Tuesday, January 27, 2009

They Still Write Classics, The Books that Last for Centuries

I bridged 2008 and 2009 reading 2666, and no, I can't tell you what the title means. I don't think I'm supposed to. 2666 is an amazing, brilliant novel by Roberto Bolaño, a writer who has rapidly become a favourite of mine. I first discovered him when I read a magnificent and insane article about his Romulo Gallegos Prize winning novel The Savage Detectives, and having read the book, it immediately became one of my favourites of all time. Bolaño writes about broken characters whose lives stretch around Europe, Latin America, occasionally the United States and Africa, depending on the requirements of the plot (what there is of it).

So 2666 then. I won't try to compete with the long, glowing essays that you can find all over the internet simply by typing the number into google. Instead, I will only give you my dominant impressions of the book. It's an epic, sprawling work 900 pages long, written in five loosely connected parts.

The first thing that stands out for me is its cleverness in the way that its stories misdirect you while leading you exactly to the heart of the work: the murders of women in northern Mexico over the last fifteen years, and the inability of anyone to understand those acts. The book is divided into five parts, each with its own plot and protagonists. The first part is a group of self-absorbed European literature professors, all followers of a German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi, a writer so reclusive as to make Thomas Pynchon appear as if he had the paparazzi on speed-dial. I laughed at their moments of insular ignorance, as when they ask a Mexican colleague, Amalfitano, originally from Chile why he left for Argentina in 1974. Amalfitano can only look at them, amazed at their ignorance of history, even as one of the professors is from Spain, the country that prosecuted Pinochet in the late 1990s. Throughout their story, they are driven with increasing intensity by a quest to seek out Archimboldi, to finally meet the man to whose works they have devoted their lives.

I pitied the Frenchman and the Spaniard for twisting themselves up into wrecks over their love for their British colleague, the only woman among the Archimboldians. I was mystified at the story of an artist the British and Italian professor meet, who had cut off his own severed hand to use as the centrepiece of his most famous installation. I was disturbed by the scene where they beat a reactionary Pakistani cab driver in London, offended by the talk of the British critic's love affairs with the Frenchman and the Spaniard, while all three are in the same cab. I felt an odd peace watching the group fall apart in Mexico, with the Britisher returning to Europe to meet the Italian professor, who had been too ill to come with them. The Frenchman is left reading the Archimboldi novels he brought with him, while the Spaniard has an affair with a beautiful young rug merchant, an ambiguously beautiful and doomed hope of taking this young girl back to start a new life in Europe free from the undercurrents of violence in Mexico. They are fragile figures, lost in the world, only realizing at the end of the story that they must cling to something that seems stable, or else they will collapse.

Amalfitano, the protagonist of part two, seems on the edge of collapse throughout his short, haunting story. He hears voices, makes an uneasy friendship with the violence-prone teenage son of a university official, has a tragically doomed love for his estranged, mentally ill wife, and a loving yet tense relationship with his teenage daughter Rosa. Reading this sometimes hallucinatory story, I was haunted by a concern for Rosa. I knew 2666 revolved around the brutal murders of young women just like Rosa. And I was concerned for her, because when the European critics meet Amalfitano in part one, which is chronologically later than part two, Rosa is nowhere to be found. I read this, and part three where she appears as well, with trepidation, and a silent gnawing of dread.

Part three is based around Oscar Fate, the pen name of a black magazine journalist from Harlem, who finds himself in Mexico covering a beyond-mediocre boxing match when his magazine's sports correspondent dies of a sudden heart attack. Sudden death haunts the perhaps-too-obviously-named-for-an-Anglophone-audience Fate, as his mother also dies at the story's beginning. He meets a group of low-level Mexican gangsters and their girls at the boxing match, and among the group is Rosa Amalfitano.

The night he spends with the gangsters is by turns hilarious and horrific. Oscar is a fish completely out of water, his New York state of mind laughable in Mexico. He may be a black man from Harlem, but black men from Harlem are eaten alive by Mexican gangsters. It's all Oscar can do to take a coked up Rosa away from her unstable gangster boyfriend and flee across the border at her father's blessing. All this while, the spectre of the killings is present, in the form of a looming interview with the tall blond German who has been imprisoned for some of the murders.

Part four, about the murders, should not be read with a weak stomach. The brutality builds by sheer repetition. Bolaño describes the murdered women as corpses, like police reports written in crisp clean language, depicting fatal wounds of rape, bludgeoning, stabbing, slicing, strangling, ripping, suffocating. The most chilling descriptions are of the women who have no families or friends, and so who go unidentified, the short paragraphs describing their mutilated bodies the only recognition they receive.

