Home » criticism

The Evidence of Absence


By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008

Imagine you’ve traveled to an art museum to see its most famous work. This piece de resistance is immense—it fills a room—but it’s quite unlike other paintings you’ve gone great distances to see. There’s nothing of the detailed majesty of the Sistine Chapel or the jumbled vivacity of El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz; it’s not entrancingly lovely like Monet’s Water Lillies and it doesn’t salute you with a harsh shout of anger the way that Picasso’s Guernica does. What you find is a dark room. Not only are the walls painted black, but the ceiling is as well, and so is the floor save for some dim lighting fixtures set into the ground. For the first extremely disconcerting moments you can make out nothing at all but the wide swathes of black paint. Gradually your eyes adjust and you realize that there are figures on the wall and ceiling, silhouettes of people drawn in thin tracery. Hundreds of these figures cover the walls. They outline men and women of all different shapes and sizes, differently dressed and coiffed, but each one seems to face you with an identical expression. When you look even closer you realize that this is because their eyes, what Leonardo da Vinci called the “windows of the soul,” are all blank.

You spend a few more minutes in the dark room of dead-eyed figures—you’ve gone to a lot of effort to see this work, after all, and it’s widely acclaimed as a masterpiece—but you soon feel oppressed and unhappy. When you make your way to the next gallery you are literally blinking from the brightness.

This is the best I can do to describe Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published magnum opus 2666, a vast, visionary, physically crippling book that is even harder to recommend than it is to read. Paintings and novels trigger emotions by opposite processes, the former in an immediate sensory rush that’s afterwards parsed into particulars and the latter by adumbration and momentum. But the analogy feels appropriate here because 2666 is so monochromatic in its moods that you’re speedily enveloped in its distinct brand of bleakness and anomie and not released for many, many reading hours. There’s a charming tableau of emerging friendship on around page 15 and then no one smiles—a real smile, of pleasure or amusement, not of insanity or malice or sycophancy or resignation—until about page 700. I’ve never read a book that has so many characters and so few feelings, or that is so verbose and digressive yet seems to have been written with such constrained singlemindedness and haste.

It’s difficult to explain what happens in this extraordinary production, but that’s because everything that happens is then compulsively undermined of its significance—every plotline is purposefully driven into a dead end. The novel is made of five sections, each of which contains some overlapping characters or events that act as hinges, as between panels of a triptych. One section, the final one, relates the biography of a quixotic and reclusive German novelist with the pen-name Benno von Archimboldi. Another, the first, follows the similarly quixotic attempts of a foursome of literary scholars to track down the true identity of Archimboldi. And a third section, the middle of the novel, is about the unsolved murders of hundreds of women outside Ciudad Juarez in the 1990s, here relocated to the fictional city Santa Teresa in the state of Sonora. (The two remaining sections, also set in Santa Teresa, are so narratively inconsequential that I’m dismayed by the idea of summarizing them.)

An indescribable amount of things happen to an innumerable cast of characters in 2666—its nearly 900 pages are almost never static. But it must be reemphasized that, with one significant exception that I’ll look into later, every character, every occurrence, and every development of this book is brought into existence for the purpose of being negated. Nothingness is the single connecting motif of the five disparate sections, and it doesn’t bind them so much as drape across them like a shroud.

Archimboldi is the initial Maguffin that, in section one, brings three of the literary scholars to Santa Teresa following a somewhat dubious tip that places him in the city. But even the story that this false lead allows for, the desultory folie deux of the scholars Pelletier and Espinoza, who are infatuated with their colleague Liz Norton, is never allowed to build into a feeling more solid than alienation and dumb despair. Pelletier and Espinoza drift through their story “like two ghosts,” each “afraid of falling in love, or falling out of love with Norton.”

In the third section an American reporter is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, and though the fight is talked up at interminable length, it’s ultimately dispatched with a few curt strokes:

The fight was short. First Count Pickett came out. Polite applause, some boos. Then Merolino Fernandez came out. Thundering applause. In the first round they sized each other up. In the second, Pickett went on the defensive and knocked his opponent out in less than a minute.

