Saturday, February 14, 2009

2666 - The Heart of Corruption

This is a review of Roberto Bolano's "2666", posted on Amazon.


On a recent trip through Manchester airport I was amazed to see copies of 2666 piled high in the departure lounge bookstore. Who did they think the target audience was for this lengthy literary novel?

Part 1, The Part About The Critics, tells a mostly self-contained story about a quartet of academics who specialise in the obscure German author Benno von Archimboldi. Each of the four gets their own back-story, and we follow their quest to find the author, a trail which leads to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (based on Ciudad Juarez). The story has highly stylised 'magical realism' sections (do academics ever beat up taxi drivers?) and appears to end inconclusively – perhaps a meditation on the strange paths of love, or the fickle ways of women? Or Santa Teresa’s powers of deflection.

At this point of my journey, I’m wondering where this story gets us, noting that not a whole lot has happened, and that I’m only on page 159 of an 893 page novel.

I grit my teeth and continue.

The shorter Part 2, The Part About Amalfitano, takes a minor character from the first part – a Chilean literary academic at the University of Santa Teresa and his daughter Rosa - and fills out their back story, mostly concerning the runaway wife, Lola.

Part 3, The Part About Fate, describes an American reporter, Oscar Fate who is sent to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa. While there, he gets involved with the local narcos and meets Rosa from part 2. Oscar by some miracle manages to escape Santa Teresa with his life. In this part we begin to circle around the increasing numbers of sexually-violated and murdered young women found in deserted parking lots, isolated ravines, abandoned buildings and the desert: crimes which the police seem unable to solve.

Part 4, The Part About The Crimes, takes us directly into the unending horror of underclass life in Santa Teresa. This is by far the longest novel in the collection. We meet the police: uneducated, casually violent, brutally chauvinistic and content to tiptoe around the atrocities of the powerful. We meet the suspect, a German businessman banged up for years while the crimes continue. And we discover the private lives of the narco lords: drug and sex-fuelled parties in their desert ranches with no inconvenient witnesses afterwards.

Part 5, The Part About Archimboldi, takes us back to the mysterious German author who was the subject of the quest in part 1. We now learn his life story, his wartime exploits and why, in his late life, he finally found himself for the first time in Santa Teresa.

In the Notes to the First Edition at the back of the book, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano's literary executor, tries to account for the title. He looks to an earlier novel of Bolano, Amulet, where a seedy, downbeat avenue at night in some Mexican town is described as like a cemetery: “not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

Santa Teresa may be the physical centre of this interlinked novel-set, as Echevarria observes, but it is also a symbol – a submerged, carnivorous, tentacled thing that draws in the powerless and horribly consumes them. Omnipresent corruption, where the powerful use ordinary people for their money or their bodies, then dispose of them with casual, lethal brutality. The murderous events depicted in 2666 actually occurred in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 400 women have been the victims of sexual homicides.

These five novels are five journeys into the heart of corruption, starting from afar and gradually taking us closer to its centre. If anyone thinks a corrupt society is just about the venal sin of taking bribes, this novel will make them think again.