Alex Preston is the author of This Bleeding City and The Revelations. This Bleeding City won the Spear's and Edinburgh Best First Novel Prizes and has been a bestseller in the UK, Italy and China. His short stories have been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Alex is also a journalist and critic and a regular panellist on the BBC Review Show. He lives in London with his family. In this essay he discusses Roberto Bolaño's 2666.
Alex Preston on 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is a work of beautiful violence. Not only is its subject matter violence - the kind of entrenched, systemic violence that Žižek identifies in his book on the subject – but it is a novel that carries out violence against traditional literary forms. This is a stunning, horrifying, Byzantine work that, with its focus upon the tradition of the oppressed, its conspiracy theories, its engagement with the history of violence, addresses head-on the darkest legacies of the 20th century. It is, somehow, the exemplary novel of that century, and is so rich and deep that one could live a life by the layers of meaning buried within its 893 pages. I will try, over the next few thousand words, to look at some of the themes that wind through the pages of the novel and to offer a reading of it that shows how Bolaño uses violence – both formally and thematically – to render his vision of the world. A female character in 2666 remarks of the murder of thousands of working class girls in a fictional Mexican city: 'No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.'
Bolaño experienced state-sponsored violence at an early age. He moved from his native Chile to Mexico, aged thirteen, in 1968, the year of the Tlatelolco Massacre (where troops opened fire upon thousands of students and peaceful protestors). When Salvador Allende seized power in Chile, Bolaño returned to the land of his birth, keen to support the Marxist government. Shortly after his arrival, though, the US-backed military junta of Augusto Pinochet staged a bloody coup. Bolaño was arrested and held in prison for eight days, where he heard people being tortured in nearby cells. Only a lucky coincidence (two of his school friends were guards at the prison) saved him from execution. He fled Chile, where Allende had committed suicide and thousands were being killed by the junta, and would not return for a quarter of a century. An itinerant poet for much of his life, Bolaño finally settled in a small resort town on the Spanish Costa Brava, marrying and having two children. As his death from liver failure approached, and in an attempt to provide for his family, Bolaño wrote one of the great novels of the last century.
It is clear that Bolaño's oeuvre builds towards 2666 and finds its fullest expression in it. His corpus gives the impression of a vast Proustian undertaking which coalesces in this, his final, novel (2666 was not published until after the author's death in 2003). All of the themes of his earlier work are here: exile, poetry, the Holocaust, and, particularly, violence. Indeed the title of the novel is drawn from one of his earlier books, Amulet, which views the era of the Tlatelolco Massacre through the eyes of a female poet. She imagines that a road in the town of Nuevo Laredo looks like a cemetery in the year 2666, 'a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.' Violence is the theme that knits together all of his previous novels and unites the individual books of 2666.
Each of the five sections of 2666 centres around a different investigator (or group of investigators) trying to solve one of the twin mysteries of the book: who is the enigmatic author Benno von Arcimboldi? And who is killing the women of Santa Teresa, a fictional northern Mexican town modelled on real-life Ciudad Juarez? Bolaño had originally intended each section to be sold as a separate book: only when you combined all five would you have the – indistinct, tentative – solution to the puzzles. In each chapter we are presented with different ways of thinking about how to decipher the patterns written into the text: how do we wade through the Pynchonesque tangents, the digressions and the acts of violence to reach some sort of understanding about the world presented in 2666?
The first section of the novel concerns four literary critics, experts in the work of Arcimboldi, who trace the author to northern Mexico. We then meet the philosopher Amalfitano, a professor at the University of Santa Teresa who may or may not encounter the murderer, or one of the murderers, at a bar. In the third section of the novel, we have Oscar Fate, a journalist at a Harlem newspaper sent to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa. The fourth book, which takes up around a third of the novel, is The Part About the Crimes, and follows a number of policemen, detectives, journalists and a seer as they attempt to solve the Santa Teresa murders. Finally, in book five, we have a seemingly separate Mitteleuropean novel charting the life of the author Hans Reiter, also known as Benno von Arcimboldi and Klaus Haas.