The third section additionally prepares us for a prison interview with a German man accused of murdering women, but abruptly ends the instant the interview gets underway. A car referred to as a “black Peregrino” is given sinister introduction as a clue to the spate of crimes and is again and again mentioned in the police dossiers that compose the bulk of section four—until we are told that black Peregrinos are simply “the car of choice for rich kids,” and therefore too common to offer explicit insight into the murders, after which the car never appears again. A detective comes to Santa Teresa from Arizona after an American woman is murdered: he tracks down some leads, discovers a vast amount of cash hidden in an empty house, and then promptly runs into some cartel members and, as far as the book is concerned, is never heard from again. (Presumably he’s murdered, but there’s no way to know: the scene cuts off before the confrontation.)

The German man in prison, now implied to have been falsely accused, gives the press the names and details of men rumored to be responsible for the murders, but neither the reporters nor Bolaño are inclined to pursue the tip and it’s shrugged away. An esteemed American homicide detective named Kessler is invited to Santa Teresa and given star treatment, but is made to appear otiose and complacent before he even looks into the crimes, which we never get to see him do.

While at first there is a kind of cheekiness about the Godot-like absence of everything deemed to be important, the tendency rapidly comes to feel pathological, an unbending formula of destitution that throws a wearying layer of predictability upon the pages. Should you read something in 2666 that seems to matter (the title, for instance, which turns out to be meaningless if you don’t practice a kind of academic kabbalism with Bolaño’s texts), you know it will be undermined or dismissed or forgotten. There’s simply no satiric juice remaining when Bolaño tries to belittle Kessler by calling him “that modern-day Sherlock Holmes”—he’s merely as hollow and futile as everyone else in the book.

The novel is never shoddy or unthinking, however; in fact, within its blinkered paradigm it’s ingeniously structured and endlessly allusive, the outgrowth of a brilliant mind in fierce, and I think desperate, concentration. Consider Detective Kessler once more, whose role in the novel is admittedly small but emblematic of so many of its weird organizing principles. Readers of 2666 with strong memories and perhaps too much time on their hands may vaguely recall that, 300 pages before he is invited to investigate the murders of section four, a white-haired man named Kessler is provided a confusing 3-page cameo in section three. In that quick walk-on, Kessler delivers a monologue on what he’s learned from the Mexican murders about cultural responses to death. Observing the media’s historical tendency to ignore mass slaughter but sensationalize isolated crimes, he remarks, “words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not revelation.”

The scene is so perplexing that it must have been designed to evade understanding. Section three takes place later in time than section four: this means that when we read Kessler’s conclusions on the murders he investigated (1) we don’t know who Kessler is and (2) we don’t know what the murders are. By the time the necessary context is granted (let me repeat: 300 pages later), the short scene has been buried so deeply beneath the debris of names and bankrupt information that it’s impossible to unearth any connection without engaging in something akin to biblical exegesis. This is the art of avoidance that Bolaño practices, literally the art of voiding any comprehensible patterns that might emerge from his stories. Echoes abound in 2666, but they only make you aware of the emptiness of the surroundings.

Disappearance, too, is a natural thematic sibling to absence and avoidance, and a moaning echo of the murdered women (“They disappear. They vanish into thin air, here one minute, gone the next.”) is no doubt intended in the otherwise inexplicable presentation of a circus impresario whose act starts with “making fleas disappear”: “Then I make pigeons disappear, then I make a cat disappear, then a dog, and I end the act by disappearing a kid.” It is the reason we get a solemn meditation on cirrus clouds: “they’re the clouds in the top layer of the atmosphere, and if they drop or rise a little, just a tiny bit, they disappear.” It’s why a Mexican congresswoman whose girlfriend was murdered laments, “Whether your name is Kelly or Luz Marìa, it makes no difference in the end. All names disappear.” And it’s the reason an obscure but palpable sadness clings to what would in other cases be a trite bit of casuistry from the American boxing reporter:

As he waited by the highway for three trucks to go by on their way from Santa Teresa to Arizona, he remembered what he’d said to the cashier. I’m American. Why didn’t I say I was African American? Because I’m in a foreign country? But can I really consider myself to be in a foreign country when I could go walking back to my own country right now if I wanted, and it wouldn’t even take very long? Does this mean that in some places I’m American and in some places I’m African American and in other places, by logical extension, I’m nobody?

