An Overview and Review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

Being an avid reader, I will buy just about any book I can get my hands on. Whether it’s a New York Times top seller, written by a favorite author, or comes highly recommended by a friend, I am always looking for a good read. After completing the book “Bright Shiny Morning” by James Frey (my favorite author), I read an interview in the back of the book in which Frey mentions the book “2666” by Roberto Bolaño. Within an hour I had ordered the book and anxiously awaited the arrival of that crinkly white plastic Barnes & Noble package. As I twiddled my thumbs and shifted in my seat with anticipation, I read reviews of this 900-page beast of a book. The reviews were cryptic, unclear, and nonsensical; I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. All I knew was that it was going to be good.

Allow me to preface by saying that the book is broken in to five sub-stories, all of which are independently complex, yet seamlessly interrelated – so much so that after completing the book, my initial urge was to begin rereading it, this time creating a character map and taking notes of all the instances of overlap, to gain a better grasp of the full story.

Yes, I’m probably crazy. But, anyways…

The first section, The Part about the Critics, explores the relationship between four literary critics that all greatly appreciate the work of an elusive German author. The next story, The Part about Amalfitano, traces the descent into madness of a professor of Philosophy. The third story, The Part about Fate, follows a Harlem-based reporter to Mexico where he encounters many strange individuals and learns of the horrific crimes occurring throughout the town. The Part about the Crimes is a gruesomely detailed encyclopedia of the crimes in the town of Santa Teresa over the course of a decade– most of which were committed against women. And finally, The Part about Archimboldi is a novella which explores the life of Hans Reiter, who eventually becomes a writer, taking on the pen name Benno von Archimboldi.

Although the stories take place all across the globe, they all have ties to the tiny town of Santa Teresa, Mexico, where thousands of young women a year are kidnapped, raped, mutilated, murdered, and then dumped in the desert. In addition, the stories are all lightly intertwined with minor characters from one chapter being involved with lead characters in a later one. There are also recurring props, situations, and themes which tie together the seemingly unrelated stories. “2666” was published posthumously and Roberto Bolaño had wanted the five books to be published individually, released in five-year increments. However, I feel that the subtle links between the books create a larger, more complex, and more meaningful picture when placed side-by-side. Recognizing connections between the different sub-stories brought the story to life and the seamless transitions between the books built up a sense of urgency and anticipation for whatever surprises may lie ahead.

The Part about the Critics. This first section had me asking the question repeatedly “What on earth is this?” One of the main characters is simultaneously sexually involved with two of her best friends (as well as several other minor characters), unable to decide whom she is most interested in. She eventually reveals that she is, in fact, in love with the fourth member of their small group of Benno von Archimboldi enthusiasts. Although twisted and convoluted, the story is coherent and intriguing. Despite the fact that the complicated love affairs are a focal point of the narrative, the underlying theme is the main characters’ – all European literary critics and academics – admiration for the writer Benno von Archimboldi. Although the four come from entirely different backgrounds, they are united by their immense appreciation for this mysterious literary genius. They attend conferences together, travel to one another’s hometowns in order to discuss Archimboldi’s writings, and finally travel to Santa Teresa – a small town in northern Mexico – where Archimboldi is rumored to be visiting.

The Part about Amalfitano. In this section, we are introduced to Oscar Amalfitano, a fifty-year-old Chilean, teaching philosophy at a university in Santa Teresa, Mexico. He lives with his seventeen-year-old daughter, Rosa. Lola, Rosa’s mother, who had been mentally unstable, had abandoned her family when Rosa was still young. Despite this, Oscar never forgets Lola and never seems to get over her. Vaguely aware of the violence in Santa Teresa, a subtle yet nagging worry grows within him over the safety of his precious daughter. After discovering a geometry book which neither belonged to him nor his daughter, Oscar decides to hang the book from a clothesline in the backyard “to see if it learns something about real life.” Shortly thereafter, he begins hearing a voice in his head. He is tormented by the inquisitive voice and begins losing sleep; he begins losing his mind.

