A reader's journal: From The Savage Detectives to 2666, final part

My reading of 2666 was radically different from my reading of The Savage Detectives. When I came to Estonia, 2666 was the only book that came with me in my hand luggage and I started it all over again. The trip was extremely long, 33 hours, more than half of it just waiting time in airports, so, by the time I arrived in Tallinn, I was already halfway through it. It was, as opposed to The Savage Detectives, a solitary reading.

And I think that’s just fine because, there where The Savage Detectives is a choral novel overflowing with camaraderie, 2666 is a solitary novel. Solitude wanders through its more than a thousand pages, quiet but impassive as the hot desert wind. The sole chapter in the book where we encounter something similar to the group feeling in The Savage Detectives is The part about the critics, where Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini and Norton discover Benno von Archimboldi and rescue his literary figure from oblivion, to then enter a quest to find him in person. Although even in this chapter, we start to see how that camaraderie starts to fall apart, slowly, without any violence, as all things that crumble under intense heat. We see how Morini starts to drift apart in unaccountable silence. And we see, also, how Pelletier and Espinoza, although friends until the end, seem to be alone too: two friends who share their unalterable loneliness.

In the following chapters loneliness is more evident. The part about Amalfitano is, for me, the saddest of them all. A Chekhovian kind of sadness. Amalfitano is a Chilean emigrate who is teaching literature in Santa Teresa’s University. Left by his wife along with their daughter. Her wife, however, is portrayed as possessed by a beautiful folly and not as a villain. In The part about Fate we come to know Fate (obviously), a young black journalist from Chicago, who travels to Santa Teresa to report on a box match. The chapter starts with the death of Fate’s mother, with his pain and with him “surrounded by ghosts”, and pain and ghosts never abandon him. The part about the crimes is the most sordid, the most difficult to read, the longest and the most bone-chillingly similar to reality. There, we don’t meet any protagonist. The protagonist is evil, it’s poverty, it’s misoginy, it’s indifference, it’s deathly silence. We meet the victims, hundreds of women who are raped and murdered, and a series of people: cops, prosecutors, journalists, private investigators, politicians and just citizens who live and deal, to a greater or lesser extent, with the crimes. In this part is also where solitude is most unbearable. I think there’s one significant relationship, that of judicial police officer Juan de Dios Martínez, one of the few officers on the cases who actually tries to solve them, and Elvira Campos, a psychiatrist. Their relationship, as demanded by her, remains strictly sexual. Sometimes, after sex, she lies in bed and talks to him about her escape dreams, about a life in Paris, about a youth extended by costly surgeries; she talks to him as if she was talking with the air, to herself, and he listens, half moved and half gloomy, and is only capable of saying: “You drive me crazy just as you are”. But, of course, the most devastating loneliness in this chapter is that of the victims who are alone when murdered and whose loneliness follows them to the grave – more often than not a mass grave – since no one finds, or no one wants to find, answers.

At last there’s The part about Archimboldi where we come to know Hans Reiter, Archimboldi’s birth name (I wonder if Bolaño chose this last name because the German pronunciation is similar to Writer) and we follow him, very much in XIXth Century novel-fashion, from before he was born to his old age, in an epic that extends from the World War One, lingers in the Eastern front during WWII and ends well after the fall of the USSR and in the beginning of the new millennium. Archimboldi has no one but his own soul, and it seems at times that’s all he needs.

There are similarities with The Savage Detectives, yes. Ambition and breadth, to begin with. Bolaño´s absolutely Spartan understanding of writing. The fascinating digressions that have nothing to do with the central plot, but that either reinforce, or reverberate, or contradict, or battle with the central themes. An invincible romanticism tied in a lethal vortex with cynicism and disenchantment. His male heroes, all seeming reiterations, reformulations and paraphrasis of one another: Pelletier, Espinoza, Belano, Lima, Lalo Cura, Archimboldi, Ansky, etc. All of them seem to me like projections of Bolaño himself. Brave men anxious to live. Men who look at the world and discover the skeletons behind the appearances. Is as if Bolaño saw himself in a crushed mirror and the many slightly deformed reflections casted by this mirror were his characters. But these deformed reflections, unlike the reflections in broken mirrors that abound in literature, are neither grotesque nor unsettling, but rather melancholic. The broken mirror in which Bolaño looks at himself is, almost every time, a mirror of nostalgia. The images in it are the lives he did not live and misses nonetheless. They are reflections possessed by an un flickering dignity and an unwavering sadness, which is, after all, the light that shines on all heroes.

