Thursday, November 13, 2008
2666, the New Novel by Roberto Bolaño
A few months ago I finished reading the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’m a slow reader, plus I read more than one book at a time, but the time expense was worth the enviously dizzying, meandering, and generally satisfying result. The Savage Detectives doesn’t feature any detectives in the classic Merriam-Webster definition. Instead its pages are populated by hundreds of Latin American poets, wannabes, groupies, and hangers on. This mammoth book’s plot, if you can call it that, is a fractured, voluminous story of renegade Chilean poets who start an extremist poetry movement. These are young men and women using poetry to rebel and grow up and run off and make love and slowly or quickly die. The book reads like a progression of short stories, all connected, sometimes tenuously, by a core of poets that realizes the only way to speak out against repression in 1970s Central America is to kick in the teeth of established literary greats like Pablo Neruda.
The Savage Detectives shouts to the rooftops in a style that reminds me of sitting around a huge campfire with a hundred guests telling their stories of events surrounding the core poets. Imagine writing a book with a hundred different voices, spanning decades, and covering thousands of miles. Bolaño wrote like a man on fire. Which he sort of was: he died in 2003 at age 50. In the 1990s he knew he was a goner and he pushed his poetry aside and feverishly ground out short stories and novels. English translators are still catching up.
Just before he died, Bolaño completed what many critics are calling his greatest accomplishment, 2666, a novel published this week in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I don't have my copy yet, but it sounds sprawling, split into five sections that, from what I’ve read, could be five separate novels and is “…based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, in the Sonora desert near the Texas border.” It also no doubt touches upon many themes struck in Detectives (and it should be said, his short stories and other novels): literature as journey, as country, as a political ideal; sex and violence; spiritual longing; the search for home/country.
Adding to the mystique is that, while getting a proper release in hardback, it’s also being published concurrently as a set of three paperbacks. In a sleeve!
I love packaging: if the book looks unique, I’ll consider buying it based on physical merits. Plus 2666 is big. 900 pages big. I love big books. Well, the idea of them. I love picking them up and walking around the bookstore with them. And if I buy them I will certain start them and maybe the story will hold my interest enough to get to the end (often by page 200 you pretty much get the idea of any novel) and then I can let it sit like a trophy on my shelf. That’s what happened with DFW’s Infinite Jest; I never got past page 200. But I will come back to that one day. Promise.
2666 sounds irresistibly nuts and maybe groundbreaking and possibly disappointing and wonderfully huge. It’s one book, it’s three books, it’s one book. I guess the idea is to read it and find out. Coming so fresh off of The Savage Detectives I’m not sure I’m ready for another heady, heavy dose of Bolaño. But one thing is certain; I won’t be able to stay away for long.