The Part about Fate. Oscar Fate is a journalist from New York who works for an African-American interest magazine. He first travels to Detroit, where he interviews an inspirational former-Black Panther who talks about danger, money, food, stars, and usefulness. Fate is then sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, even though he does not regularly write for the sports section. He meets other reporters, interviews the boxers, and spends time with some interesting characters and beautiful women (including Rosa Amalfitano). During his time in Santa Teresa, Fate learns of the ongoing serial murders and becomes thoroughly interested. However, the magazine he works for refuses to fund the story and demands he return to the US. Before doing so, he accompanies a female journalist to the local prison to talk to the supposed perpetrator of the crimes, a daunting blonde giant, in whose presence all questions are lost.

The Part about the Crimes. Over a span of about ten years, thousands of young women and girls in Santa Teresa, Mexico are kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and murdered; their ravaged bodies dumped in the desert, in ravines, behind dumpsters, and in the middle of school yards. The explicit descriptions are simultaneously fascinating and repulsive, as if featured in a medical report or some sick documentary. It is so real, yet written in a clinical and detached tone. The images evoked are strong enough to make your stomach churn, as if you were watching a live bovine being forced through a meat press. It is abhorrent; yet it is impossible to look away. Certain instances, such as meeting the victims’ families stir up acute feelings of sympathy and a longing for the injustice to end, for the perpetrators to be punished for their heinous crimes. However, the crimes continue as the policemen fruitlessly, and often carelessly, investigate the crimes to no avail. The Part about the Crimes exposes the true horror of humanity – people are dying, people are killing, and everyone else chooses to simply look away and ignore what is happening.

The Part about Archimboldi. Hans Reiter is born in Prussia in 1920 to poor, German parents. He has blonde hair, clear blue eyes, long legs, a passionate love for the ocean, and an extensive knowledge of different types of seaweed. When he is ten-years-old, his parents have another child, a little sister whom Hans adores. After leaving school and working several small jobs, he is drafted into the military. Reiter meets, and later falls in love with, a cynical and opinionated young woman who believes the only things worth swearing by are storms and the Aztecs. During his time serving in the army, Reiter runs into a woman for whom he and his mother had briefly worked – a woman who would continually reappear in his life – and discovers, in an abandoned house, the fascinating journal of a Jewish boy who had joined the Red Army. He later rents a typewriter under the name Benno von Archimboldi and sends his first novel off to be published; all of his subsequent works are printed, as well – some receiving positive reviews, and others negative. After the death of his lover, Archimboldi becomes elusive, making his whereabouts known only long enough to receive reparations for his latest novel. Later in life, his sister – whom he had lost contact with for several decades– contacts him with news that her son is locked up in a Mexican prison and she needs help negotiating his release. The book ends with Hans Reiter boarding a plane to Mexico to meet his sister and her son, the blonde giant accused of the serial murders in Santa Teresa.

“2666” is a phenomenally complex narrative that explores the intense depths of passion and love, the convulsions of insanity and hopelessness, as well as the throes of death and despair. It is grotesque and eloquent, if such a combination exists. Bolaño not only probes, but delves into generally taboo topics – sex, sodomy, prostitution, rape, horrendous mutilation, murder, sexism, abandonment, love, lust, and twisted, dysfunctional relationships. However, these obscene motifs are addressed in an elegant and ornate style, making them not only easier to swallow, but almost beautiful. The book is thick with metaphors, anecdotes, quotes, random facts, and chunks of knowledge that enhance the authenticity of the characters and the believability of their stories. There are several sections of the book which I had to immediately reread, sometimes multiple times, in an attempt to capture the meaning and understand the author’s motivations. Each story and each character placed Bolaño’s talent on exhibit – he used several different writing techniques and styles and was somehow able to make them work in unison and play off of one other. Details from one story bring light to mysteries from another. The book takes its readers on a fantastic journey across multiple continents over the course of the twentieth century, altering the style in order to represent the setting and the circumstances.

Although I’ve presented the backbone of the novel, “2666” is a dense book with many abstruse details that I could never explain in such a concise review. I now understand why the reviews for “2666” were all positive, yet so obscure. The novel is a compilation of dozens of interrelated stories, none of which seem related to one another, yet all of which build on the others and help paint an intricate, albeit ambiguous, portrait. The book is resistant to classification and open to interpretation, in many respects.

