I began reading Roberto Bolano‘s 2666 somewhat by accident. I had finished my previous read and picked up the book at Bookswappers Club. I was not planning to read it immediately, exhausted by the thought of lugging the book around on my way to work. After the Bookswap I took a bus into town. I knew the book was much recommended but had no idea what it was about. So during my bus ride I thought I would read a couple of pages to find out what the hype was about.
To my disappointment I found the beginning very boring. But having no idea where the book was going, the tediousness intrigued me. There must be something more to this book, I though, and kept on reading.
And there was more to the book. A total of 893 pages in fact. The book was far from perfect, but it was a fascinating read. It was unlike anything I have ever read. Bolano deliberately avoids using the traditional structure of a novel. There is no climax and no conclusion. The novel consists of 5 interlinked stories, all of which lack a satisfying ending. After finishing one story one expects the following stories to shed light on what one read previously, but while this happens to a small degree, nothing is really resolved. Instead the narrative sidetracks into several small side stories, and peeks into lives of characters who appear for a few pages and then disappear again. One never knows which characters will actually play a role in the book and which ones will never return.
The longest and most most unusual, but also the most powerful part of the novel is part 4: The Part About the Crimes. This part details the murders of more than 100 women in the fictional town of Santa Theresa. Santa Theresa and the murders committed there are clearly a fictional representation of the real life killings of women in Ciudad Juarez. This is not a conventional detective story. Instead the section describes the discovery of 112 bodies, sometimes in short paragraphs, sometimes in a few pages, but always in some detail. Most of part 4 is dedicated to describing the crimes, and a smaller part to describing the work of the police, and even among the police there is not one main character, but several, and they never seem to make much progress. The endless number of female corpses is harrowing. One after the other they are found in deserts, garbage dumps, ditches, often with signs of rape or mutilation. Reading about them one by one makes the number become more than just some digits on a page. The number becomes real. And while some of the murders are solved, mostly they are not, and it is never clear if there is a serial killer, or several, at work.
The book also exposes a general male chauvinism rampant in Santa Theresa. Not all the women are murdered by suspected serial killers or psychopaths. Many are killed by husbands or boyfriends. Womens’ lives simply do not seem very valuable in Santa Theresa. In one passage the police are telling sexist jokes, from jokes such as “Why don’t women know how to ski? […] because it never snows in the kitchen” to even less amusing ones such as “how many parts is a woman’s brain divided into […] depends on how hard you hit her” or “how is a woman like a squash ball? […] the harder you hit her, the faster she comes back“. Reading these jokes after the numerous descriptions of murdered and raped women (or girls, some are not even teenagers) made me feel sick to my stomach. But I guess that a town with as many femicides as Santa Theresa (or Ciudad Juarez) must have an atmosphere hospitable to such jokes.
Even though the realization dawned on me that nothing would be resolved in the book, it still managed to keep me reading until the end. But finishing the book did take me more than a month. Compare this to the biggest of the Harry Potter books which I finished within days. I enjoyed the read but was not curious enough to be compelled to read when I was busy with other things.
As I am not sure that I can do this strange book justice you might want to read some of these reviews if you are interested in knowing more:
Bolaño’s 2666: The Best Book of 2008, by Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
The Departed, by Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times
Latin America’s Literary Outlaw, by William Skidelsky, The Observer
Prose Poem: Roberto Bolaño’s brilliant, messy everything novel, by Sam Anderson, New York Magazine