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Sunday, 20 July 2014

2666, aka "The First Great Novel of the 21st Century"

written by the Judge
For those who haven't read the book - there are no spoilers at all in this article. I promise. 

I no longer remember how I first heard about 2666. I have a faint recollection of reading somewhere about the Ulysses of Latin America that came out only a few years ago. Since Latin American literature KICKS ASS, I was immediately interested. I wanted to read it in the original Spanish, but didn’t want to spend god knows how much to buy it on the internet. So I waited.

In early 2012 I found myself in Spain, in what I believe was the same contract that led me to purchasing another Great Classic. Going to a different country is always a great opportunity to pick up some books, especially poetry, but 2666 by Roberto Bolaño was one particular novel that I was on a mission to find. Once I did, it rested in my library at home for another two years until last Christmas I started leafing through the first few pages, more out of curiosity than out of a genuine decision to start reading it.

To my great surprise, I was hooked. When you start a book thinking that it’s going to be kind of like Ulysses, you expect difficulty and challenge. Instead, the beginning of 2666 is the reading equivalent of riding a bicycle down a gently sloping hill. The story is gripping and the writing is beautiful. I ended up taking the book with me back to England. A few days ago I finished it.

He does look a bit like Joyce I suppose
I already knew I was going to write an article about this novel, though the original intention – that of spreading the word about a piece of literature that I thought to be relatively unknown – sounds a bit funny now. In only ten years since its release in Spanish (six since that in English), the book appears to have garnered a global reputation as the first Great Novel (R) of the 21st Century. I was feeling pretty swanky as I progressed through it, thinking I’d be able to show off about reading something so advanced and modern and difficult nobody even knew it, but everywhere I pulled it out of my rucksack people went ‘Oh, Bolaño’. Heck, if you Google ‘2666 reviews’ you’ll get a hundred pages of critical commentary – and it’s so ubiquitously positive that it boggles the mind.

In effect, one of the (many, many) springboards for discussion around this book is simply that of its critical reception – and if I had more time and were more qualified, I’d be tempted to question the seemingly homogeneous response that the book has generated.

But that challenge, not unlike the others posed by this book, is one I will defer to the better judgment of others, not because I don’t believe it may be rewarding, but because 2666 – and in this, if in very little else, it truly resembles Joyce’s great work – is a hydra that will devour you no matter how many heads you chop off. I do not know if it is a Great Novel, but it’s certainly the kind of book that you can go on discussing FOREVAH, and that’s scary (and also, perhaps, the very definition of a Great Novel… see me being sucked into yet another of the questions raised by Bolaño even as I declare my resistance to it).

I write this article because I know my limits. A few scattered thoughts is all I can afford; any more than that would be dangerous; any less, an insult.

So – a few thoughts about 2666. If you’ve read this far I assume you must have a vague notion of what the novel is, or what it’s about. Me, I purposely eschewed all information about the book until I could read it, to get as fresh an experience as possible (come to think of it, perhaps that’s why I was unaware of its reputation...). 2666 is a novel divided into five independent parts – or, if you prefer, five separate novels collected together in an anthology. They are only loosely related to each other – they share a fictional city where all the novels are set (or where they end up), and a handful of reappearing characters.

Regrettably "The Neverending Story" was already taken, but it would have been a fitting title
The story behind the writing of this book – how the author was dying, how he planned the books to be published posthumously to support his family – is as legendary as the book itself. It deserves its own article, but I’m going to assume here that you’re at least partly familiar with it.

What can I say about this book? I suppose I could do worse than sharing Alessandro Baricco’s impression: ‘Normally, if you write books, reading your contemporaries provides you with some self-esteem, it stimulates and challenges, sometimes it gives you a bitter perception of your limits: only very infrequently does it crush you.’ In an attempt to describe what the novel is about, he says: ‘I think it’s something like Evil. But I wouldn’t put my money on that. Maybe Evil and the delight of the living. Or Evil and the mystery of the living.’