These incessant but bafflingly convoluted absences in 2666 would be more navigable if there were some texture to the prose, but, faithful to the whole, it too has been flattened to an arid desert of words. There are minor distinctions from one section to the next—I think section one is supposed to adopt the aloof, formally conventional tone of a graduate dissertation, whereas section four reads like Associated Press clippings—but each is marked by page after page of drab, mechanical description. It’s actually Hemingway’s Lost Generation soullessness that’s evoked more than any other style, except that 2666 doesn’t try to make poetry (and thus pathos) from its distillate. We instead have huge quantities of writing like this:

He could see the hills on the horizon. The hills were dark yellow and black. Past the hills, he guessed, was the desert. He felt the urge to leave and drive into the hills, but when he got back to his table the woman had brought him a beer and a very thick kind of sandwich. He took a bite and it was good. The taste was strange, spicy. Out of curiosity, he lifted the piece of bread on top: the sandwich was full of all kinds of things. He took a long drink of beer and stretched in his chair. Through the vine leaves he saw a bee, perched motionless. Two slender rays of sun fell vertically on the dirt floor.

It’s hard, of course, to know what’s missed in translation (though I have the impression that Natasha Wimmer has done yeoman’s work), but the numbing repetition of “hills” and the blank and muted details (“the sandwich was full of things”) are of a piece with the lugubrious fixations of the novel. Hundreds of pages of such methodically inanimate stuff make for grueling, demoralizing reading. And this is nothing compared to the long section about the murders; its crushing effect can only be sensed in excerpt:

The [deceased] woman was wearing a white dress and she was barefoot. She was about five foot seven. There were three cheap rings on her left hand, on the index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. On her right hand she was wearing a couple of bracelets and two big rings with fake stones. According to the medical examiner’s report, she had been vaginally and anally raped and then strangled. She wasn’t carrying any identification. The case was assigned to Inspector Ernesto Ortiz Rebolledo, who first made inquiries among Santa Teresa’s high-class hookers to see whether anyone knew the dead woman, and then, when his questioning yielded scant results, among the cheap hookers, but no one from either group had seen her before. Ortiz Rebolledo visited hotels and boardinghouses, checked out some motels on the edge of town, mobilized his informers. His efforts were unsuccessful, and the case was soon closed.

Multiply the above a hundred times, altering the clothing and jewelry but repeating the horrible mantra “vaginally and anally raped” and you begin to get a sense of what you’re in for. There is of course justice, if not much art, in Bolaño’s decision to present these coroner’s reports for every murdered woman, but the forensic flatness of the prose has the effect of making the victims indistinguishable from each other. Since that tonal flatness is identically applied to depictions of living characters, the slaughter doesn’t feel shocking but forlornly inevitable. There isn’t much difference, the book suggests, between being raped and strangled to death and still being alive and healthy. “In Mexico,” an investigator says, in a line that’s echoed later on, “a person can be more or less dead.”

I could go on in this vein almost indefinitely: rooms are likened to coffins, people to zombies, streets to black holes; the first image of Santa Teresa describes “flocks of black vultures, watchful, walking through barren fields”; violence, in the rare cases that it is dramatized rather than reported after the fact, tends to be dreary; madness tends to be glum; and an abyss, a word used metaphorically at least a half-dozen times, seems to trail at the heels of every character, above which their conversation is a brittle patina of noise and their quotidian concerns are so small as to be ridiculous.

I didn’t like reading 2666, but I won’t deny its blunt power. The power stems from the fact that you don’t need to be a literary scholar to know what abysses and disappearing acts are stand-ins for. Roberto Bolaño wrote this book while he was dying of liver disease. (In case you hoped to ignore that fact, American book designers have positioned his author photo on the front flyleaf, so that for the first half of your reading experience the pages slide back to reveal a man with a gentle smile visibly in the far stages of a wasting illness.) Throughout this marathon work you feel that you’re in the midst of the bewildering and often miserable struggle of a man trying to articulate the shades and symbols of his approaching death. 2666 is byzantine and impenetrable, but it’s also completely without subtlety. It says “Death” on every page. The more that message is heard, the more the unremitting compilation of grim detail seems a kind of desperate measure to keep death away. The novel itself is an immense massif of verbiage tilted above an abyss. “Death,” it says, and soon that’s the only thing you hear.

It’s almost heartbreaking, then, to trek to the fifth and final section, and discover that the writing has changed—indeed, and it’s no good equivocating on the point, has improved—to tell a far more expansive, textured, and open-minded story. Bolaño’s biography of Benno von Archimboldi is sad yet truly touching, and most of all it’s populated by fully-rounded human beings whose lives are allowed to be interesting and meaningful. Because most readers will abandon 2666 a few hundred pages in, this section deserves to be published as a book of its own, and, since Farrar, Straus and Giroux must know that there’s a shelf life to this author’s popularity, I bet that it will be.