These passages alternate with the stories of the cops who investigate the murders, among other crimes that pop up on the streets of their bleak northern city. They have a half-heartedness about the task born of corruption, cynicism, jadedness, and a sense that the horrors of modern Mexico are so fantastic as to be beyond even God. There is one cop who strives continually to put some effort into stopping the avalanche of violence, Inspector Juan de Dios Martínez, if only as the sole way to ward off his own death. All he really needs is some idea of how to end the murders, and he would. He's a bleak character, a man striving to find some measure of happiness or positivity in the world. He reminds me of a younger Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, putting all his strength into building bulwarks that will always be helpless to resist a tsunami of blood.

Yet in all this, Bolaño finds humour. The Arizona sheriff Harry Magaña cuts an impressive figure, and reminds me of Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies. He comes down to Mexico on a vigilante vacation, looking for the murderers of a white American tourist woman, cutting a somewhat violent path through the Mexican underworld. He's just brutal enough to get noticed, but not brutal enough to defend himself from actual Mexican criminals. This gives his own quick disappearance from the story a grimly funny irony.

Yet in all this, Bolaño finds hope, in the person of Lalo Cura (a pun on the Spanish word for priest, 'cura,' and lunatic, 'la locura'), a rookie cop recruited from the ranks of a narco's bodyguards. He seems to be the only one in all the police forces of Mexico that cares about his work without cynicism. It might be a function of his age, or perhaps some deeper part of his character, If you remember Due South, Lalo Cura resembled Benton Fraser in those nights he spent earnestly studying old guides to Become A Good Police Officer, or demonstrating actual interest in searching a crime scene for evidence, in stark contrast to most of his colleagues. I often didn't know what to make of Lalo Cura, but I knew I loved him, a paragon of virtue so out of place, yet so necessary.

Part five carries its own hope, in the wandering force of creation that is Benno von Archimboldi. I think, as Bolaño worked on 2666, he knew his work was on the verge of an English language breakthrough, as quite a few protagonists carry names that are English puns, like Archimboldi's birth name, Hans Reiter. This story follows his entire life, growing up in rural east Germany in the 1920s and 30s, being drafted into the war on Russia, and his life as a vagabond writer. His life intertwines almost miraculously with a sexually voracious Romanian general, a coolly promiscuous German baroness, the slightly mad woman who would become his wife, a Russian science fiction writer who had been disappeared by the Stalinists long before Reiter discovers his diaries, and finally the enigmatic German who connects him to the killings in Mexico. His was the first story to be dominated by hope and optimism, finding creativity, freedom, and love even in the wastelands of the Russian front of the Second World War. It was uplifting that the novel ended with this man, who was never limited by anything, especially not his own will, which in so many other characters in 2666 was found wanting and compromised.

The end of parts one, three, and four are the closing of multiple story strands. Bolaño flips back and forth between them, giving each moment of the dénouement barely a page before cutting back to its companion. The overall effect is propulsive, like a montage in cinema that brings a multifaceted story to its climax. I was put in mind of the climactic montages of the first two Godfather films, a quickening pace towards, if not an end, then a settling of scores.

Bolaño did not have time before his death in 2003 to finish all the edits he wanted to make to 2666, and it shows in some places. Oscar Fate is perhaps a little too stereotypically American at times, and I wonder if Archimboldi's trip to Mexico comes a little too quick, the reasons and history behind it all coming in a flash of little more than thirty pages. But this does not detract from the achievement of 2666, a work marvellous in its size, ambition, and intricacy. Bolaño did not write his stories with their themes and messages prominently displayed. He would talk of the story he told, and the secret story playing underneath, the real engine of the events we saw depicted on his pages.

This underlying pattern connected characters and fictional lives with a fastness that an obvious meeting could never contain. The killings are reflected in the brutality the British artist shows to his own body, or the brutal porno film Oscar Fate watches in the small hours of the morning with the Mexican gangsters. The fragility of women in a violent world is seen in the sad figure of Amalfitano's wife, Rosa's mother, who after their separation wanders Europe until finally meeting her ex-husband at last, disappearing one last time to spare them the sight of her death from AIDS. And the hope that lives in all his works is in the earnest doggedness of Lalo Cura, the stern and tired determination of Juan de Dios Martínez, and the simple honest optimism of Archimboldi on his way to Mexico to accomplish the impossible and free an unjustly imprisoned man who is a total stranger to him. This is the greatness of Roberto Bolaño, that all this comes together as one sprawling multifaceted work, many stories drawing one magnificent pattern in a dark, silent sky.

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