This is no doubt one of the common threads that I’ve perceived in reviews / summaries of this book: it’s about the problem of evil, in and across the problem of history (or perhaps the two are one and the same). This is because the longest, most difficult and in my opinion the best of the five novels is just a long relation of serial murders in which women are raped and butchered in a town called Santa Teresa (inspired by the real events in Ciudad Juárez).

Though these are clearly important themes in the book, if I had to put my finger on what the book is essentially about, I’d go for something different. In fact, all the way until the end of the third book, I could have sworn that the topic of the whole work was that of dreams, or dreaming, and the significance thereof. It seemed to me that all of the novels were composed of characters experiencing events that take up an oneiric quality, moments in which the real and the surreal mingle at the edges. It’s impossible to tell when something really significant is taking place, and when, on the other hand, you’re faced with something that’s just random. Like the five novels themselves, the episodes within them stand alone as frescoes of sanity and madness, and simultaneously connect to all the others in ways that are subtle and suggestive but never quite definite: everything in this book is referential and intuitive, never quite important in and of itself but always somehow hinting at something that you should be aware of.

It helps my argument that there are several actual dreams being described. I usually dislike it when a writer interrupts the narrative to describe one of his characters falling asleep and having a dream, especially if the description is extensive. But Bolaño pulls it off with remarkable grace, perhaps precisely because all the other episodes are so dream-like anyway. This is but one of a number of small miracles that the author performed for me over the length of the book – another is the fact that the first three novels are about characters that I usually have no interest in reading about, such as critics, academics, philosophers, teachers, and scribblers of various nature (some journalists, though this category I don’t mind too much). And yet I was spell-bound, and very much intrigued by all of them.

If you were to follow the path that I took into the novel – that is to say, reading it as a novel fundamentally about dreams and dreaming – and it is but one of numerous paths that you can take, among other things because the five novels can be read in any order you like (and yes, this will change your experience of 2666 dramatically!) – if you were to follow this path, I was saying, you will inevitably be faced with a challenge when you reach the fourth novel, the one about the crimes in Santa Teresa.

I suppose you’ll be challenged by that bit regardless, because it’s so different from all the others. But for the purposes of my reading, it’s relevant because in many ways it seems to represent the opposite of dreaming: the horrors of the serial killings are so down-to-earth, so grimy, so exhaustively and exhaustingly physical, that you could almost call it a representation of a world without a dreams. Not that it lacks some oneiric moments of its own, including a very esoteric clairvoyant and a whole subplot about ‘giants’ dreamt of by a German convict, but these are far more infrequent, and by comparison they almost seem crushed, powerless, insignificant when confronted to the horrors before them, or tainted in such a way that they partake in the evil.
Mexican noir. The fourth novel is kind of like this, but really long.
It goes without saying that having a part of the book, perhaps the most important part, being about the opposite of dreams does nothing but reinforce the sense that the whole thing may be explicitly about dreams.

At least this was the impression that I walked away with. I can’t really guarantee I’ll be holding to it a year from now – which is really the other half of the reason I’m writing the article, not just to spread 2666 to others, but to record it for myself. There is so much content in this book that the process of forgetting has already begun: like a dream, its details and characters are already becoming fainter.

Is this really the first Great Novel of the 21st Century? I find that question tiresome, but it’s certainly a novel that belongs to a special, personal category: the Novel That I Write an Article About (or, That I *Need* to Write etc.). Not even a semi-humorous article, but a proper article. Yes, that’s rare enough. And I hope someday you’ll join us, as I look forward to reading your own articles. Some novels cause ten thousand words to be written for every word of their own. And when that happens, I guess it doesn’t even matter if the book is good or bad.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Judge

    It is interesting to compare Roberto Bolano with Stieg Larsson. Bolano was a year older but both died aged fifty and became posthumously very popular. Both were extremely political, left-wing and powerful and persuasive writers.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish


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