Another similarity, this one crucial, is Bolaño’s obsession with evil, which is present, but not so evident, in The Savage Detectives. It is front and center in Nazi literature in the Americas and in Distant Star. This obsession is taken to the extreme in 2666, where Bolaño jumps into the horror of the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, researching tirelessly, both on his own and with the help of Sergio González Rodríguez, who, around the same time, was publishing weekly coverage of the crimes which were later compiled in his book: Bones In the Desert. As a way of thanking him for his help, Bolaño paid homage to González Rodríguez by including him in the novel and adding: “With Sergio González Rodríguez I would go to war”.

Sergio González Rodríguez, journalist and ficion writer. Passed away in 2017.

What Bolaño did in The part about the crimes is exceptional, but moreover, it’s important. Along the 350 pages that this chapter takes, Bolaño tells hundreds of femicides between 1993 and December 1997. He narrates them with a language clearly mirroring the cold and clinical tone of forensic’s and police’s reports; but in each of those narratives, his own voice starts leaking, as drops in a cavern, and he begins to talk to us not only about the morbid murders and the state of the bodies, but about the lives of the victims, about their names, their mothers, their siblings, about what they did, where did they work or study, what were their fantasies. The result is almost beyond all bearing. As González Rodríguez pointed out (which is notable, given that González Rodríguez researched the crimes exhaustively and in situ):

“Bolaño’s master novel adds a tragic density that allows a close reading of reality in a way that the facts, because of their traumatic effect, sometimes hide. What is documented as a fact, becomes unbearable as fiction”.

With 2666, Bolaño sets himself apart, at least in my opinion, from the modern and postmodern literature that is only interested in experimentation, in structural razzle-dazzle, in the deployment of overwhelming talent, and in the meta-look-I-know-you know clever cynicism, and throws himself into the abyss (a very bolañesque image) of the open wounds that are unpleasant to look at both because they’re terrifying and because they accuse. It is not by coincidence that Amalfitano’s disappointed when encountering an illustrated pharmacist who prefers The Metamorphosis over The Trial, Bartleby over Moby Dick, A Simple Heart over Bouvard et Pécuchet and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or over The Pickwick Papers:

“What a sad paradox. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters during fencing training, but they want to know nothing about real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench”.

2666 was the last and fiercest combat Bolaño went into. The savage detective died in July 2003 and his last novel saw the light in October 2004.

As he wrote, Bolaño was conscious that he didn’t have much time left. I think that’s noticeable when reading 2666. Death is a clear presence in it. Not only literally, I mean rather that one can sense Death siting across Bolaño’s desk, patiently waiting the moment when the last key was struck. It’s interesting in this sense the reiteration of Sisyphus myth in the last part of the book. There, Bolaño is not interested in Sisyphus punishment, but on how Sisyphus eludes Thanatos, his death. What’s curious is that, the first time he retells the myth, it is only to the point where Thanatos is freed by Zeus and Sisyphus dies. But later in the novel, Archimboldi sends a puzzling letter to Mr. Bubis, his editor, where he says that Sisyphus, by means of a clever ‘legal’ move, manages to cheat death at the last minute and live a long and happy life, dying an old man. Moreover, Archimboldi avers that the stone punishment was only a trick laid by the gods to prevent Sisyphus from thinking about new ways to escape. “But on the least expected day, Sisyphus is going to come up with something and he’s going to come back again”, Archimboldi says. Bolaño wanted to escape death. He wanted to live.

Jorge Volpi remembers that in a young writers gathering in Seville, 2003, a kid came to Bolaño as a missionary to a saint and asked, “what advice would you give to young writers everywhere?”, to which Bolaño replied: “I recommend you live. Live and be happy”. This response, according to Volpi, has been disappointing to almost every writer apprentice who has listened to it referred, apprentices who expect The Tablets of Stone in literature’s Mount Sinai, but rather received a quote that could have been shared by their aunts in Facebook. But the thing is, Bolaño was on his last days. That gathering was, in fact, his last public appearance. Life was everything he hoped for and the only thing he couldn’t get.

