Madness Is Contagious

Literature

 

2666

by Roberto Bolaño

translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Picador, 2009, 912 pp.

 

 

2666 by Roberto Bolaño is an ominous narrative detailing past and current tragedies and wallowing in the inevitability of death. Death is the major theme for the novel, primarily the deaths of young women in the town of Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juarez). The ambiguous title itself, 2666, can be considered a year, a year too far in the future to grasp, even while the murder of young women in Mexico continues even today.1

 

A sense of immense desperation pervades the novel, reflecting Bolaño’s attempt to complete the book in 2003 before his own demise. (He wanted to complete the novel so that his children would have money on which to survive.) There is a certain understanding in 2666 that Bolaño is writing for the future, for his children’s future, and for the future examination of readers who turn his pages long after he is gone. There is a sense that the novel will live on without its scribe.

 

It is a lonely work, full of characters to despise and applaud, but none to follow for very long. It is also unique in that no character directly reflects Bolaño; there is no Arturo Belano, a character that lives in many of the author’s works as a stand-in for the author himself. In 2666, Bolaño has detached himself from his own writing. Rather, hoping that the reader will instead find themselves, the novel presents an entire cast of characters, . It’s a lonely thing to imagine, Bolaño living in a hospital in Barcelona, separated from his wife, waiting for a liver transplant, frantically writing his final work.

 

Since his death, Bolaño’s biography remains tenuous. There are friends of his, poets he knew in Mexico, who believe that Bolaño was addicted to heroin in his youth, that it was his drug use that led to his early death at the age of fifty. Carolina Lopez, his wife, denies that Bolaño was ever an addict. Larry Rohter, writing in The New York Times, accused “American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.” 2 Even his Spanish publisher states that “Bolaño liked to play tricks and create mysteries.” It is as if Bolaño was setting a trap for his future biographers, denying them the truth of his life.

 

Born in Chile in 1953, then spending his adolescence in Mexico and his adulthood in Spain, Bolaño seems to have taken on many personalities during his life, personalities that are distortedly reflected in his fiction. But in death, there is no censor: Bolaño’s family, friends, publishers, and readers are left to decide on their own what may or may not have happened during his lifetime. Even the liver disease that finally killed him in 2003 is a mystery. The only remaining truths of Bolaño are his fictions.

 

The theme of literary immortality is common throughout Bolaño’s work; it is as if he understood that his life would continue past his demise. In fact, most American readers did not know about Bolaño until years after his death when Farrar, Strauss & Giroux published the 2007 smash hit The Savage Detectives.

 

Bolaño left very specific instructions as to how he wanted 2666 to be published, instructions that the author’s heirs ignored. Their justification serves as an introduction to the novel in this English translation. Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, agreed with his family to have the novel published as a single complete work, despite the author’s requests that it be published as five separate novels.

 

The chaos of Bolaño’s work forces many readers to attempt to find stability in the author’s life, but speculations must be set aside—the work must live on its own. 2666 is an exhausting novel fraught with death and madness, chaos and instability. There is blood on every page, yet this is not a murder mystery. In 2666 Bolaño moves the narrative across continents and eight decades, tossing the reader between separate times and places without a handle to hold. The only place that is uniformly constant is the town of Santa Teresa, modeled after Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Here, the characters face death and injustice, apathy and negligence. Yet somehow Bolaño re-directs the reader back on himself, back to our own apathetic responses to death and power. The city lies in the vast desert, its never-ending roads and vast spaces are filled with the mutilated corpses of young women, but then they too become a part of the backdrop, as monotonous as sand and stone.

 

2666 is a series of beatings; many characters are simply torn apart emotionally and physically. Relationships are formed and destroyed. There is a certain aroma to Bolaño’s descriptions, the metallic smell of stagnant blood. Written in five parts, it is, of course, impossible to give a concise and accurate description of the novel—it conquers too much.

 

 

The Novel, Humbly Described

The Part about the Critics

Four critics are joined in kinship of their admiration for the novelist Benno von Archimboldi, an author whose books are admired by critics even though his true identity remains hidden. Pelletier, Morini, Espinoza, and Liz Norton, the only female in the group, each from France, Italy, Spain and England, respectively, are professors who meet at different academic conferences and literature colloquiums, believing themselves to have the highest form of understanding of the writings of Archimboldi. Individually, they write and publish criticisms of Archimboldi’s work. Together, they spend long nights sitting in the background of some restaurant, hiding in a corner, reacting with violence if anyone interrupts their discussion, save the waiter.

