Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2666 / by Roberto Bolano; trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The son of a truck driver, Roberto Bolano was born in Chile in 1953 but moved with his family to Mexico City when he was still a child. After dropping out of school in his teen years, Roberto became heavily involved with the ongoing revolutionary movements in Central and South America. In 1973 he even
traveled back to Chile to give his support to the Salvador Allende regime (ironically the uncle of the other renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende) only to eventually be taken prisoner and held captive for several months. Afterwards, Bolano lived the life of a semi-vagabond for a time, residing in Spain, El Salvador, Mexico and France among other places before trying his luck as a writer, primarily as poet in his early career before turning to fiction full time. His novel 2666, published just after his death in 2003 from Hepatitis C, has been described as "an exceptionally exciting literary labyrinth" and  "the first great book of the twenty-first century".

In the border city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, there has been an ongoing series of serial murders of young women since 1993. The local law enforcement estimates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400 homicides have occurred though local residents estimate the count significantly above that. "Los Feminicidios", as the victims have come to be called, are mostly poor, uneducated and nondescript females ranging in age from 15-36. Though a series of suspects and criminal trials have come and gone, few viable leads and hard evidence have come to light as the wave of brutal killings have continued unabated, the police seemingly as useless at preventing crime as they are at a loss for answers to solve them. Among the residents of the city, the murders are perpetually in the public conscious. Everyone is on edge, wary of their surroundings, going about their lives in grim, foreboding fashion under constant fear for themselves and their loved ones. Even outsiders new to Santa Teresa can't help but be engulfed in the distinct air of menace and fear which grip the streets.
All the while amid the surroundings saturated with anxiety and unease, odd contradictions and unlikely connections permeate the scene. A sophisticated set of European literary critics has gathered in Santa Teresa to be near the obscure German poet Benno von Archimboldi, a man himself well-associated with violence and murder and of who it is said is in the city for some peculiar reason associated with the "Los Feminicidios". Coincidentally, the critics and Archimboldi are colleagues of one Oscar Amilfitano, a professor at the local university who fears for his own daughter's life, she being "of the age" for targeted victims. Within the same circle of these foreigners and fringe intellectual types is Oscar Fate, an American journalist representing an NYC-based lifestyle magazine, who's in town to cover a high profile boxing match even as he knows nothing about the sport. Instead of covering the fighters he's supposed to be interviewing, Fate becomes interested in the murders and promptly starts his own investigation into the case, targeting the high concentration of women murdered between the years of 1993 and 1997.
Up front there are three things the reader should know about this book: Santa Teresa is a fictional equivalent of Cuidad Juarez, the murders are real and based on fact, and the title '2666' is relatively meaningless (the number itself is a vague allusion to the Biblical book of Exodus but never mentioned in the text). An epochal tale centering on the ongoing series of very brutal crimes, it's a novel not so much concerned with violence and death--no one would mistake it for crime or mystery fiction--as it is a diatribe subtly hinting at the sinister world in which we inhabit. There's something very secret and very horrible centered around the desert city of Santa Teresa and, conversely, Cuidad Juarez, a place perhaps as reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah as anywhere. Evil is as much a reality as eating and drinking. And not just a commonplace criminal element, but a distinct brand of extreme violence and vulgar bloodlust which define the setting and accommodate Bolano's savory, emanating style. Further enhancing the book's almost mystical resonance is the author's death in 2003 coinciding with the novel's publication that same year--the tome (and it is a 'tome', over 900 pages long) sort of his magnum opus and a labor of love which the publisher took great care to leave fully intact. But unlike the themes of death and mortality which so wrap themselves around the book and its author, there are no real resolutions established in the narrative of the story. No defining moments or revelations are reached as the mysteries remain unsolved and largely unapproachable in their complexity, vastness and overwhelming tragedy. The mood is almost sublimated to match the atmosphere as things remain strange and unpredictable, an element of Bolano's which compounds the surreal, provocative quality of this intensely superior work. (FIC BOLANO)

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