April 16, 2012

Sitzbook: "2666" by Roberto Bolaño

Have you read 2666? If not, have you at least seen it? This book is huge. At two pages short of 900, it will possibly be the longest book I read this year. Yet despite its size, it's not actually "about" much. Also, for a "novel," it doesn't seem to be... well, like a novel. If you add in chapter names like "The Part About The Crimes," it almost seems like a big Spanish-y version of Seinfeld... in a book. It's almost its own genre, but what exactly that genre would be, I have no idea.

Don't get me wrong, though, the writing is great. I had never read anything by Bolaño before, but he definitely knew what he was doing (unfortunately he died a few years ago). Apparently his instructions to his heirs was to divide this book into five separate, smaller books, but they obviously didn't follow those instructions. That may have been a good or a bad thing. As it is, the book has a five parts that seem to be completely unconnected, save for a link to the fictional town of Santa Teresa on the Mexican-American border (apparently Santa Teresa is a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez).

A while ago I made it a rule to not read too much about a book before I actually read it, and in particular I try to avoid the back covers. Like movie trailers, they give away too much information, and I'd rather be surprised and not know what to expect when going in to a novel. In this book's case, I think I just got more confused. I obviously noticed that the city kept popping up, but other things didn't. For the first 161 pages we follow around some European literary critics in their daily lives. This sounds boring, but actually it's not. The thing that kind of bothered me was that after those 161 pages, we never see them again in the book. I guess if I had known a bit more about the book's structure, I might not have been annoyed, but that kind of side-swiped me.

The other sections are pretty different, too. One follows a professor; another ("The Part About Fate") follows a reporter from the U.S. named "Fate"; the next, and unfortunately also the longest, is about the grisly murders of hundreds of women in the city; and the final part is about a German boy growing up around World War I. That sounds completely off-topic, but it eventually gets there. I guess it's a testament to Bolaños' abilities that he could convincingly write about things as disparate as boxing, literary criticism, and daily life in the Soviet Union under German occupation. It's just strange that all the topics end up in the same book, though.

Maybe my problem is that I should have read it in Spanish? Apparently Bolaños, who was born in Chile but lived much of his life in Mexico and other countries, had a particularly interesting way of mixing slang and even inventing new words when writing. I actually saw a Spanish version at the bookstore (a Barnes and Noble in Fort Collins), but it was a bit more expensive, and I hate the way Spanish books deal with quotation marks (there can be up to three different kinds, all confusing, and it's hard to even tell who's talking). That sounds like a trivial detail but believe me, after a few hundred pages, it's not.

Anyhow, I'm getting off topic. The book was good, but I have to say that it leaves you hanging, and the ending isn't that satisfactory. If you don't mind that, then the book could be for you, but if you like your novels with a clear beginning and end, with a logical plot progression in between, then you may want to check out something different.

So, as is my custom in these reviews, I wanted to end with a few quotes I liked from the book. It was hard to find any ones that were typical that weren't really long or confusing due to lack of context, but these two will have to do:

(From p. 528, describing a family's experience after meeting with police to report a missing girl):

“Despondent, she went back to her house, to the other neighbor woman and the girls, and for a while the four of them experienced what it was like to be in purgatory, a long, helpless wait, a wait that begins and ends in neglect, a very Latin American experience…”

And this one, from p. 114, demonstrates the book's long-sentenced style, as well as its breadth of knowledge and strange humor:

“The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place, except that the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape, whereas Amalfitano could only be considered a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was, a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field, on the back of a capricious and childish beast that would have swallowed Heidegger in a single gulp if Heidegger had had the bad luck to be born on the Mexican-U.S. border.”

So, it nearly took me as long to write this review as it took me to read the book, but there you have it! Has anyone else read this, by chance? If so, please chime in in the comments. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

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