 

One night the group meets a young man who claims to have met Archimboldi. Because no one has ever claimed to have seen the illusive author before, their interest is immediately piqued. The young man rants of his meeting of Archimboldi, convincing the four critics that he knew of the author’s whereabouts. Enticed by the prospects of finding the reclusive author, three of them decide to go to Santa Teresa, Mexico (Morini is confined to a wheelchair and decides that the trip would be too treacherous) in search of Archimboldi. Their journey, however is a wild goose chase filled with dead ends and false leads. Their guide is an erratic professor named Amalfitano, but he soon disappears. Norton is the first to leave Mexico, followed weeks later by Pelletier and Espinoza. Mexico scars each of them, causing a deep rift between the group of four—not argumentative, but rather a loss of interest in one another, and even, to some extent, a loss of interest in Archimboldi.

 

The Part about Amalfitano 

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? He asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

 

Amalfitano, who briefly guided the academic trio, is painted simply as a professor with a monthly salary, a house, a yard, and a 17 year-old daughter named Rosa. Amalfitano’s wife, Lola, left when the child was just two, to search for her favorite poet, a ravaging mad man who lived in a Spanish insane asylum. For the first few years, Lola sent regular letters to Amalfitano, but as the years went by the correspondence lessened and eventually ceased. Amalfitano let his wife go, knowing that that her insanity kept him from ever understanding her. Besides, his daughter Rosa was his true focus in life.

 

One day, Amalfitano finds a strange book about geometry in his library. He studies the text and worries about how it had gotten there, in Santa Teresa, among his personal belongings. He had never owned a book on geometry before. Nevertheless, it inspires Amalfitano to replicate Marcel Duchamp’s "Unhappy Readymade;"3 he hangs the book from a clothesline, leaving it out to battle the elements. When his daughter expresses worry about his sanity, Amalfitano tells her to “pretend the book doesn’t exist.” Nonetheless, his sanity becomes compromised by the slow destruction of the book hanging in the weather. The book is learning about real life: intelligence (mathematics, philosophy, science, literature) is nothing without nature (wind, rain, earth, fire). As the book erodes, so does the mind of Amalfitano.

 

 

The Part about Fate

Bolaño then throws the reader from Amalfitano to Quincy Williams, a man whose mother has recently died. At first, there is no obvious connection, or continuing narrative between Quincy Williams and Amalfitano. For several pages, there is not even a mention of Mexico. Williams is an African American who writes for an African American magazine, but at the magazine he goes by the name Oscar Fate. After the death of his mother, Fate returns to work where his editor asks him to cover a boxing match between taking place in Mexico. The fight is set for Santa Teresa and Fate finds himself in the middle of the desert—alone—following a bum story.

 

Fate meets Rosa Amalfitano, the bridge holding Bolaño's narrative together. Rosa travels with Fate, teaching him about Santa Teresa and the serial murders of young women in the desert. It is through her that he takes an interest in finding out why so many murders continue to go unsolved. He attempts to convince his editor back in New York that the killings present a story worth pursuing, but the editor does not think the idea is readable. The murders mean nothing to people in New York, it’s too far away and the motivation is too vague. Fate drives, lost, going back and forth across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, following leads, in search of clues, never finding anything but desert.

 

After his editor rejects his boxing article, Fate takes off in his rental car, with Rosa in the passenger seat, in search of clues to the recent death of her friend. 

 

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.

 

 

The Part about the Crimes

The Part about the Crimes begins in January 1993 with the knowledge of a girl’s body turning up in a vacant lot near Santa Teresa. Bolaño gives an encyclopedic recounting of the violent, ghastly murders of young women in the Mexican town. Facts are given in cold detail of women and girls found strangled, vaginally and anally raped several times, and stabbed to death. Revealed are details of the victims, the crime scenes, their families, their jobs, the last people to have seen them alive. Because they are migrants or their bodies were destroyed beyond recognition, the women are sometimes never even identified. The apathetic incompetence of law enforcement to hunt down and capture the perpetrators is lamented.

 

In the press, the serial killing of women is preceded by the crimes of an unidentified, knife-wielding man who had visited two separate churches, urinating inside the holy confines. 

 

There are odder things than sacraphobia …especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here.

 

After a two-month hiatus, the bodies of more women are found. Some of the bodies are badly decomposed, proving that they had been murdered during a time that most people believed the killings had ceased. Time passes and bodies continue to pile up. Klaus Haas, a very tall and very white, middle-aged German with American citizenship who owns an electronics store in Santa Teresa, soon becomes a suspect in at least one of the murders. The victim, Estrella Ruiz Sandoval, was a former employee of his: a witness, a fellow employee who had seen Haas slap Sandoval on several occasions, seals the deal.