Not to say that the section doesn’t have its share of confusing evasions and moody tergiversation—one meta-story about a Soviet novelist seems to exist only so that Bolaño can fit Stalin’s purges onto his canvas—but it’s eventually less oracular and demon-haunted. Archimboldi is a Nazi footsoldier as a young man, so it’s surprising that his life should be handled with a lighter touch. But Bolaño moves quickly through the war period (during which time, numbingly, Archimboldi “believed he was dead”) so that he has more time to dwell on his hero’s postwar life as a novelist. Archimboldi marries Ingeborg, a woman ailing of something like consumption (it is apparently a “nameless disease”), and they share a rich and devoted relationship. He begins writing novels in order to support her, and she seems to survive for years longer than she should because of their love. Death is still everywhere, obviously, but I hope the following passage shows how it is now represented as a part of life, not life’s coeval:

They spent many hours together, sometimes talking about the most random things, or sometimes with Reiter [Archimboldi’s real name] at the table writing his first novel in a notebook with a cane-colored cover and Ingeborg lying in bed, reading. It was Reiter who usually did the housecleaning and shopping, and Ingeborg cooked, which was something she was quite good at. Their after-supper conversations were strange and on occasion turned into long monologues or soliloquies or confessions.

They talked about books, about poetry (Ingeborg asked Reiter why he didn’t write poetry and he answered that all poetry, of any style, was contained in fiction), about sex (they had made love in every possible way, or so they believed, and they theorized about new ways but came up only with death), and death. When the old crone [their housemate] made her appearance, they had usually finished eating and the conversation was languishing, as Reiter, drawing himself up like a great Prussian lord, lit a cigarette, and Ingeborg peeled an apple with a short-bladed, wooden-handled knife.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the quality of the scene, and the prose, at least as it’s translated, still strikes me as unexceptional, but the charm of this domestic picture is positively tonic coming after hundreds of pages of empty gestures. The postprandial image of an intimate evening winding down, the young man somewhat haughtily smoking as his unimpressed girlfriend eats an apple, lodges more deeply in the heart than a hundred metaphoric abysses ever could. Much in this section (which also features the novel’s best character, Archimboldi’s editor Bubis) seems to have been put forth as a panacea for the immense futility of everything that came ahead of it. Even the dialogue, which had previously been entirely monotone, begins to ripple with individuality.

I don’t know why Bolaño begins to write better at the end of 2666, but my guess is that he was always most happy, and most comfortable, writing about writers. The explicit remedy Archimboldi’s life offers is the stoic perseverance in art in the face of the horror show of existence (and not just any art, but novel writing—a poet and a visual artist don’t fare nearly as well). Bolaño leaves us with a single message in the wake of the hecatombs of section four: the necessity to document and memorialize the crimes by writing about them, even if nothing is solved by doing so. After Archimboldi loses Ingeborg and falls into a life that’s increasingly secluded and unmoored, he continues to turn out his books. They not only give him a compass and help him sustain his humanity, but later provide perhaps the lone solace in the lives of the hapless scholars who begin the novel, Pelletier and Espinoza. That such a belief would have given solace and direction to Bolaño as well seems undeniable, and you feel that confidence in the final tenderly written pages of this, his last book.

In his great and empathetic history of the Dark Ages, Henry Adams said of his subjects, “Without feeling their lights, you can never feel their shadows.” Save in random corners, 2666 has no lights, and the result is that the unrelieved darkness overwhelms the senses and thereby renders itself uninterpretable. A vast pain is communicated, a blank-minded recognition of death, but nothing else. It had somehow become axiomatic that this novel was a masterpiece before it had even arrived in bookstores, and critics have uniformly trotted out a line from it in which a character touts books “that struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all.” There is no doubt that in writing 2666 Bolaño was struggling mightily and bravely with that which is most terrifying. But his struggle was intensely personal—it was not artistic. The bleakness of Bolaño’s vision radiates out, but so little understanding comes with it. The brutal truth is this: masterpieces are written at the height of an artist’s power. For all its size and sprawl, 2666 was written in a period of surpassing vulnerability. That’s one last sadness that comes from reading it.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.