Nearly nine hundred pages long in Natasha Wimmer’s superb translation, Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 pieces together diverse types of fictionamong them murder mystery, war story, love story, portrait of an artist, and police thrillerinto a story as garish, moving, and perplexing as a ralli quilt. Above all, it concerns families and friendship. In each of its five parts the narrative resolution involves some decisive action intended by one person to save a loved one, often from one of the most hellish places ever conceived in modern literature.
That place is Santa Teresa, a Mexican border city in the Sonora Desert. Fictional, Santa Teresa is nevertheless closely modeled on Ciudad Juaréz, which lies across the border from El Paso, Texas. Like Juaréz, Santa Teresa is a city rapidly expanding with workers attracted to its maquiladoras (assembly factories for foreign companies); like Juaréz, it is a violent, corrupt place, overrun by drug gangs. Most of all, from the early 1990’s onward, Santa Teresa witnesses the unsolved rape-murders of hundreds of girls and young women, whose bodies, often mutilated, are discovered unburied in the desert. The major characters in 2666 come here, for one reason or another, and its atmosphere of motiveless menace alters them all.
If there is a mysterious city at the heart of the novel, there is also a mystery man, a novelist, who is its antipode. As in Los detectives salvajes (1998; The Savage Detectives, 2007), Bolaño makes this literary figure, legendary and elusive, the object of a quest. “The Part About the Critics” introduces him in the first sentence: “The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature.” Pelletier is soon joined in his interest by three other literature professorsManuel Espinoza in Spain, Liz Norton in England, and the wheelchair-bound Piero Morini in Italy. Together they bring Archimboldi’s novels to international academic prominence, to the point that he is listed for the Nobel Prize. At the same time, the four critics form a tight-knit group, a family of sorts. Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton carry on a ménage à trois, and all four are constantly in close contact. Meanwhile, Archimboldi remains a shadowy figure to them, eluding all of their attempts to track him down until a chance remark suggests that he has gone to Santa Teresa, Mexico. Espinoza, Pelletier, and Norton set off in pursuit. After scouring the city for weeks, they despair of finding him. At the same time, the horrendous city depresses them, as does their erratic sex life. They leaveNorton to move in permanently with Morini in Italy, Pelletier to brood, and Espinoza to consider marrying a Santa Teresa teenager. Their quixotic pursuit of the novelist illustrates how art eludes criticism, and, more, it reveals a group of people who form a family that at least succeeds in freeing them from a literary obsession.
The critics’ host at the University of Santa Teresa is Oscar Amalfitano, a professor of literature, and he becomes the protagonist in “The Part About Amalfitano,” the shortest of the five sections. Born in Chile and educated in Spain, he has come with his college-age daughter, Rosa, to Santa Teresa from Barcelona to escape his insane wife and crumbling career. He finds only growing despair for himself, symbolized in what at first is a impulsive joke: hanging a copy of a geometry book on the clothesline, as if logic itself is left to dry and fade in Santa Teresa. For Rosa, he fears the near certainty of kidnap and murder. Her rescuer arrives in the next section, “The Part About Fate,” in the person of African American journalist Quincy Williams, also known as Oscar Fate. His magazine has sent him to Santa Teresa as a last-minute replacement for a sports reporter to cover a boxing match. He falls in with a group of Mexican journalists, learns of the murder epidemic, grows interested, and through them works his way deep into the chillingly sleazy underworld of the city, which, he concludes, exists as if “outside of society.” At the boxing match, Williams meets Rosa Amalfitano and falls in love with her. Not long afterward, he comes across her in a drug house and,...
(The entire section is 1753 words.)