In The Part About Fate a journalist, Oscar Fate, is about to cross the border into Mexico, and overhears a famous American criminologist, Albert Kessler, speaking to a friend in a down-at-heel café. Eavesdropping on their conversation, Fate hears Kessler summarize his views about the murders in Santa Teresa: 'I'll tell you three things I'm sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border'.
This association of economic prosperity with moral decay takes us towards the corporate interests that form (a very Žižekian) part of Bolaño's violent project. The murders in The Part About the Crimes are described forensically, dispassionately, with no attempt to privilege the unsolved murders that form part of the Santa Teresa conspiracy theory above those women who are murdered by their husbands, boyfriends and fathers. We are given the picture of a world that is defined by violence against women, and particularly the poor, marginalized women who scrape a living working in the multinational-run maquiladoras. A nexus of male institutions – the corporations running the maquiladoras, the police and the narco drug gangs – are directly implicated in the murders, although we are denied the satisfaction of a clear culprit: the novel is an indictment of an entire system and to finger one individual would allow others to escape the author's ire.
The relentless repetition of the murders in The Part About the Crimes creates a beat, a horrific rhythm that propels the text along. The violence done to traditional literary form and conventions, to our expectations of narrative progress and the customary satisfactions of the novel, mirrors the violence enacted upon the young women of Santa Teresa. Often the near-identical paragraphs describing the murders end with the statement, 'She was never identified', or 'the case was closed'. The attacks are similar, with a typical, clinical report reading: 'it was established that the girl had been vaginally and anally raped, with considerable tearing of both orifices, and then strangled. After a second autopsy, however, it was decided that [she] had died of a heart attack while being subjected to the abuses described above.' The violence of the descriptions risks numbing us, as we read again and again about rape and stabbing and decomposition. But the repetition has several very clear narrative aims.
Firstly, we become detectives ourselves, looking for similarities in the cases, searching for common themes running through the brutal descriptions. We learn to identify the murderer's modus operandi and can spot the killer's fingerprints on a case even before the policemen. This draws us into the web of the conspiracy theory. We look out for the black Peregrino (a type of car) that seems to appear around the murder scenes. Because of the broad similarity between the murders, our antennae are finely tuned to pick up on differences. This is how Bolaño manages to avoid boring us. It is as if we are listening to a piece of music by Steve Reich or Philip Glass: the repetition becomes the ambient noise and it is in minute variations that we find moments of epiphany. When, half-way through the chapter, we are told 'one of the medical examiner's assistants discovered that the shoes were at least two sizes too big for her', for instance, we leap upon the clue, both because it may reveal something about the identity of the killer, and because it sheds light on the otherwise anonymous victim, about whom we are told: 'No identification of any kind was found, and the case was closed.'
Secondly, Bolaño wants to shock us, his comfortable Western readership, with the brutality of life for those trapped in the margins, subsisting in the shadowy outposts of capitalism. He is writing the voice of exile, a voice that positions him as witness, a voice that comes from the margins, but is forced to record the violence he encounters. As the Bolaño scholar Alberto Medina says, 'For Bolaño, exile is not so much a circumstance as an ethics of life and writing.' In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions whether people can really be desensitized by horrific images. '[This idea] assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror.'
This wish to show us violent life as it is lived in developing countries is closely tied to another of Bolaño's aims here: to protest at the largely unreported nature of drug-related murders in Ciudad Juarez. Thousands of women are being killed only a few miles from the US border, and it has been all but ignored by the world's media. As Žižek notes 'the death of... an American is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese.' Bolaño has one of the older characters, a Mexican from a dignified era before the country sold itself to its northern neighbour, state to his American detective friend: 'Well then, trust in God. He won't let anything disappear.' Like God, Bolaño is working to ensure that the women of Ciudad Juarez aren't allowed to merely disappear.
