Earlier in the year, I started reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.
I was eager to read it because I’ve heard book club friends raving about it, and I’d splurged on a lovely hardcover copy because I wanted to be in the mood to read such a long book. I’d also signed up for the Chunkster Challenge because it seemed to be a promising start. And I’d designated it as the B book in my A-Z Challenge!
I’m not even sure if I should count 2666 as one book, because technically there are five books in this hefty volume. 2666 was Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s last work; he died shortly after the first draft was presented to the publisher. His original intention was to publish the books individually, but then he passed away and the heirs decided on compiling all the parts in one massive volume, the English translation of which was named by Time Magazine as the Best Book of 2008.
Okay, so I started reading it in May. I finished the first three books, and a portion of the fourth book, but I was so overwhelmed I decided to take a break. I had been dreading to pick it up again, and then, suddenly, I realized it was December already! So there I was, on New Year’s Eve,attempting to finish this chunkster of the book. I’m not sure where I should begin in telling you about this book, but well, here goes (and please bear with me, it took me all week to write this; I dreaded this review too).
The first book, The Part About the Critics, is about four scholars who each develop a special interest in a German writer by the name of Benno von Archimboldi: the Frenchman Jean-Claude-Pelletier, the Italian Piero Morini; the Spaniard Manuel Espinoza; and the American Liz Norton. All four pursue Archimboldi as their specialization, and eventually get acquainted at the Bremen literary conference. at a literary conference, and soon become fast friends (and then some, but you’ll have to figure that out on your own).
Even after years of studying Archimboldi, none of the four academics ever met the reclusive writer, so they attempt to find him, talking to his publisher and other people who have reportedly met him, and they are eventually led to Santa Teresa, a small town in Mexico (apparently a thinly-disguised Juarez).
The second book, The Part About Amalfitano, is about a philosophy professor that the critics meet at the University of Santa Teresa. Oscar Amalfitano is an exile from Chile, and this book tells us about his ex-wife (a Spanish girl named Lola who left him and their young daughter — she is obsessed by a poet and ends up on the streets) and their daughter, Rosa, who is now a young woman. When bodies of girls and women turn up all over Santa Teresa, Amalfitano fears for his daughter’s safety.
In the third book, The Part About Fate, an African-American journalist, Oscar Fate (real name: Quincy Williams) is assigned to Santa Teresa to pinch-hit for a sports reporter and cover a boxing match. The series of unsolved murders in Santa Teresa stirs his interest, but he winds up in the company of some local hooligans. He flees across the border, taking with him Amalfitano’s daughter, Rosa, who has been entrusted in his care.
The fourth book, The Part About the Crimes, is a long, grisly chronicle of the body count from the Santa Teresa murders over a span of four years. Page after page a new body is reported, from little girls to middle-aged women, black and blue, most often raped in one form or another, and dumped unceremoniously here and there. The police make some arrests, but the killing spree continues.
And then it was time to attend the New Year’s Eve mass, and yes, I confess, I stopped at the fourth book. have mixed feelings about this, because I almost never not finish a book (really!). But I stopped at Part 4, not because I had no time to finish it (although yeah, that is a dilemma for the time-space continuum), and not because it couldn’t sustain my interest, but because I feel I’m not yet ready for the final installment.
I picked up this book at the recommendation of esteemed book club friends, and I know that even for them, or any reader of this book for that matter, that this is not the sort of work one breezes through, even at surface value.
Different parts of the book attracted and affected me in different ways. It was amusing to read about Pelletier, Morini, Espinoza, and Norton’s fascination with Archimboldi, because while I’m not a scholar of literature, they had a level of fanaticism over Archimboldi that I, and perhaps every reader who has ever felt passionate about a particular author, can very well relate to. Amalfitano’s mental state was highly interesting, hovering over that thin and blurry line between madness and genius, and one of my favorite episodes in the book is of him doing a Marcel Duchamp (a French Dadaist/Surrealist artist) by hanging a geometry book from his clothesline (“so that the wind can go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages”– hence my cover photo, although I took the book down after I shot it). Fate honestly weirded me out; I’m still pondering that one; and The Part About Crimes was like watching a Crime and Suspense channel documentary that goes on and on and on and on.
To call this book intense would be an understatement. Epic is more like it. It’s not the number of words or pages — I’m never daunted by that (you know I read Pillars of the Earth in roughly one sitting!) — but the fervid verbosity of 2666 is a hulking cave of stylistic literature that the reader has to burrow through, where each tunnel branches into more complex straits.
I’ve quoted this before:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze the path 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 that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
But yes, even random passages are the most exhilarating I’ve ever read in a book:
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. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the warth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach. And you, who are so kind, now you must be asking: What did you read, Barry? I read everything. But I especially remember a certain book I read at one of the most desperate moments of my life and it brought me peace again.
To borrow the words of Mr. Emerson in E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, I need to “pull out from the depths the thoughts that [I] do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight” so I may know the meaning of them (Um, does that mean I have to hang my copy of 2666 out on the clothesline?). Only in this case, there is that possibility that the author may have intended his reader to exercise the probe but to never really know his meaning. And there’s also that little complication: the fact that Bolaño only finished three quarters of the last book.
2666 is the last of my 2010 reads (and hey, I did read 635 pages for the Chunkster Challenge, but I will definitely pick it up again in the future, and maybe even reread some portions. I want to read some of his other works (recommendations, anyone? RISE?) in preparation for the final volume of 2666.
2666, first edition hardcover, rating reserved.
Book #206 for 2010
B for the A-Z Challenge, Chunkster #6