Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

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...

(The entire section contains 1801 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this 2666 study guide. You'll get access to all of the 2666 content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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, when it appears she is on the verge of becoming another victim, leads her away and, with her father’s approval, spirits her across the border into the United States.

“The Part About the Crimes” is the longest and most excruciating section of the novel to read. Several subplots run through it, but its overriding power comes from the short subsections describing the discovery of individual victimsdozens of them, presented for the most part one by one. They read like police case reports, detached in tone and gruesomely detailed. Coming sometimes ten in a row, these case reports have the effect of saturating the reader’s compassion and overcoming all emotional responses except revulsion. It is a devastating technique, relentlessly used. Furthermore, behind the reports, readers perceive the hundreds of families bereft of daughters, the police connivance, shadowy organized crime, and a thoroughgoing indifference among Santa Teresans (except worried mothers of young daughters and a handful of protesters). As a reporter comments, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”

Among the subplots, three particularly highlight the twisted mentality of the city. One follows the outbreak of another crime spree: the desecrations of Catholic churches in the city. The vandalism is investigated by a Mexico City reporter, Sergio Gonzalez, and Santa Teresa detective Juan de Dios Martínez. A second subplot follows a loveless affair between Martínez and a much older psychiatrist. He is looking for love, but the psychiatrist wants only to be desired by a younger man as a way to hold on to her vanity and vitality. A third involves the leading suspect in the murders, a German-born American named Klaus Haas. As he fights to keep alive in a brutal Mexican jail, his lawyer falls in love with him, he holds press conferences, his trial is repeatedly delayed, and the murders continue without him.

The section comes to an end with a twist that is strange even by this novel’s tangled standards. Azucena Esquivel Plata, a member of the national congress, recruits Gonzalez to help her investigate the Santa Teresa murders. She has become interested because of the disappearance of a childhood friend. Esquivel is estranged from her wealthy family, and the friend, practically the only acquaintance from her coddled youth in the Mexican aristocracy, is the person to whom she feels most obligated. The ensuing private investigation turns up a horrific surprise. The friend has been running a prostitute ring serving orgies for drug lords, and she may have gone even further by helping kidnap girls in Santa Teresa. Although she is beyond redemption, Esquivel tries to find her. Together these and other narrative strands form a bewildering portrait of a hellhole. Even the scenery conspires to terrorize: “The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.”

The last section, “The Part About Archimboldi,” begins almost as if it is a fairy tale. Hans Reiter, born in 1920 to a one-legged war veteran and a one-eyed woman, grows up in a small northern German village with his adoring younger sister, Lotte. His mother works as a servant to the local baron. Accompanying her one day, he meets the baron’s nephew, an artist, who starts young Reiter reading. Dropping out of school, the boy educates himself, after a fashion, and runs away to improve his life. He ends up in Berlin, working as a factory night watchman until he joins the German army. Fighting in Poland, France, and then Russia, he is decorated for bravery and wounded; he witnesses horrific brutality, including the murderous campaign against Jews by Germany’s death squads, known as Einsatzgruppen. At war’s end, he is in an American prisoner-of-war camp. Hidden among the soldiers are Nazi war criminals. Reiter murders one of them before escaping and working as a bouncer at a bar in Cologne. He rents a typewriter and begins writing novels in his spare time under the name Benno von Archimboldi. One after another he publishes them, at first to little success but eventually attracting a cult following. By the time that the critics in the first section of 2666 discover him, Archimboldi has left Germany and roams the Mediterranean, haunted by his past and living for little other than his writing.

Meanwhile, Lotte, whom Archimboldi has not seen since she was ten years old, grows up among hardship and loss, marries a mechanic, and works her way into the German middle class, a solid postwar success story. Her son, however, is a scapegrace. After getting in trouble with the police, he leaves Germany for the United States and changes his name and citizenship. Then he disappears. Late in life, Lotte tries to track him down, and in 1995 she locates him in the Santa Teresa jail. He is Klaus Haas, accused of the Santa Teresa murders. Over the next six years, Lotte bends all of her efforts to freeing her son. While on a plane trip, she happens to read a novel that exactly describes her childhood. She contacts the publisher and learns that the author, Archimboldi, is Hans Reiter, her brother. After nearly fifty years, they reestablish contact. In the novel’s last line, Archimboldi sets off for Santa Teresa in an attempt to help his nephew, a gesture of hope that brings him back into his family and a gesture of commitment by the writer to confront evil directly.

“All eloquence springs from pain,” one of Bolaño’s characters insists. The pain of history, both social and personal, and the obligations of love are the thematic counterpoints of 2666. Before he died in 2003, Bolaño left instructions to issue each major part as a separate novel. His publisher decided to bundle them together (a decision defended in an epilogue, along with speculation about the novel’s enigmatic title). Readers may well regret that decision. The long, repetitious, often surreal, crushingly cruel “Part About the Crimes” so dominates 2666 that reading all five parts straight through may leave the reader with the impression that to Bolaño humanity as a whole is irredeemably self-destructive. Read individually, however, each of the five parts manifests Bolaño’s confident faith in the power of literature to refresh awareness of the deepest human bonds.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

Esquire 150, no. 5 (November, 2008): 28.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 18 (September 15, 2008): 967-968.

The Nation 287, no. 19 (December 8, 2008): 13-22.

The New York Times, November 13, 2008, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 2008, p. 1.

The New Yorker 84, no. 37 (November 17, 2008): 105.

Newsweek 152, no. 21 (November 24, 2008): 60.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 30 (July 28, 2008): 52.

Time 172, no. 21 (November 24, 2008): 60.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 9, 2005, p. 23.

Illustration of PDF document

Download 2666 Study Guide

Subscribe Now