That sadness is manifest in the novel. And now, when I’ve been thinking about 2666 in contrast to The Savage Detectives, I feel this is the crucial difference between them. The Savage Detectives is a novel that’s on fire, that’s young and anxious. It’s not, or at least I think it could not be labelled a ‘happy’ novel. There’s sadness in it, there’s horror, there’s disenchantment, but it’s all burning in the flames of youth, of a life that still seems limitless and free. It even ends with a mysterious incomplete square, that, to me, always signified the barriers of something being overflowed. It ends, as I’ve said before, with García Madero, the youngest of them all, willing to go further, who knows where the hell to, but further.

In 2666, all five books that integrate it, always end with a tinge of sadness. The same tinge of those half-broken smiles of people who just can’t take it anymore. It is still a limitless novel, but it’s not the vastness of a sea that one is eager to sail anymore. It’s the vastness of a sea we know it’s too big and too deep, while we are too small, so very small.

The selection of characters, I believe, is eloquent. In The Savage Detectives, everyone is a poet. In 2666 there is not a single poet. There’s a group of critics, that, to me are the furthest you can get from a poet in the literary fauna; a poet (a good poet, an authentic poet) writes and lives poetry, is right there at the front line; the critic, on the other hand, writes about, reflects, studies, comments, is far, far away from the battlefield. There’s also a novelist, about whom we come to care because of his life, his work is just mentioned.

It’s also evident that here, Bolaño faces the specter haunting all artists: posterity, legacy, prestige, a work that survives him. Over and over, through many different characters, he seems to tell us and beware himself that posterity, legacy, prestige, the survival of a body of work, it’s all apparent, an illusion. Not too far away from fame. In an interview for Chilean TV, when asked about literature as a way of living, he responded literature was a miserable place filled with fools who were sure about the transcendence of their own work, and stated: “In 400 million years, not even Shakespeare will be someone”. The last two pages of 2666 are a master final strike I won’t ruin for anyone.

Somewhere in the book, very close to the ending, we read about sweet Lotte’s life. Lotte is Archimboldi’s younger sister. When she’s already old and alone, we are told that sometimes she goes to the beach and that, in the evenings, she looks at the sunset on the terrace of some hotel, looking distant, with a touch of elegance and a certain something of sadness; but that when an old widower or divorced man comes and asks her to dance or walk on the beach, she smiles and says “no, thank you”, and at that moment, “only sadness remains”. This is the feeling 2666 has left me. It’s an impressive torrent of a novel, one of the highest and most prodigious narrative buildings of contemporary Latin American fiction; an unabated book that carries on and on long after we have closed it. However, when finishing it and after some days have passed, it seems only sadness remains. But a sadness full of dignity. As González Rodríguez said about Bolaño’s fiction, there abound moments “when tears are congregated around an intimate defeat that tastes like victory”. That’s 2666, the most intimate defeat and Roberto Bolaño’s final victory.

Juan Villoro reminisces that, soon before the fateful day, Bolaño called him to comment on a sentence he found in a novel by Leonardo Sciaca. A priest in the novel, after having been witness to all the misery and splendor of human experience, says: “there’s only one baptism left for me: the baptism of death”. On July 15, 2003, Thanatos finally found Sisyphus. In Bolaño’s notes for 2666, a note was found that read: “2666 narrator is Arturo Belano” – his loyal alter ego along his work – and in another note, under what appears to be an instruction: “for 2666’s ending”, it says: “And that’s all, folks. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had any strength left, I would cry. Goodbye to you all. Arturo Belano”. The last baptism had arrived.

Homage paid to him by the wonderful Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra. Also deceased in 2017, at 103 years of age.

