by Bayard Godsave
2666 by Roberto Bolano
What is it about Roberto Bolano’s prose, especially in his longer books, The Savage Detectives and 2666, that is so immensely readable? 2666, despite all its expectations, opens not with a bang so much as a yawn. In a prose that is purely functional, it sets out to tell the story of a literary scholar, and later, the stories of his like-minded colleagues, and their obsession with a little-known German novelist with the improbable name of Benno von Archimbaldi. Still, I remember wondering, as I slogged through the first fifty pages or so, why I kept reading (partly, because it was the new book by Roberto Bolano, and I’d been looking forward to it for a long time), or, perhaps more accurately, I wondered why I had absolutely no desire to stop, why, in fact, I found it impossible to put down.
Of course, Bolano’s prose is a mercurial thing, and it should be no surprise that, as the book progresses, what begins in the manner of a workhorse, gives way to vividly rendered landscapes, to hilarious internal monologues, to nightmarescapes so terrifying they will haunt not only your dreams, but your waking thoughts as well—there is a scene towards the end of the book in which deserting Romanian soldiers during World War II crucify one of their officers outside a castle, high in the Carpathian Mountains, that once belonged to a Count named Vlad, who had a certain predilection for impaling, that I can still see vividly if I just close my eyes. And perhaps this is it: maybe it is the blankness of Bolano’s prose that accounts for its shape-shiftingness, that allows it to become the conduit for such visions. His writing might best be described as a kind of white space where past and present, dream and reality, fact and fiction, come together to create something that cannot be contained in such dichotomies, but can only be made apparent through their dissolution. As one of the blurbs on the dust-jacket points out, Bolano is a linguistic borrower, who borrows from everywhere, from bildungsroman, to fairy tale, to science fiction, to the crime report; a chameleon of pastiche, Bolano’s prose, and therefore his book, in the end contains everything; it is a postmodern realization of the totalizing modernist projects of writers like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
When I first read the book over the summer, I had one of those moments of readerly sychronicity, picking up The Deluxe Complete Guide to the Marvel Universe purely by chance, and reading the two alongside one another. I decided to approach the Marvel Universe, not associatively as I might normally have (going from Magneto to X-Men to Wolverine to Alpha Flight and so on), but alphabetically, from the first entry to the last. And the experience was not unlike reading 2666, which is broken into five tangentially related sections, whose order, at first glance, seems little less arbitrary than if they too were ordered alphabetically—of course, there is an underlying design behind their order, but that’s a whole other thing. Reading the two side-by-side made me aware of the strange connectedness of everything in Bolano’s book. It is a book which builds through subtle repetition, through motif. Just as, say, the story of the Eternals began to fill in for me through repeated references in seemingly unrelated entries in the Marvel Universe, so too the major themes (art, death, love, fate) in 2666 become apparent, through a kind of echo effect, subtle at first but soon impossible to ignore.
2666 is a book, like so many of Bolano’s books, that has at its center an absence: the disappearance of the writer Archimobaldi, a character who, even after the final section, “The Part About Archimbaldi,” remains a mystery. The book is a kind of Gestalt image, with Archimbaldi’s outline, like a ghost-image at its center—which, when you think about it, is not unlike the ghost of Jack Kirby, which haunts the Marvel Universe—but like any Gestalt, it is not merely the revealed image that is important, but the relationship between the image and the shapes arranged around it. The book, taken as a whole, is not about filling in the absence of Benno von Archimbaldi, but rather, it’s about how that absence shapes and haunts the universe around it.
Finally, and this brings us back to my original question, there is a certain urgency to all of Bolano’s writing. Until his death, he was thoroughly convinced of the importance of literature. The writer’s art was worth going penniless for, going hungry for, and even dying for. His had a Romantic view of literature, and the importance he placed on it is something we all want to believe in (all of us who read anyway), but that kind of Romanticism, in these cynical times, is nearly impossible for anyone over a certain age. Bolano’s belief burned strongly, and urgently, and it is that urgency that ultimately drives his narratives. And it is the foundation on which this book is built. 2666 contains so much horror, whether it is the Holocaust, the brutality of South American dictatorships, or the hundreds of unsolved murders of mostly women in Juarez which serve as the books center. But furthermore, it seems to rest on the assumption—and I’m inclined to agree with this assumption—that it is only through art, and writing specifically, that we can begin to confront, and possibly begin to make sense of all that horror, and the uncountable other horrors that have come out of the 20th century.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
by Bayard Godsave