A great reading experience is one that sweeps you up and carries you along like a powerful current. At least that’s how I often felt while reading this book. The force that moved me was not the characters, of which there are many, or the various plots, of which there are also many, but the writing itself. There is something about it in this novel that made it feel at times more real than real and more true than life itself. The title, 2666, suggests a year far off in the future from where the narrator is looking back at these times and places. Although this is never explicitly stated, it does give the writing a feeling of distance and dispassion, ingredients especially needed to make it through the roughest parts of the book, the heart of the matter, a rendition of the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in a Mexican border city in the 1990′s. In this section of the book, Bolano not only brings those artrocities before us but uses the opportunity to tell the individual stories of the unfortunate victims, who are almost all poor young workers in assembly plants, with families and lives that are otherwise lost in statistics and headlines.
The novel is both a whole and a sum of its parts. There were a number of things about it that made me reluctant to read it in the first place. For one, I usually don’t like fiction about writers, or about academics, or about serial murders, or about World War II or Nazis, and yet, despite the fact that this book includes stories about all of these things, it does so from a more fundamental vantage point. It is always about a person, not the trimmings, a person who only happens to be born in a certain time and place and is therefore subject to the tides and events occurring therein. There is no difference between the little German girl who loses her adored older brother to the war and the young Mexican girl whose sister goes off to the big city in search of work. The journalist who finds himself covering a pathetic boxing match in the middle of nowhere is as out of place as the civil servant who finds himself saddled with an unexpected railroad cargo. It’s not that these are mere victims of circumstance, but that each of them is presented with situations of their era and are forced to respond, and it is those reactions that define their individuality. This is the same truth for all of us.
There is not a lot of happiness in this book, but it’s not intended to be a naturalist panorama that encompasses all of the human experience. Just because the book is long does not make it an “epic”. I’ve seen it compared to Carlos Fuentes’ “Terra Nostra“, because both are big and great books by Latin American writers, but they have very different ambitions. I’m not sure what I would compare it with – perhaps “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Doblin, and not due to their length but to the feeling they give you of proportion, of the enormous complexities we face in this world and our very solid limitations in dealing with them. I don’t have any qualms about using the word ‘masterpiece’ in talking about 2666. Bolano talks about that very subject in the book, where he describes masterpieces in literature as like fantastically beautiful lakes high up in the mountains that you come across unexpectedly and that take your breath away. This book was just like that for me.