What is 2666, then? Why that weird title? Bolaño said the title was the key to understand the novel, but it’s impossible to know if he was being earnest or joking, or a bit of both. Many have attempted to decipher it’s meaning. Ignacio Echeverría says it’s only a date, the vanishing point that orders and gives perspective to the novel. Alan Pauls has also posited it’s a date, but rather the date when the novel was written and from when is coming to us: a novel that comes from the future. Jorge Volpi argues the book is a ticking bomb that is programmed to blow in 2666. Bolaño himself seems to drop hints. In Amuleto, Auxilio Lacouture, the protagonist of that novel, describes a street in Mexico City, late at night, as a cemetery, “but not a cemetery from 1974, nor a cemetery from 1968, nor a cemetery from 1975, but a cemetery from 2666”. On the other hand, in The Savage Detectives, Amadeo Salvatierra says that Césarea Tinajero (the poet that our protagonists are trying to find) spoke of a revolution that would arrive in the XXIIth Century, a prediction that is later adjusted; according to a professor who speaks with García Madero, the revolution, Tinajero clarified to her, would really arrive in 2600, 2600 and something. In 2666, in some pages devoted to the family history of Lalo Cura (one of the central characters in The part about the crimes) we are told that her mother met and slept with two young men who were driving across Sonora (could they be Belano and Lima?), as if running away from something, and both of them speaking of “an invisible revolution that was developing but that would only come to the streets in at least fifty years. Or five hundred. Or five thousand”.

So, what is 2666? Is it the year when the revolution starts? Is it the year where the novel is written? Is it the year when the bomb goes off? Or maybe the year when the crimes are solved? When women stop being murdered? When evil recedes? Or the year when poets and writers and critics and literature stop existing? Or is it all just a date so far away that it is equivalent to say: none of this will ever change?

In my opinion, 2666 is the year in which there’s no meaning anymore, when names have been forgotten. The date when an unlikely archeologist tries to recover some of the meaning lost to the merciless erosion of time past, when, piece by piece, stone by stone, something is rebuilt but it’s nothing more than a skeleton, or maybe not even that, merely a ghost of our XXth century (because our century is still the XXth and not the XXIst, we have not yet been able to invent a new century, we are nothing but the envious, anemic shadow of the XXth century). 2666 is the year when Roberto Bolaño tells us this ancient history, monumental but somber as pyramid sleeping in the belly of a dense jungle, imposing but mute and undaunted as the ruins of Babylon, distant but still dangerous, as those statues whose features are blurred but still touch, move, send a chill down the spine.

There are and will be many exegetes of Bolaño’s work, particularly of his two masterpieces. I won’t be one of them. I’d rather remain his reader. And as a reader, what I have to thank him the most, what amazes me the most, what is the most blazed into my memory, are all those episodes which abound in his fiction, where he seems to recover, like almost no other living writer, something I don’t quite know how to put into words, but I guess that is the mystery of living.

So, almost a year went by before I finished the novel. My masters turned out to be far more demanding than I expected, and I couldn’t read anything other than academic stuff for months. But finally, there I was, in a book shop in central Tallinn, with F. mute and trembling, uncapable of escaping the novel.

And then an old friend came to my mind.

After the dissolution of the 132 movement, David’s path and mine distanced significantly. He left Leon and went to Mexico City. Then he moved to Hidalgo. I don’t remember if he later moved to Chihuaha. He got a job that required him to be on the move all the time, which was pretty ad hoc with his nomad personality. Sometimes he visited León and he always did it without any sort of notification, as if phones, e-mails, letters, telegrams, were not a thing in his world. He came wrapped in a mystery he sought and protected, and he left in the same way. He came, we gathered, chatted for hours, and then, when he was leaving, he always told me we should meet the next day for lunch. The next day, by lunch time, he was already in another city. With time I understood that this was his bizarre way of saying goodbye. The time between visits became longer and longer.

We met in the summer of 2015. I had just started dating F. At that time, I remember it well, his visit felt like a possible and lasting reunion. But then two years passed in which we knew nothing about each other.

