The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño

Sarah Kerr in the NYRB:

Like Borges—whom he loved and from whom he learned much—Bolaño was attracted to the idea of literature that could speak to the Americas.[2] He introduced a Spanish edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and elsewhere suggested that The Savage Detectives had been his stab at an adventure tale in the spirit of Twain. He hinted at another model worth thinking about: Melville, tackling the overwhelming subject of evil in Moby-Dick. Writing a brief note on a book by the Mexican reporter Sergio González Rodríguez, Bolaño sounded a similar theme. In 2002, González Rodríguez published his reportage on hundreds of unsolved murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, just south of the Texas border. The murders had begun to accelerate in the early 1990s, in tandem with the drug trade and a proliferation of new assembly plants for exports.

As it happened, Bolaño wrote, the novel he was currently working on dealt in part with the murders, and he had struck up a correspondence with González Rodríguez, frequently seeking his grisly expertise. To the novelist, the story González Rodríguez was reporting on was becoming “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.” It belonged not to the adventure tradition but to the opposite pole of stories of the Americas, the apocalyptic—”these being the only two traditions that remain alive on our continent, perhaps because they're the only two to get close to the abyss that surrounds us.”

2666 was published in Spanish in 2004, a year after Bolaño's death. It runs to 898 pages in English and was not quite finished—yet one doesn't really feel the lack of final revisions doing much to diminish its power. At many points, one feels about to be able to compare the book to something else. When a former Black Panther reminiscent in a few details of Bobby Seale gives a sermon on such topics as “danger” and “stars,” it feels like a nod to the sermon scene in Moby-Dick. Elsewhere there is an ominousness reminiscent of David Lynch, whose method of digging into his unconscious—whatever may come spilling out—seems an inspiration. Bolaño liked detective pulp, and once claimed he would have liked to be a homicide detective, facing the worst, with access to the scene of the crime. The grimy atmosphere of unsolved mystery should, to most readers, feel utterly familiar. Yet despite all the signposts, we quickly discover that we're no good at guessing what comes next.