A monument to the unknown worker

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

RP 200 () / Article

‘The need for reflection is the deepest melancholy of every great and genuine novel’.     Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel

Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003) was a poet who only began to write novels towards the end of his life in the early 1990s. But by the time of his death, and especially after the publication of the prize-winning The Savage Detectives in 1998, he had begun to occupy the kind of place in world literature (if there is such a thing) once associated with Gabriel García Márquez, and then, as his work was translated into English in the early 2000s, with W.G. Sebald. However, for Bolaño the novel was a commercial form, a means of making money out of writing, of earning a living. Most of them are marked by an intense rage – the anger, ressentiment and guilt of a marginalized poet – against the social inscription of the literary institution. [1]

This combination of prosaic anger and need, together with Bolaño’s own extraordinary knowledge of – and enthusiasm for – the radical history of literary form (which he also deploys as narrative content in his writing about literature) has nevertheless produced a series of works, culminating with the posthumously published 2666 (2004), that have radically reconfigured the ‘world’ of world literature. 2666 takes the slaughter of women over nearly a decade in the city of Cuidad Juarez, coincidentally the same period in which Bolaño writes his novels, as its point of departure and artistic material to produce a devastating post-conceptual (after such writers as the Argentine Ricardo Piglia) and post-magical realist (after, for example, the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos) cognitive mapping. In doing so, 2666 suggests, in a kind of high-modernist vein, an out-of-kilter realism re-presenting reality – that is, a capitalist world – gone awry. [ ] [2]

Bolaño’s novel 2666 is an inorganic work written in five ‘parts’, a quintet that does not quite make a whole, and whose unity is given paradoxically in narrative proliferation and dispersal. [3] Such disunity should not, therefore, be thought of as a lack, but rather poetically, as the novel’s fundamental compositional principle: an aleatory, wild poetics of encounter modelled, perhaps, on a permanently shifting or dreamlike network flow – our new cultural unconscious. A novel of novels and of genres of novels, each of the parts is thus endowed with considerable autonomy – they tell different stories; whilst the fragments of which they are made also strain for their own independence, against narrative continuity. Part and whole thus fold into each other producing a kind of distributional unfolding: in 2666 history definitely flows, veers and ‘stutters’. [4] As we shall see in a little more detail below, the narrative composition of Bolaño’s novel takes on some of the characteristics of what Deleuze calls ‘irrational cuts’, a new kind of montage which

determines the non-commensurable relations between images… There is no longer association through metaphor or metonymy, but relinkage on the literal image… relinkages of independent images. Instead of one image after the other, there is one image plus another. [5]

Each part, however, in its relative autonomy is also connected to one or more of the others in a variety of ways: characters may cross the text, for example, travelling from the background of one part into the foreground of another. Such connections not only serve to emphasize the autonomy of parts – what is central to one part is not to another – but, as the text refocuses, endow it with a certain three-dimensionality or depth of field, as introduced into cinema by Gregg Toland, or an installation. (As I briefly suggest below, the latter is important with regard to part four of the novel). This is the case, for example, with the philosopher Oscar Amalfitano, a bit player to the literary critics Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza and Liz Norton as he guides them around Santa Teresa in search of the novelist Archimboldi, in the first part of the novel, ‘The Part About the Critics’. Amalfitano becomes the …