features five distinct narratives that overlap in something like a literary Venn diagram. Its principal theme is nothing less than the malignancy of modern culture, inoperable and pervasive (the Third Reich, serial killing), sometimes dormant, always threatening and erupting without warning. History, in this concept, is like a collective nightmare, and reading "2666" is much like enduring a horrific dream—all you want to do is wake up but you can't—because the multitalented Bolaño was a spellbinder: he knew how to make readers keep turning pages.
Bolaño, who died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50, was born in Chile and grew up there and in Mexico City, where he became a Trotskyite revolutionary. He returned to Chile in time to witness the overthrow of the socialist Allende government by the military, did a few days in jail (he got out because two of the guards were childhood friends who recognized him) and eventually returned to Mexico City, where he helped found a revolutionary literary group inspired by the Beats and the Dadaists and dedicated to opposing what they considered complacent, middle-class art. At that time, he was a poet, publishing his first collection in 1976. The next year, he moved to Spain and not long thereafter, he fell off the literary map, supporting himself with a series of marginal jobs—dishwasher, bellhop, garbage collector. But he was always writing and in the early '90s, he began publishing again (and supporting himself and his family in the oddest fashion: by winning small literary prizes for his books). By then he had turned to fiction and in the next decade completed three story collections and 10 novels.
None of this biographical information is necessary to read "2666," but it helps explain the scope of the book. Bolaño was not a Chilean novelist, a Mexican novelist or a Spanish novelist. He was equally at home writing about serial killings in northern Mexico and the savageries of the Russian front in World War II. He saw life on an immense scale, and that's how he wrote about it—as an epic that ended, more often than not, in failure, but not without grandeur. Detectives play central roles in "2666," and if their searches are ultimately fruitless, that almost seems beside the point. The search, for Bolaño, was all.
His final novel begins with four European academics seeking to find the reclusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi, a Pynchonesque writer and perennial Nobel candidate most recently sighted—maybe—in Mexico. But when three of the four travel to the northern Mexico city of Santa Teresa (a fictional stand-in for Juárez) they lose the trail. Looking over their shoulders, as it were, we get a glimpse of a situation that will come to dominate the central sections of the book: the abduction, rape and murder of several hundred of the city's young women (based on unsolved serial killings in the real Juárez). The second and third sections concern, respectively, a Santa Teresa professor and an African-American journalist sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. Again, like a photograph in a developing tray, the murders come a little more into focus, and in the fourth section, the murders are Topic A, as the police search fruitlessly for the killer or killers. The last chapter—and each chapter is long enough to be published as a novel by itself—abandons both Santa Teresa and the present tense to tell the story of the novelist Archimboldi, whom we first meet as Hans Reiter, a German soldier in World War II. After the war, Reiter becomes a novelist under his baroque nom de plume, and in the last scene he is seen heading for Mexico, bringing the events of the story full circle. But the coincidence that prompts his trip—and it's a coincidence worthy of Dickens—is, if not a cheat, then certainly a tease, because it only seems to provide answers. Bolaño can no more explain the murders in Santa Teresa than Archimboldi can explain the mass slaughter of Jews that he stumbled upon in the course of the war. Every chapter, like the four parts of "The Sound and the Fury," tries to tell the same story a different way, and every chapter fails. But collectively, they add up to something more, something that defies mere arithmetic.
This is a daunting book, a book to admire more than like. But despite its faults—the section on the serial murders is, frankly, tedious—it beguiles a reader as few books do. If you're not one of those timid readers singled out at the beginning of this review, if you're a reader who'd rather see a novelist aim for the moon, even if he falls on his face, then this is the book for you.