Roberto Bolaño – “2666” and “Nazi Literature”

In the interest of, if nothing, moving this blog along, I present some reviews for these two novels here, as a part of this site, in preview of further book reviews to come. I have edited both reviews to stop the pandering nature and added some as I saw fit.

For those who do not know, Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean, passed away in 2003. Like many in America or in the English speaking world, New Directions let us in on the secret with By Night In Chile and Distant Star (which is actually an elaboration of the final story in Nazi Literature in the Americas”). His other works, very quickly, include the short-story collection, Last Evenings on Earth and the haunting, Amulet. His better known works include the Romulo Gallegos winner The Savage Detectives and the magical, mysterious 2666.

“Nazi Literature in the Americas” reads like a history (but not in a bad way). Bolaño creates dozens of personalities, each with intricate details and interesting character traits that even a third-party (Bolaño) can convey gently. Each character exists throughout North and South America in the twentieth-century, some not dying until 2040 (which Bolaño uses to hint that these people still exist into the later twenty-first century).

As the title suggests, each character is tied, in Bolaño fashion, to fascist literary movements in their respective time period and country. Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, the first chronicled in the novel, is a bourgeois Argentine who met Hitler in the 1930’s and was sympathetic to the cause ever since. Max Mirebalais, is a poor Haitian who steals from other European poets and crafts “many masks,” which he uses to create an ideology of hate. Argentino Schiaffino is a thug from Buenos Aires who loves soccer and violence and believes in the hierarchy of races and is on the run most of his life for murder.

One gets the point. The problem is, this doesn’t half convey the textual density and complexity of the work. The way the characters interact within each others stories, how one influences the other, etc. The depth that Bolano went through to create this world is astonishing (as his epilogue with a glossary of names, places, publishers, books, and miniature biographies of minor characters in the stories indicates).

The beauty, in the end, is that each is not a follower of Hitler or Aryan supremacy. Most are misguided and some are playing games even with themselves. The real world is ever present in Bolaño’s world and the presence of these characters moving, most of the time at odds with the real world, is fascinating. The trick is that each characters intolerance is shown in different ways – not directed at Hitler or other fascist leaders, but in the culture of fascism that still exists today – even as it did in 1996 when this novel was published.

As he says of literature, it “is a surreptitious form of violence, a passport to respectability, and can, in certain young and sensitive nations, disguise the social climber’s origins.” Something one must always keep in mind.

According to Mrs. Bubis, wife of publisher Mr. Bubis, one of the only people alive that knew Benno von Archimboldi, “how well anyone could really know of another person’s work?”

Reading “2666” by Roberto Bolaño, I feel the same way. It has been quite a journey for the English reader with a talent of his kind. From “By Night in Chile” to the chilling “Romantic Dogs,” (which I finished a week before this novel) to “2666,” one of Bolaño’s “longer” works, preceded by the fantastic “Savage Detectives.”

Much has been written (and will be) concerning this novel (see the great reviews, beginning with the one in the New York Times). In short, and without giving too much away, the story revolves around five intervals, which Bolano wanted to be released separately (in 5 year increments), involving a cast of characters as thick as the book itself. Part 1 (About the Critics) concerns four critics: Jean-Claude Pelletier from France, Manuel Espinoza from Spain, Piero Morini of Italy, and Liz Norton who, through their love of Archimboldi, come together and discuss and revel in the mysterious nature of the man. Part 2 (About Amalfitano) and Part 3 (About Fate) concerns a Chilean college professor, Amalfitano, and his dealings with his daughter and a strange geometry books; and an African-American, Quincy Williams aka Fate, who takes a assignment in Mexico covering a boxing match, which soon gets derailed due to his interest in the murders of the women detailed in the next chapter. Part 4 (About the Crimes) concerns the cornerstone of the novel, the parts tying all these people together: the murders of women, detailed by Bolaño, in the city of Santa Teresa (Cuidad Juárez) in the Sonora Desert in Northern Mexico on the US border. Part 5 (About Archimboldi) gives the final insights into our characters and ends the novel much as we began.

With Bolaño, it is the manner of his story-telling that wins him fans as well as enemies. In “2666,” he pushes the boundaries that he may have placed on himself before his death in 2003. My favorite passage, in which Liz Norton realizes the genius of Archimboldi, gives you a sense of his style, if you have not read him before. This could also sum up how some readers felt reading Bolaño their first time they tried to pay attention:

It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like a grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their comprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.

His style is attractive and inviting and the story itself is long, but superb. Despite it’s unfinished aesthetic, it is still complete in all the ways that matter and is a contribution par excellence to the world of letters.

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~ by Daniel on January 24, 2009.

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