Not your usual entry from me to the blogosphere today, more an entry about my journey through a novel that did not make the BBC’s “Top 100 Books You Need to Read Before You Die” nor the Amazon “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”, nor the Guardian’s “100 greatest novels of all time”, nor the BBC’s “Top 100 best reads” as nominated by the general public, nor the Harvard “top 100”, nor the Board selection nor public selection of the “100 best novels” for the Modern Library, nor the Telegraphs “100 novels everyone should read” (“The Savage Detectives” did make that list), nor the “Essential Man’s Library 100 Must-Read Books”. In fact, checking those lists I became quite bored, the same old tedious books came up again and again and again and for goodness sake Terry Pratchett’s “The Colour of Magic”? Stephen King? JK Rowling? Find me a desert island I’m heading off the grid!!
So based on the general public’s view of what is great, and their instructions of what I should do before I die, I’m dabbling in minor/fringe literature and wasting my time reading through 898 pages.
I’m sorry to let the general public know that I don’t care about their opinions, actually I’m not sorry at all, as of today lists are banned in this household, I’ll read what I want when I want and if I like it so be it. I know I should have persevered in those medieval literature classes, I should have paid more attention when the ageing professor was flapping on about character development and perfunctory plot, if only I had stayed awake, I could like the same stuff everybody else likes.
But surely Roberto Bolaño’s final work, posthumously published, is revered somewhere, the cover alone is plastered with the words “masterpiece”, “landmark”, and “wondrous”, from learned journals too.
So where do I fit in this landscape of polar opposites? Quite firmly in the “masterpiece” camp.
Simply, for a novel to keep you entertained for close to 900 pages is an achievement in itself. Each and every section has something different to offer, a blend of genres with the standard Bolaño themes of missing writers, café’s, a desert, a mystery but all melded together with a plethora of other genres, a war story, a fairy tale (we have a German forest and a one-eyed mother and a one-legged father), a murder mystery, a love story, gothic horror, art, literature, Russian science fiction…
My contribution to the 2666 debate is insignificant, there are wiki’s dedicated to it, surely people have received doctorates for weighty thesis’ on the themes, heavyweights of world literature have weighed in on its merits, so what’s an old bloke from Australia got to add? Not a lot, hence my review which basically highlights a few sections that hit the mark whilst I was reading. Let’s be realists here, you’re not going to be swayed into reading this novel by my blog post alone, you’re either that way inclined already or there is no way you are going to attack a 900 page novel by a Chilean, who writes about Mexico whilst living in Spain.
For those not acquainted with the book, it is broken into five sections “The Part About The Critics”, “The Part About Amalfitano”, “The Part About Fate”, “The Part about the Crimes” and “The Part About Archimboldi”. Each section intended to be published as individual works, as dictated by Bolaño shortly before his death, primarily to maximise the income for his estate, his wishes not adhered to and the work was published as a whole instead. Each of the five parts crisscross with another, common characters reappear (and disappear). As the first section draws to a conclusion we find the three main protagonists getting short sharp section each, we find that as the characters are naturally drifting away from each other the writing style becomes singularly focused and the relevance to each other slowly dissipates. A simple example of the many writing styles employed throughout, from observation, to character narration, to description, or stories gleaned through reading journals, there is no single approach here.
In “The Part about the Crimes” section we have three-hundred plus pages of repetition, of horror, of anonymity, a dismissive, journalistic, fact style presentation of the death of hundreds of female victims. In the novel these victims may only be allocated a single paragraph, but that is more than in the media, the style showcasing the enormity of humanity, the irrelevance of a single life:
In September, the body of Ana Muñoz Sanjuán was found behind some trash cans on Calle Javier Paredes, between Colonia Félix Gómez and Colonia Centro. The body was completely naked and showed evidence of strangulation and rape, which would later be confirmed by the medical examiner. After an initial investigation her identity was determined. The victim’s name was Ana Muñoz Sanjuán and she was eighteen. She lived on Calle Maestro Caicedo in Colonia Rubén Darío, where she shared a house with three other women, and she worked as a waitress at El Gran Chaparral, a coffee shop in the historic district of Santa Teresa. Her disappearance hadn’t been reported to the police. The last people she was seen with were three men known as El Mono, El Tamaulipas, and La Vieja. The police tried to find them, but it was as if the earth had swallowed them up. The case was shelved.
This section has been widely debated and even dismissed as “sexist”, “deadening”, lacking “joy” (FFS!). If you want to make your blood curdle (not boil but curdle) then head to Goodreads – why some people would even bother picking a novel like this up persevering and then writing such schlock?
Art is another theme, with characters such as an artist who becomes famous for severing his painting hand and including it in a “self-portrait”, the last ever painting he would paint. Or Guiseppe Arcimoboldo, the Italian painter from the 1500’s who created portraits using images of fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, books. And of course literature, with Bolaño’s usual style of referring to numerous books, poems, and writers or even slightly altering the facts of a real life writer, changing their name slightly and telling the tale of their writing struggle. One of the main protagonists is an elusive famous German writer.
Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wild-flowers.
Political? Of course. With references to Italian, German, French, Spanish, Mexican politics and even Bolaño’s home country of Chile:
And just as the book began with a jab to the jaw (“the Yekmonchi, called Chile, was geographically and politically identical to the Greek state”), the active reader – the reader as envisioned by Cortázar – could begin his reading with a kick to the author’s testicles, viewing him from the start as a straw man, a factotum in the service of some colonel in the intelligence services, or maybe of some general who fancied himself an intellectual, which wouldn’t be so strange either, this being Chile, in fact the reverse would be stranger, in Chile military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone, behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men, and diplomats behaved like cretinous cherubim, and doctors and lawyers behaved like thieves, and so on ad nauseam, impervious to discouragement.
Full of wonderfully named characters (for example, Lalo Cura is a street kid, who becomes a “guard” and then a policeman, La Locura meaning “lunatic” in Spanish), peppered with inconclusive endings, this is a mirror of a real life, as people come into focus, move away, disappear, not everything has a happy ending, or an ending at all. And of course we have the all-pervading image of death’s shadow creeping across the work every few pages
“I don’t have much time, I have to haul corpses. I don’t have much time, I have to breathe, eat, drink, sleep. I don’t have much time, I have to keep the gears meshing. I don’t have much time. I’m busy living. I don’t have much time, I’m busy dying.”
All up an amazing work, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book I would recommend to any reader of translated fiction. I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite quotes (ones that were too large for Tweets), and a statement, and commitment, “Tranquillity” by Attila Bartis must be pretty special to have won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award over and above this work, it does sit on my bookshelf so onto the “to be read pile” it goes. Here’s a few snippets from 2666:
Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry – and let me be clear, only some of it – is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.
Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
Despondent, she went back to her house, to the other neighbor woman and the girls, and for a while the four of them experienced what it was like to be in purgatory, a long, helpless wait, a wait that begins and ends in neglect, a very Latin American experience, as it happened, and all too familiar, something that once you thought about it you realized you experienced daily, minus the despair, minus the shadow of death sweeping over the neighborhod like a flock of vultures and casting its pall, upsetting all routines, leaving everything overturned.