 

Haas is booked without a hearing and taken to the prison where he soon holds a press conference, inviting the local media and the press from Mexico City in order to reaffirm his innocence. This, of course, begins the many rumors of Haas. Nobody in Santa Teresa knows him or his backstory. He is, like many of the other characters in the novel, an enigma, no presumed history, and futureless. But even though Haas remains behind bars, bodies of young women continue to appear. He argues this point with the police and press, but to no avail. For them it was better to have someone to blame than no one at all.

 

The number of murders continues to escalate; more women are found dead, fewer clues are uncovered, and even fewer journalists inquire with the police for information. Death becomes a ritual, a part of the routine of the city, hardening the emotions of the city’s residents. Members of a local gang are arrested for some of the murders, but even after they are put in jail bodies continue to be found. The action becomes a sleepy monotony of death, body after body appearing, wearing down everyone: reporters, police, the citizens of Santa Teresa, and ultimately, the reader.

 

 

The Part about Archimboldi

Again reflective of Bolaño’s intent on 2666 being a series of five books, the story turns to Hans Reiter. Born in 1920 in Germany to a father with one leg and a mother blind in one eye, Reiter is a tall young man interested in drawing, specifically plants; he disliked school from an early age, fought with his parents, and he hated any and all authority. 

 

When he got home, like a night diver, his mother asked him where he’d spent the day and the young Hans Reiter told her the first thing that came to mind, anything but the truth. Then his mother stared at him with her blue eye and the boy held her gaze with his two blue eyes, and from the corner near the hearth, the one-legged man watched them both with his two blue eyes and for three or four seconds the island of Prussia seemed to rise from the depths.

 

Here Bolaño begins to stretch his legs again, returning to lengthy, unapologetic characterizations. Hans Reiter finds work with a Prussian baron who charges the young man to dust the library. Reiter befriends the baron’s nephew, Hugo Halder, and is given a job, first as a servant at the family’s country house, and then in the city in a stationary shop. Just as the young Reiter finds himself at ease in the city, he is drafted to fight in World War I near the Polish border.

 

In war Bolaño returns to death. A battalion pillages a village, killing the women and children. Hans Reiter is nearly killed twice: the second time he takes a bullet to the head and chest and still survives. He is given the Iron Cross, and then released from service, but he remains in Russian territory, hiding in a house he had spied during a battle. Inside, Reiter discovers the journals of a writer named Ansky and his correspondence with friend and writer, Ivanov. 

 

What’s the first thing a man does when he comes into a church? Efraim Ivanov asked himself. He takes off his hat. Maybe he doesn’t cross himself. All right, that’s allowed. We’re modern. But the least he can do is bare his head! Adolescent writers, meanwhile, come into a church and don’t take off their hats even when they are beaten with sticks, which is, regrettably, what happens in the end. And not only do they not take off their hats: they laugh, yawn, play the fool, pass gas. Some even applaud.

 

It is a strange, long, literary world that the young Reiter delves into while hiding from the war amongst Ansky’s library. Reiter takes on the relationship between Ansky and Ivanov as if their history is his own. He shares their ideas, their passions, and their jealousy of one another. Ivanov, it turns out, was taken prisoner twice for being a Communist, the second time he was shot in the back of the head in a courtyard. From this point on, Ansky’s notebooks become chaotic, and Reiter falls into the abyss alongside him, years and worlds apart.

 

It’s in Ansky’s notebook, long before he sees a painting by the man that Reiter first reads about the Italian painter Arcimbolo, Guiseppe or Joseph or Josepho or Josephus Arcimboldo or Archimboldi or Arcimboldus (1527-1593).

 

In despair, Ansky wrote in his journals of Arcimboldo. He remembers the paintings and his own reactions to them. He used to study them, enthralled, captivated, while maintaining a disinterested distance to the painter’s life. Reiter envelopes himself in Ansky’s journals to a point that he comes to believe he actually knew Ansky.

 

Eventually Reiter is forced to return to the war, although he is terribly changed. He returns to his original battalion, but war has altered appearances of his fellow soldiers, rendering the men unrecognizable. Reiter continues to fight at the frontlines, but is soon pushed back into Germany where he eventually surrenders to the Americans. Held captive, Reiter shares a cell with a man named Leo Sammer, an official in the army who was ordered to dispose of several hundred Jews.

