The Killing Field

Reviewed by Steven Moore
Sunday, November 23, 2008


By Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 898 pp. $30

The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 at the relatively young age of 50, but since then a steady stream of English translations has introduced American readers to the Gabriel García Márquez of our time: politically engaged, formally daring and wildly imaginative. The Savage Detectives, a huge novel published last year to wide acclaim, looked like his masterpiece, but now comes a monstrous novel twice as long and daring, and one that should cement his reputation as a world-class novelist.

Knowing that his liver ailment would probably kill him, Bolaño pulled out all the stops for his last novel and threw out the rulebook for conventional fiction. A catch-all for many of his concerns, 2666 is at heart a fascinating meditation on violence and literature, on how writers "turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive." At its simplest level, 2666 leisurely follows a handful of characters who are drawn, like vultures to a rotting carcass, to the northern Mexican city of Santa Teresa in the 1990s. For "Santa Teresa" read Ciudad Juárez, the killing fields since 1993 for over 400 girls and women -- most of them raped, mutilated, then dumped into the nearby desert -- with justice for none due to official corruption, incompetence and macho indifference to women. (The Daughters of Juárez, by Teresa Rodriguez, provides an informative overview of this tragedy.)

While the murders of Santa Teresa occupy the center of the novel, the perimeters make for the most satisfying reading. In the first of the novel's five semi-independent parts, we're told how three European literary critics became obsessed with the work of a mysterious writer named Benno von Archimboldi -- think B. Traven or Thomas Pynchon. They travel to Santa Teresa after hearing the elusive writer may be there researching his next novel. Part 2 concerns an Archimboldi expert currently living in Santa Teresa and watching over his daughter, who seems destined to be another victim in the femicide epidemic. In part 3, a black American reporter travels to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight and becomes embroiled in the ongoing murders. Part 4, the longest of the novel's five parts, is a numbing chronological account of individual murders from 1993 to 1997, narrated in police-report fashion, along with digressions on various officials, policemen, lawyers and reporters involved in the cases. And finally, part 5 is a mesmerizing account of how a strange Prussian boy became the enigmatic Archimboldi, an author neglected at first but considered Nobel-worthy after he's rediscovered by the scholar-detectives of part 1. We also learn his real reason for going to Santa Teresa.

Archimboldi never meets his critics, the reporters never solve the crimes, and nothing is resolved at the novel's end. (Even the title is left unexplained, though an editor's note offers a clue.) This is not because Bolaño didn't finish it but because he was more interested in conveying the culture of violence and how writers respond to it than in telling a tidy story. In one of many self-reflexive comments on his work, he has a character sneer at a reader who prefers short, well-made works of literature, "afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."

2666 is just such a work, with a historical reach extending back to the bloody rituals of the Aztecs, to the horrors of the Eastern front during World War II, to the Black Panthers of the '60s. Countless fascinating subplots blaze paths into unknown corners of 20th-century culture, and there are enough references to Greek mythology to give the whole work a timeless quality. Uniting the sprawling work are moments and metaphors where sex and violence collide.

This is a delightfully bookish novel, filled with writers, critics, publishers, copy editors, reporters -- all illustrating how reading and writing help make sense of the world. Archimboldi is a grim, humorless character, but we're told "he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer"; Bolaño likewise exults in his indefatigable storytelling skills and his mastery of an arsenal of styles, from factual to frivolous, from plain to purple. In this he is expertly partnered by Natasha Wimmer, whose translation is fluid and faithful. The novel is probably longer than it needs to be, but there isn't a boring page in it, and I suspect further study would justify everything here.

With 2666 Bolaño joins the ambitious overachievers of the 20th-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes and Vollmann, who push the novel far past its conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic summation of their culture and the novelist's place in it. Bolaño has joined the immortals. ·

Steven Moore, the author of several books and essays on modern literature, is writing a history of the novel.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company