Roberto Bolaño: 2666
1. If this interests you, see Pica on La Literatura Nazi en América and/or “Dance Card,” a brief story by Bolaño which demonstrates my points better than I can express them. (The translation isn’t authorized and in a couple of days I’ll take it down. This May a collection of translated stories will appear from New Directions under the title Last Evenings on Earth; I hope that it sells well, and that a reasonable portion of the proceeds makes it back to the family that Bolaño once described in an interview as the only homeland he had remaining.)
2. It’s difficult to separate the appeal of Bolaño’s writings from his appeal as a personality; a strong and idiosyncratic sensibility runs through and links together his work. The events of “Dance Card” stick to his biography insofar as he actually was a young Chilean poet who spent his adolescence in Mexico City, returned to his homeland at age twenty-one to participate in Allende’s socialist project, and a month later was forced to flee the Pinochet coup. After a brief imprisonment he successfully made his escape; a great many others didn’t. He spent the rest of his personal life in exile and the rest of his artistic life attempting a response to the continuing obscenities and horrors of Latin American history.
3. Orwell wrote political fictions with obvious lessons. Nabokov abhorred this practice because it seemed to deprive art of its aesthetic autonomy, but his own attempts in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister to dramatize how individuals can assert this autonomy and triumph over repressive states (essentially, by refusing to believe in them) seem hollow, since actual dictatorships are not so easily banished. Bolaño’s way out is to avoid opposing art to life; for him the two are inextricable.
4. At one point in 2666 an ex-leader of the Black Panthers speaks at a Detroit church. He announces that his speech will cover five themes: danger, money, food, stars, and utility. What follows is fifteen beautiful and strange pages organized along these themes, told in straightforward, almost clinical prose that does not exclude haunting turns of phrase. Talk of death, of street life and prison life, alternates with a recipe for pork chops (which the speaker claims saved him after his release from prison) and a discussion of Voltaire (whose works the speaker read in prison and offers as an exemplar of utility). Here, as throughout the book, intellectual and aesthetic pursuits are of unspeakable urgency, even for those in desperate circumstances. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not apply.
5. At another point a professor of literature asks his pharmacist which are his favorite books, and is saddened to discover that they are The Metamorphosis, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” A Simple Heart, and A Christmas Carol, and imagines an alternate list: The Trial, Moby-Dick, Bouvard and Pécuchet, A Tale of Two Cities. “Not even enlightened pharmacists,” thinks the professor, “still brave the great works, imperfect, torrential, those which open a path into the unknown. They choose the perfect works of the great masters. Or what comes to the same thing: they want to see the great masters in entertaining fencing sessions, but they don’t want to know anything of the true combats in which the great masters fight against something, that thing which terrifies us all, that thing which makes us cowards and fixes us in cement, and there is blood and mortal wounds and strench.” What is unquestioned is discussing Kafka with one’s pharmacist in the first place. Art is axiomatically necessary.
6. Which is not to say that it is always a force for good. One character in La Literatura Nazi en América is a sadist under Pinochet who creates both skywriting and violent porn films. It is these latter that allow him to be tracked down many years later, though he never appears onscreen; something about the camera’s gaze itself is recognizable as an extension of the man. Creator and creation are one.
7. Art and life: roughly half the plot of 2666 concerns the fictional German author Benno von Archimboldi, a Pynchon-like recluse who inspires obsession in his devotees. The other half is based on the real-life serial rapes and murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; numbering in the hundreds and still unsolved, these are as glaring a demonstration as you could wish of impunity, misogyny, and social inequality in Latin America. The plot strands are complementary, though their correspondence is not forced. Archimboldi’s aesthetic education comes through witnessing the horrors of the eastern front in World War II. And Bolaño spends hundreds of hideous pages enumerating murder after murder in his fictionalized border city not only to provide them the materiality that disappears in statistics, but also to force the skin-crawling realization that these acts are not distant from artistic practice, as dictatorships are not distant from artistic practice: they are methodical realizations of plans and dreams.
8. Bad art, bad science, and bad politics spring from the same root. One of the great laughs in 2666 (laughs which are physiological necessities, like those in Kafka and Beckett, providing us refuge) comes when the professor of literature, a Chilean exile, reads an insane treatise on telepathy in the Mapuche Indians and seriously considers the possibility that its author is Pinochet.
9. As the correspondence of the plot strands is not forced, their convergence is a question mark. A man imprisoned in Mexico as a scapegoat for the murders, a somewhat nasty character for whom our sympathy is limited, still stirs our heartstrings with his cryptic declaration that a giant is coming to rescue himfor if the giant is Archimboldi, what sort of rescue or redemption can he effect? If art is a mortal struggle like any other, 2666 rests its final sights on the question of how it can directly face the horrors of history, the question to which Orwell and Nabokov gave equally unsatisfactory answers. Explicit solace, Bolaño knows, too easily makes for platitudes. What refuge we have lies in the fact of the book itself.