 

Once he is released from the camp, Reiter travels to Cologne where he works as a bouncer for a seedy bar and reads and writes on his own time. He falls in love with a woman who is sick and soon dies, and just afterwards, with the assistance of a borrowed typewriter, publishes his first novel, Lüdicke, under the pseudonym, Benno von Archimboldi.

 

A second novel, The Leather Mask, is published, but Archimboldi’s books continue to be commercial failures. Yet his publisher never wanes: three, four, five and more books are published to critical acclaim, but still they are flops. Eventually Archimboldi disappears, leaving his publisher, his lover, and everyone else to guess at his whereabouts. Four years after his disappearance his publisher receives another novel. Living in Greece, changing his address several times, Archimboldi gardens, writes, and survives on the meager money trickling in from his novels. He retains few friends and his sex life is dependent on prostitutes. There are accounts of written letters to and from a Baroness.

 

The narrative then turns to Lotte, Hans Reiter’s (Archimboldi) sister. Her story includes her love and marriage to a man named Werner, with whom she has a son named Klaus who grows up to be as tall as his uncle Archimboldi and, by the age of seventeen, becomes a real troublemaker. Klaus, a failure at many jobs and loves, suddenly tells his parents that there is no future in Germany or Europe, and the only thing left for him is to try his luck in America.

 

Lotte receives several postcards from Klaus from New York, Georgia, and Florida. Years later, Lotte’s husband, Werner, dies of heart disease, but she continues on, not entirely devastated. She continues to travel and enjoy life, even at the age of eighty, until the day she receives a communication from Santa Teresa, Mexico telling her that her son is in jail for suspicion of having killed several women. Lotte, believing Klaus could never be a murderer, spends her time and money traveling with a translator back and forth from Germany to Mexico to visit her son in prison and to try to have him freed. During one of her travels she purchases a novel written by none other than Bonno von Archimboldi and comes to realize that the author is her own brother. In Mexico, she continues to struggle to have her son released from prison while hoping to locate Archimboldi. When Archimboldi discovers that his nephew is in a Mexican jail, he sets out to see the boy.

 

 

Bringing it All Together

The Spanish verb buscar translates into English as both “to search” as well as “to provoke;” it is a perfect verb for the novel. Within 2666, as well as The Savage Detectives, there is a common thread of characters that se buscan the inspiration driving and compelling their lives. In 2666, the Critics search for the writer, Archimboldi; Amalfitano searches for the answer about a mysterious geometry book that he hangs from a clothesline in his backyard; local police of Santa Teresa search for the perpetrators of the murders of young women, as does Fate, the African-American journalist; and Klaus Haas is in search of justice in an unjust world. The characters are frantic and mad at their inability to find what they seek.

 

Delving deep into the murders of young, seemingly innocent women in Santa Teresa, Bolaño lulls the reader into the repetition of anonymous violence. Hundreds of pages of the novel are packed with horrific details of death and violence.

 

There is also a sense of calling throughout the novel. The characters that are deceptively treated as good people are defined by a mission to continue searching. It is the diligence of the characters to right a wrong that deceive the reader into believing that justice will prevail, under any circumstances. But in the end, the murderers win, the deaths continue, the writer maintains his anonymity. Just as The Critics retreat to Europe, so do we retreat to the banality of our own lives, refusing to accept the reality of death at our doorstep.

 

Bolaño’s characters are constantly in search of another person to blame for their sentiments, as if the author is the only one to blame for the crimes in their texts. By pointing at his own apathy, Bolaño recedes into the dereliction of his readers. 2666 is a confession of the author’s own post-nationalistic view of the world, a call to arms and a refusal of a stationary lifestyle. 2666 is a final warning to us all that we must be apprehensive toward indifference, and must search for, adhere to, and strive for a global morality. It is a theory both liberating and damning.

 

 

 

1. Juarez is a “city with nearly 250 homicides last month; about one every three hours. A city where homicides have jumped from about 300 in 2007, to about 1,620 in 2008, to about 2,660 last year.” Dan Barry. “Border Towns Across Rio, Worlds Apart in Drug War,” New York Times (February 13, 2010).

 

2. Larry Rohter. “A Chilean Writer’s Fictions Might Include His Own Past,” NYT (January 27, 2009).

3. According to toutfait.com, The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, “Unhappy Readymade” was a geometry textbook “literally exposed to the elements. It was opened face up, suspended in midair and rigged to the corners of an outdoor porch. The book was left suspended in this manner for an extended length of time and the weather took its toll on it. The wind tore its pages, the rain drenched it, and the sun bleached and faded its ink over time.” http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Unhappy%20Readymade.html.

 

 

Roberto Bolano