Dazzling digressions

<strong>2666</strong>

<em>Roberto Bolaño</em>

Picador, 898pp, £20

Publishers like to be able to quote big, vague adjectives to decorate the paperback edition, so, to be obliging: 2666 is a dazzling, overwhelming book. Yet those are both ways of saying that it is a book that it is difficult to see clearly - you shade your eyes, you step back, but its size and the glare of its cleverness stop you focusing on what's there. 2666 is actually, or potentially, five books: a prefatory note and a more substantial postscript explain that, at the time of his death, Roberto Bolaño left instructions for its five sections to be published separately, one a year, apparently as a way of providing for his children's future. The decision to override his wishes must have been correct, in financial as much as in literary terms: a magnum opus is bound to attract more excitement than five chamber works. And despite the penalties imposed by its bulk (lack of portability, as well as graspability), it would be a shame not to have the sense given by the whole book, of being immersed in an imagination so broad that it sometimes feels like a world.

The first of the five sections, "The Part about the Critics", concerns four literary critics (that can't, you feel, have done the book any harm with reviewers) - one Spanish, one French, one Italian, one English, all experts on a cultish German novelist, the improbably named Benno von Archimboldi. Their allegiance in academic debates leads to friendship, and then to a series of sexual permutations, the sole woman in the group sharing her attentions between the men. As the narrative progresses, the critics are drawn into a hunt for Archimboldi, who has never been interviewed or even photographed, though he is known to be unusually tall; the trail leads to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa.

"The Part about Amalfitano" is a short, elusive narrative about a philosophy teacher at the University of Santa Teresa who has appeared briefly as the critics' reluctant guide and now begins to hear a voice, challenging and insulting him. In "The Part about Fate", an African-American journalist who goes by the name Oscar Fate visits Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, gets ­embroiled with the local lowlife, and learns of the ­appalling series of murders of women that has occurred in Santa Teresa. At the end he meets the chief suspect, an unusually tall German.

"The Part about the Crimes", the longest by far, is a forensically detailed itemisation of all the murders of women in Santa Teresa between 1993 and the end of 1997 - random sex crimes, but also domestic murders, women stabbed, beaten, strangled or shot almost casually by husbands, lovers, men they barely know - together with accounts of the police investigation and the experiences of the chief suspect. The final section, "The Part about Archimboldi", describes the novelist's life, and ties up some of the loose ends.

An outline of the narrative is, maybe, an evasion of what the book is about: it obscures the violence, the explicit and often overwrought sex (cocks a foot long, and no screw under three hours); it also obscures Bolaño's teasing, self-consciously literary tone. He is a relentlessly digressive author, and the book is packed with subplots, details and disquisitions to the point of neurosis. Comparisons have been drawn with Jorge Luis Borges, in his philosophical leanings, and Gabriel García Márquez; a more relevant comparison would be with the encyclopaedic fictions of Herman Melville or Thomas Pynchon (a throwaway reference to alligators in the sewers is surely a nod to V). I was reminded, too, of some of William Blake's more madly thronged engravings. Characters and incidents thread through the five parts, as do motifs and ideas - taxi drivers get beaten up or threatened; characters visit artists confined to lunatic asylums; someone hears a voice, sees a movement, then turns to find no one there; minor characters spout incongruous lists of books they have read; and throughout, there are accounts of dreams, occasionally so dense and vivid that they threaten to engulf the narrative's reality.

At times, the narrative's reality is nudged at by reality itself. Amalfitano's biography overnoticeably with Bolaño's own. The enigma of Archimboldi echoes that of B Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Most importantly, the murders in Santa Teresa shadow a long run of murders in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. That must explain why "The Part about the Crimes" has the feel, at times, of a documentary, and at other times of propaganda, a blunt indictment of misogyny at odds with Bolaño's nuanced imagination. This section is the book's heart, but also provides an instructive metaphor: serial killers are caught by the patterns of their behaviour. But the killings in Santa Teresa are too various, they offer too many patterns - is it one killer, a conspiracy, or just a confluence of evil? Likewise, patterns emerge from 2666, only to disappear in the flood of ideas and experiences. A postscript notes the origins of the title in Bolaño's earlier novel Amulet, when the protagonist compares a deserted street to a cemetery in the distant future, in the year 2666. When the dazzle has faded, what is the pattern that will be left imprinted on your vision? Is it only the omnipresence of death?