With this I don’t mean to say that David forgot about me. Borges already said somewhere that friendship dos not require frequency. In May 2017, my family went through a rough patch. A very bad financial situation, the death of my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, and, in my case, the denial of a scholarship which, at the time, seemed like the tombstone on my attempt to come to Europe. David, who carries the nickname of ‘The cat’ with justice, appearing and disappearing without being noticed, sent me a letter asking me what he could do for me, how could he help me, what was needed for me to get to the old continent. When I answered that I just needed all the good thoughts he could send, he said:

“In spite of it all, brother, try not to loose your smile. Be with your father who will surely need to find a friend in you, a support through this. Have something concrete, human, at hand to tell him. The good thoughts I send them every day, Poet. Sometimes they might get stuck on the way, but I send them, never doubt it”.

A little after that, when I already had my plain tickets to come, we spoke on the phone. He asked me when I would leave Mexico and he said we might be able to make a road trip to Veracruz. I said yes, it would be nice, let me know. I knew it wouldn’t happen.

The truth is by this time I already felt our friendship, though alive, was a friendship doomed to live like that, virtually, in memory and in the future road trips and lunches that were meant to not happen. A friendship very much like that of Belano and Lima, or, in other words, like that of Bolaño and Papasquiaro. Our Café La Habana was closed.

– García Madero?

I Heard David’s voice on the cellphone. We spoke briefly. I explained to him I was already on the bus to Mexico City and my flight left on the next day by noon. I would sleep at my cousin’s house. He said it was ok, perfect, we would meet that night for dinner then. We hang up and I had no doubt that dinner would be, as lunch, symbolic.

Indeed, that evening he called to cancel. I wasn’t surprised. I said to him, don’t worry. He said that, tomorrow we would meet, this time for sure, at the airport. “Ok, brother, see you there”. I was very certain I would not see him.

On the next day, at the airport, sitting on a table in the fast food section, with a vacant stare, I was waiting. Suddenly, a call entered. It was him. I imagined what he would say: “Brother, I won’t be able to go”. I picked up:

– García Madero, where are you?

I saw him from afar, with his head held above the crowd, looking for me. He had the same IT glasses on, but with a black long coat, as if he had been promoted from technician to the chosen one by the Matrix.

We bought a coffee and we sat down. We talked about our lives. He was still in the same work, though now in a higher position. He continued to support his mom and nephews. He was still talking as if writing. I was about to leave to a far corner of the world, to study something no one knows. I was still mumbling and stuttering. He asked me if I had received a scholarship. I said no. I came with my savings and a loan, but even that would only do for the first semester. Then, I would have to find something else.

  • How much do you need per semester?

  • About 80 thousand pesos, give or take.

He was quiet, and we changed the topic. We went out for a smoke and we kept talking about this and that, as friends who chat daily.

When I had to go through security, he stopped me and told me that, if by the end of the semester, I did not find support, I called him. He had some savings and he could help me. We didn’t speak about Bolaño. We didn’t speak about literature. I felt, all of a sudden, that we had both, unknowingly and unwillingly, became adults, and that it wasn’t all that bad.

We said goodbye and, as he did every single time he said goodbye back when we were in the 132 movement, he raised his left fist and smiled as the older brother I thought I’d lost. My older brother lifting offering his hand from his horizon, but no longer saying “Don’t fall behind”. Maybe he had never said that, but I misheard. Maybe he always said that there were no steps, no stairs, that there was only a road, sometimes levelled and flat and easy, but most of the time winding and steep and difficult, and that no one knows where the hell that road leads to or how it should be walked, but that all we can ask for is a group of people to walk along with. Maybe he always just said “Let’s go together, brother”.

Now, after finishing 2666, I find him again. I look back, years back. And as I cannot comment this with you live, since we cannot speak about this extraordinary book as we smoke the last cigarette and walk into the night, I write this.

David, you always asked me, when we had to throw ourselves into something, when we had to take a risk: “Are you a poet?”, and then there was nothing but to accept the challenge. Today I know I am not. I am not a poet. Maybe neither of us is one. You are not Belano and I am not García Madero. We are not savage detectives. We won’t undertake a journey to find a Mexican poet or a German novelist. But as Roberto Bolaño said to Juan Villoro:

“What matters is we have memory. What matters is we can laugh without staining anyone with our blood. What matters is we are still standing, and we haven’t become cowards nor cannibals”.

Let’s go together, brother.