2666. By Roberto Bolano.

by John Boland

Is this the great novel of our time? Before his early death in 2003, the Chilean-born Roberto Bolano was widely admired in Spanish-speaking countries, but it was only when he was translated into English that his fame became global and he is now routinely written of as one of the most important literary talents of the age, with the 900-page posthumously published 2666 as his masterpiece.

It’s certainly a stupendous achievement, quite unlike any other novel I’ve read, though it’s only because of his literary executors that such a judgment can be made. On his deathbed Bolano, worried about his family’s financial future, asked for the manuscript to be divided into five smaller books, each to be published at yearly intervals, but his executors wisely disregarded his decision, realising that such piecemeal publication would destroy the integrity, scale and  impact of what he had created.

At first, the book lulls us into thinking we’re reading a straightforward, if somewhat quirky, novel about academic passions and rivalries, in the manner of David Lodge. Its main protagonists are four critics – three men and a woman – who meet constantly at conferences to talk about a reclusive German writer called Benno von Archimboldi with whom they’re all obsessed (they’re also obsessed with each other), and they make their way to a Mexican town called Santa Teresa when they hear that Archimboldi was spotted there.

This makes for a lot of picaresque fun, but from early on the basic storyline has been interrupted by digressions, shaggy-dog stories and various authorial asides. Still, in this opening section’s 160 pages we have become engaged by the antics and attachments of our four critics, and so it comes as something of a shock when they then vanish from the book, never to reappear.

This is breaking one of the time-honoured rules of fiction, but Bolano’s achievement is such that by the end of the 900 pages we have been overwhelmed by so many other characters and events that the four critics have become little more than a vague memory – inconsequential figures play-acting along the borders of life’s terrifying tapestry.

We had learned in that first section about the mysterious murders of hundreds of young women in Santa Teresa during the 1990s (drawing from what actually happened in the border town of Ciudad Juarez in the same period), and in the book’s second section we are in the presence of an academic in Santa Teresa who fears for the safety of his teenage daughter. Again, Bolano crams his storyline with digressions about family and friends and colleagues, most of them absorbing in their own right and all of them contributing to the sense of teemingly random life that the author is evoking.

The third section, involving an African-American journalist in Santa Teresa, delves deeper into the mystery of the killings, while in the extraordinary fourth section – running to almost 300 pages – Bolano provides a forensically detailed and relentless account of all the murders as they happened. This makes for harrowing, though compelling, reading. The final section introduces us to Archimboldi and manages to pull together various strands of the story – solving at least some of the mysteries.

What remains mysterious, though, is how Bolano acquired his seemingly effortless mastery of narrative, character and tone, all brilliantly captured in Natasha Wimmer’s translation. Such qualities are to be marvelled at, though beyond them there is something else – a vibrant, troubling, often deeply disturbing vision of life that persuades you of its truth, so that you feel you’re not just inhabiting Bolano’s world but the world as it really is, even if you wished it to be otherwise. That’s what makes him a major writer.

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