Bolaño's 2666: The Best Book of 2008

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Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño

There could be nobody better suited to describe the hilarious, improbable triumph of Robert Bolaño than Bolaño himself, which is a shame because he's dead. At the time of his death, in 2003, Bolaño was a major writer in the Spanish-speaking world but virtually unknown and untranslated in English. Why that should be is not much of a mystery. Bolaño was a difficult, angry, self-reflexive writer who lived an erratic and occasionally unpleasant life. And Americans, as the head of the Swedish Academy has annoyingly but rightly pointed out, don't read much fiction in translation anyway. (See the 100 best albums, movies, TV shows and novels of all time.)

But when the first of Bolaño's major novels, The Savage Detectives, a massive, bizarre epic about a band of avant-garde Mexican poets, was published in the U.S. last year, it instantly became a cult hit among readers and practically a fetish object to critics. Bolaño's second (and last) major novel is titled 2666, and if anything, it is even more massive and more bizarre. It is also a masterpiece, the electrifying literary event of the year. With its publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this week — adding to an oeuvre that includes several collections of short stories, numerous novellas and minor novels, and a volume of poems due out later this month from New Directions — Bolaño's posthumous conquest of the U.S. will be complete.

Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, the son of a truck driver (and boxer) who moved the family to Mexico City when Bolaño was still a boy. He dropped out of high school to pursue his obsession with poetry full-time. After a brief and not very successful return to Chile — he was imprisoned by Pinochet as a radical, then released when it turned out that he had gone to school with his guards — he fell in with a band of antiestablishment poets called the infrarealistas, who specialized in showing up at the readings of better-known poets and yelling at them.

In 1977 Bolaño moved to Europe and misspent an entire decade there as an itinerant laborer, living the life of a poète maudit and striking up an acquaintance with heroin. But in 1990, finding himself a husband and father, Bolaño decided to kick the smack and take up writing fiction in the hope of supporting his family. His prose turned out to be better than his poetry. In 1998 the publication of The Savage Detectives vaulted him into the first rank of Spanish-language literature, right up there with all those writers he had mocked as an infrarealista. But by then he was already suffering from the liver disease that would kill him at age 50. He had all but completed 2666 when he died.

The 898 pages of 2666 are divided into five parts, and it will give you some idea of the book's tone, rigorously literary and ridiculously informal at the same time, to know that those parts are titled "The Part about Fate," "The Part about the Crimes" and so on, as if they were Friends episodes. (The flawless translation, by Natasha Wimmer, is appropriately loose and relaxed.) Part 1 is called "The Part about the Critics."

It's not a misleading title. The opening act of 2666 is about four literary critics, three men and one woman, all friends, all European, all of whom are authorities on a mysterious German novelist named Archimboldi, whom none of them have ever met. The four friends go to conferences, talk about Archimboldi, gossip, visit one another, sleep with one another. Eventually, they get a tip that Archimboldi has been seen in a backwater town in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa. Three of them make the trip there in search of him.

But the trail has already gone cold. They cannot track him down. They are alone and bewildered in a squalid, industrial Mexican city. During that suspended moment — with the smell of revelation in the air but the actual article nowhere to be found, as if the author had accidentally left it in his other coat — Part 1 ends. Bolaño has not told us what Archimboldi's books are about, or anything about them at all besides their titles.

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