“2666” is a long  and complicated book; however, is one of the most phenomenally well-written books I have encountered and I would highly recommend that you check it out for yourself.

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Filling the diamond-shape mold: abandoning conventions

At first glance, conforming and allowing yourself to be shaped into the person whom other people expect you to be – essentially another asinine, convention-worshipping drone – may seem like the simplest and most cost-effective option when it comes to functioning in and contributing back to society. But consider this: How will you feel five, ten, twenty years from now, sitting an a pocket-sized cubicle, hopelessly fighting deadlines, silently resenting your boss as he picks out new lines from his jar of criticisms, and mindlessly crunching numbers at your desk as you daydream about what could have been had you done this or forgone that?

Society provides us with a simplistic mold – a little white ice tray that produces sixteen uniform cubes of frozen water at a time. This mold is used over and over again, until it cracks and is replaced by another little white ice tray that produces sixteen uniform cubes of frozen water at a time.

However, society has failed to inform us that other opportunities do exist. Recently, I have been seeing more and more ice trays that deliver ice crystals in the shapes of diamonds, dentures, and sinking ships. I’ve witnessed ice cubes in a variety of colors and flavors as well, oftentimes made from fruit juices or alcohol. And then, of course, there is the ever-popular dry ice, which emanates an eerie and enticing billow of smoky mist. All of these are far more interesting that the common cubic block.

The majority of people seem to be content living life as standard blocks of frozen water; they don’t mind their nine-to-five jobs or sacrificing their personal dreams and aspirations in order to pursue the “American Dream” – a sad, twisted goal that somehow entwined selfishness and greed with an umbrella of societal objectives. Rather than encouraging individuals to embrace their own unique selves and use their personal gifts and talents to better the world, society seems to force people into a designated corner and ostracize anyone who tries to fight the norm.

How can people be content with this type of lifestyle?

I know that I can’t do it.

I tend to be a control freak, primarily when it comes to my own life. I have taken full responsibility for my future and any decisions I may make. Being micro-managed by someone who has no idea who I am and what I want out of life – someone who isn’t concerned with building me up and helping me give back – would be more than a little dust on my shoulder; it would be an anvil, an anchor, a ball-and-chain that would constantly hold me back and drag me into the depths and leave me gasping for air.

No, I can’t do it.

I think that mustering up a little bit of courage now can and will pay off in the grand scheme of things. Living the life someone else has prescribed to you often involves denying your true self and inhibiting your dreams from breaking the surface. The first baby step is  saying “I want to be a diamond-shaped, strawberry-flavored ice cube”. Although it may be hard when everyone else is trying to toss you onto the assembly line and force you into the standard – that simple base-line that will allow survival, but nothing more – this first step is entirely necessary.

Those with authority will try to pour you into a sterile and grim little cube – a tiny space with mockingly rounded edges that assure you that you’re different, that you are more than just a simple square filled to the brim with the simplest of substances. Don’t listen to them.

Life in a tiny cubicle may be satisfactory (and possibly even ideal) for some. However, don’t be afraid to turn your back on society and pursue those things which you value and which will add joy and meaning to your life. If you relate more to a shimmering diamond, a humorous set of fake dentures, or an ironic reference to the Titanic than to an ordinary ice cube then I would recommend taking that first step. Overcome any fears or inhibitions you may have. Remind yourself that society’s mold wasn’t designed for you. Recall that each ice cube, not matter how plain or extravagant, began as a puddle of water and will eventually return to its original form; it’s never too late to change your form, to change your life.

Personally, I think the fun-shaped ice cubes are neat. Ice cubes with fruit frozen inside are always able to elicit a brimming smile from my normally coyly pursed lips. I admire people who are brave enough to diverge from society’s norms without worrying about the consequences and people who relentlessly pursue their dreams.

If you feel trapped in your current situation or fear that you may someday sink into society’s ominous mold, consider taking a step back. Although some dreams may fit neatly into little white boxes, my guess is that far more do not. My guess is that yours do not.