Finally, the murders act to show us the way that capitalism allocates negligible value to the lives of those who work under its banner. Maquiladoras are sweatshops that have sprung up around Santa Teresa for US/multinational organizations to take advantage of the cheap wages and non-existent labour laws. Bolaño presents the deaths of the women in Santa Teresa as a symptom of late capitalism. How we treat the least among us, Bolaño is saying, reveals something about the nature of our society. David Peace pursued a very similar line in his Red Riding Quartet. The novels, ostensibly about the Yorkshire Ripper, are 'not really about him, but about the general harrowing of the North,' Peace said in the Guardian. Like Bolaño, Peace presents the repeated, violent murder of women (this time prostitutes) in the deprived cities of Northern England as an indictment not only of the drunk, racist police, but also of the manner in which the north has been left behind in the growth and prosperity of the 1980s and 90s. The Ripper is a metaphor for the currents that run through society, Žižek’s 'dark matter'. Brett Levinson puts it as follows: 'It is noteworthy, in fact, that all violence in 2666 is serial. Each act of brutality is the repetition of other such acts in the text. Serial killing comments upon a certain automacity or technicity, a kind of beat operating within and over human history, human action and the human body.'
At one point, a maquiladora is described as looking 'like a melon-coloured pyramid'. The image of the pyramid picks up on a string of Aztec references that runs through the novel, bringing further depth to the Benjaminian constellation of violence created out of the Santa Teresa murders and the Holocaust. Two of the detectives in The Part About the Crimes sit, in a brief moment of calm preceding further horrors, and enjoy a bowl of posole. Even here, however, there are whispers of the ancient crimes that are being recreated on the streets of Santa Teresa. '... this posole isn't quite the same as the original posole, said Epifanio. It's missing an ingredient. What ingredient is that? Asked Lalo Cura. Human flesh, said Epifanio. Don't fuck with me, said Lalo Cura. It's true, the Aztecs cooked posole with pieces of human flesh, said Epifanio.' In The Part About Arcimboldi, Hans Reiter finds brief and doomed love with Ingeborg, the daughter of committed Nazis. Reiter asks her to swear her love on something. She says she only believes in storms and the Aztecs. It swiftly becomes clear that the historical Aztecs she is referring to are also a symbol of modern-day Mexico: 'the ones who lived in Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and performed human sacrifices... and lots of pyramids, so many and so big it's impossible to count them all, pyramids on top of pyramids, pyramids behind other pyramids, all stained red with the blood of daily sacrifices.'
In 1969 Octavio Paz wrote a postscript to his great long essay about the Mexican people, The Labyrinth of Solitude, called The Critique of the Pyramid. In this he uses the image of the pyramid to represent 'the symbolic form of Mexican authoritarianism'. Of particular note, some editions of the 1969 imprint also contained the essay 'Post Data' which contained a withering criticism of the Mexican government in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre. The tract caused a commotion that would not have bypassed the bookish adolescent Bolaño. Now he invokes Paz's rage through the image of the pyramid to bring justice for the women of Santa Teresa.
The final chapter of 2666 is called The Part About Arcimboldi, and it is very different from the rest of the novel. It is a fully-formed Mitteleuropean novel, with elements of magic realism and a broad historical sweep. It is redolent of Bohimul Hrabal or Günter Grass or, more recently, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. But it is at the end of a novel about the murder of young girls in Santa Teresa and must tell us something about them. The clue is in the author's name. The 17th century painter Arcimboldo's portraits combine individual objects which, when read together, render the face of the sitter. In The Part About Arcimboldi, Ansky comments that many of the portraits are 'like a horror painting,' but that Arcimboldo's work contains 'Everything in everything... as if Arcimboldo had learned a single lesson, but one of vital importance.' We, too, must learn this lesson. Learn to put together the individual strands of Bolaño's text in order to perceive a unified whole: the history of the world as a series of violent episodes.
