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.

5 thoughts on “An Overview and Review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

    • Thank you, Lisa! I am so happy to hear that. Although I can’t tell you to “enjoy” a book dealing with serial murders, I hope that you can appreciate the talent and insight of the author.

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