I just finished this book by Roberto Bolaño, and it really messed me up. I can’t remember why exactly I picked it up; I think I read an article online that mentioned in passing that it was a difficult novel with some particular timeliness that many smart people were reading right now, and I thought, sounds right for me. Following are my notes, which include spoilers. I think there’s a lot to this story that I didn’t catch, so you can probably read all my spoilers and still have surprises waiting for you in the book.
The book is really five novella-length stories with different plots and points of view. They revolve around two poles: a nearly endless series of brutal murders of women in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa, and a reclusive German novelist who publishes under a pseudonym. But the theme is the elusive nature of knowledge; how even those at just a small remove from events of the story can lose track of the narrative, with only glimpses of what really happened and how it is all connected.
The book starts with “The Part about the Critics” — a group of four European experts in the works of the German novelist who follow a rumor to Santa Teresa to possibly track him down. The three men and one woman are best known for their analysis of his texts, they are fascinated by his reclusive lifestyle, and follow clues to his whereabouts in every way they can. Their failure to find and identify the author is a strong indicator for how the rest of the book will go, as well as their distracted inattention to the intense love quadrangle that they’ve formed, and the violence they enact on people around them.
But the part of the book that was most disturbing and hardest to get a grip on was “The Part about the Crimes.” It’s a catalogue of one brutal murder of a woman after another, and how the city and country react. The evidence is carefully detailed: where and how the bodies are found, what their condition is, who investigated each case and what they did, who the loved ones or neighbors were. It’s a grueling list, into the hundreds, which is a difficult read.
The hardest part is that I found my mind craving some kind of traction in the investigations. Surely this murder will be the one that starts the investigators on the road to an arrest? In many cases, the real events seem to begin to gel, but the story dissipates into nothingness. An investigator from north of the border seems on the right track, but disappears himself. A suspect is arrested and tried, while murders continues. None of the explanations are conclusive.
We also see the reactions and the way that the city and country try to make sense of the murders. A mystic on local TV, a feminist organisation, reporters locally and remote, the various investigators and their bosses. They all seem to touch on an aspect of the mystery, maybe even a possible explanation, but none of them are definitive.
The last book, “The Part about Archimboldi”, is a complete shift in time and space from Northern Mexico to Germany between the world wars and the Eastern Front in WWII. Some themes are similar, especially the violence and the porous borders, but it’s also very different in that it focuses on one person’s perspective. In a way, it’s the part with the most answers, but in other ways it reminded me that I might have missed a lot in the earlier books. For example, there’s a murder that occurs without much explanation, and only later do we learn who did it and why.
I found the book a hard read. It felt similar in some ways to the “Game of Thrones” series, in that the main characters have unshared knowledge and fail to focus on facts that pass them by. I’m also reminded of the fictional literary style of anti-confluentialism in “Infinite Jest” — the way the author starts laying out a rational story, and my own reader’s instinct jumps in to collaborate, but never quite brings it to a conclusion, leaving me frustrated.
Most of all, when I finished, I felt that I had missed something. It’s not until writing this post that I realized that Archimboldi probably plagiarized most of his books. I don’t have a strong suspect for who committed the murders in Santa Teresa, except a cluster of factors you could call “the patriarchy”. But maybe those are just me constructing a narrative for myself out of random facts that I’m mistaking for clues. I feel like I should go back and re-read 2666, to try to pick up more that I missed, but maybe that would just be giving myself a chance to assemble more of my own story.
All in all, I really liked the book. It has some rough parts that might make it difficult and distasteful for some readers: the English translation includes some homophobic slurs, and of course there is sexual violence in the stories of the crimes. Will I go back to it? I’m still not sure.