The crucial event occurs when Hans Reiter is in a prisoner of war camp at Ansbach in 1945. He shares his cell with an amiable man who calls himself Zeller, but later reveals that he is named Leo Sammer. Reiter listens to Sammer tell him about his role in the war – 'not on the military battlefield but on the economic and political battlefield'. Sammer was a bureaucrat responsible for supplying workers to the Reich in Poland. After a clerical error, a group of five hundred Greek Jews are sent to Sammer. He describes them to Reiter in the terms of an administrative problem. It is a classic example of Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil'. Sammer applies to a variety of organizations to take the Jews off his hands but is met with refusal after refusal. The Jews become ill and begin to die. Sammer views it as an issue that he can address much as he addresses the drunkenness of the local peasants: with regulation and bureaucracy. He applies to the Office of Greek Affairs, investigates whether he can send the Jews to a factory in Germany. Even when Sammer is told to kill the Jews, it is in the language of bureaucracy. The Office for Jewish Affairs informs him: 'Look, with the situation as it is we have no transportation available to collect the Jews. Administratively they belong to Upper Silesia. I've talked to my superiors and we're in agreement that the easiest and best thing would be for you to dispose of them.'
Finally, Sammer persuades the drunk local adolescents to shoot the Jews, leading them out to a hollow just outside of town. Sammer is full of guilt, and explains to Reiter the terrible situation in which he found himself: 'I was a fair administrator. I did good things, guided by my instincts, and bad things, guided by the vicissitudes of war... Anyone else in my place... would have killed those Jews with his own hands. I didn't. It isn't in my nature.' Reiter listens to Sammer's story and then, late one night, strangles him. The fictional author avenges the forgotten Greek Jews just as Bolaño is seeking to avenge the forgotten women of Ciudad Juarez.
The parallels between the murders in The Part About the Crimes and the killing of the Greek Jews in The Part About Arcimboldi are clear and numerous. Both are the work of males exploiting the position of power they hold within a system which, at once at the base and superstructure level, contrives to abuse the poor and helpless. Both systems thrive on organized violence channelled through groups of hired thugs who can be seen as both perpetrators and victims (the narco gangs and corrupt Mexican policeman; the Polish youths and local functionaries). Both systems justify their brutality in pursuit of ideology: capitalism and Nazism; both seek to excuse the murders as a regrettable but necessary byproduct of this higher aim. A Holocaust is happening in Ciudad Juarez, Bolaño is telling us. The deaths may only number in the thousands in this instance, but they are symptomatic of violent deaths that have taken place and continue to take place across the Americas, ignored by the Western media, suppressed by the powerful perpetrators.
When you hold a novel in your hand, you hold the world in it. Traditional novels give us a simulacrum of the world, a negotiable, 300-page version of life that moves from a scene-setting introduction through conflict to satisfying resolution. Traditional novels use paragraphs and correct grammar, they respect chronology, they doff their caps to literary tradition, they leave little unexplained. 2666 is not a traditional novel. It is the formal representation of a wrecked tradition, a violent literary exercise in the representation of violence. It gives a voice to the chaotic, out-of-time experience of the dispossessed, marginalized victims of the violence of the 20th century.
Walter Benjamin wrote that these marginalized voices represent 'the tradition of the oppressed that teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.' The pattern that Bolaño perceives in the violence of the 20th century is defined by the experience of those who have been overlooked by the grand narratives of the mainstream media. A conspiracy exists, Bolaño is telling us, designed to prevent certain stories being told. This conspiracy has been created by the 'victors' in the struggles of the 20th century – the faceless corporations of imperialist capitalism. It is the duty of the author to draw his readers' attention to these forgotten voices, to illuminate the dark passages of history. This is what makes 2666 a necessary read, a novel of supreme importance. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said writes about the 'quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric' nature of 'Western modernism and its aftermath – in, say, the elaborate interpretive strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms.' He believes instead that we should be reading 'reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archaeological descriptions, explorations in mixed form of unhoused exilic experiences.' He could have been describing 2666.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]