I don’t know your situation. I can’t give you advice or dictate how you should live your life. You know what is best for yourself. Your choices may consist of forcing a crack in the mold, walking away from a current situation that is draining you energy, or simply pursuing new endeavors in your spare time. Regardless, new ideas, innovations, and ice cube trays all come from somewhere. If the life you want doesn’t fit nicely into a pre-made box, then I challenge you to begin a redesign – hearts, sharks, staplers, or diamonds: any will do.

The privileged life

What is privilege? Does it have to with financial wealth? Is it entitlement to special opportunities? Or is it something entirely different?

I would argue that it’s the latter.

I lived the privileged life.

  • My family didn’t have cable.
  • We were only allowed to drink soda on special occasions, such as restaurant visits and birthday parties, both of which never seemed to happen often enough.
  • I didn’t go on weekly, nor even monthly shopping trips for new clothes. I probably owned 7 or 8 outfits at any given time.
  • I rarely got new toys.
  • I never went to dance lessons and I never learned piano.
  • I didn’t have private tutors to help me with my homework.

None of these things, which are often associated with privilege, were a part of my life.

No, I didn’t come from a wealthy family, but…

  • My parents made countless sacrifices to put me and my younger siblings through 12 years of Catholic school, which provided us a strong academic background and a solid moral foundation.
  • We ate dinner as a family nearly every night, discussing what we’d done each day, as well as what we were all thankful for.
  • We went to church each week, as a family.
  • My siblings and I knew what “no” meant and understood (to the extent any child can) why we couldn’t have and do the same things as our friends.
  • I have come to understand the value of a dollar, the importance of saving, and the importance of sharing my wealth with those who need it more – whether monetarily, through food donations, or through volunteer work.
  • I know the value of hard work and honesty and have made these virtues important pillars in my life.
  • I’ve always been one to love learning for the sake of learning. My parents read to me daily, often several times over the course of a day and although I didn’t always get the toy I wanted, my mother never said no to a new book. My family regularly went on trips to the zoo, museums, and sometimes even out of state, which allowed my brother, sister, and I to experience new facets of the world and temporarily satisfy our restlessly curious minds.
  • We saw my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on a weekly basis. The countless hours spent with relatives served to emphasize the importance of family in my life.
  • My family has always supported me financially, encouraged me to do well academically, and allowed me to pursue my dreams. I am grateful to have been able to go to college without working on the side or taking out huge loans.
  • I always had a roof over my head, good food on the table, and happily married parents.

All of these things, I’ve taken for granted far too many times.

At 22, I look at the people around me – my peers of whom I was so envious 5 and 15 years ago – and I pity them a bit. So many people in my generation seem lost, searching for love and meaning in their life, clueless as to where to find it. As I witness this, I realize just how lucky I am to have been brought up in a family that values education, love, and morals. And not only did my parents hold these principles in high regard; they would rest at no cost to ensure that these same values would be instilled in their children. For this, I am eternally grateful to them.

So if life ever seems unfair, parents seem too strict, and peers are unremittingly cruel, just be patient. Being young and having idealistic views of family, principles, love, and life is hard – people don’t seem to understand why one would care, why one would waste their time.

I advise you: Be patient.

There will come a day when the tables will turn. That girl who always seemed so different and “uncool” now has several things that the girl with everything will never have. Money can’t buy childhood. Money can’t buy values. And money can’t buy love.

Children, learn to appreciate all your parents have done for you. I didn’t realize any of this before going away to college. I truly wish I had sooner.

Parents, as a daughter and a young adult, I want you to know that the best gifts my parents ever gave me were not a bike or a gaming system, but rather a wonderful education (both in the classroom and at home), consistent discipline, the teaching of life lessons, and time spent together as a family. Kids will fight it – they’ll cry about how you don’t love them and about how their friends will make fun of them for not being cool. I know I did. Children neither understand the art of nor the implications of future-oriented thinking. As a parent, it is your responsibility to decide what will be best for your child in the long run – a gaming system that will be out-of-date within a year or two, or values and knowledge that will guide them for the rest of their life.

Give your child the opportunity to live the privileged life, whatever you feel that to be.