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1st October, 2020

By Farisori - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty.

Roberto Bolaño

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.

Charles Baudelaire, epigraph to 2666

Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953 but spent most of his adult life in Mexico and Spain, where he died in 2003. He came to prominence posthumously, with his first novel, The Savage Detectives, gaining international recognition a few years after his death. His magnum opus, 2666, was still being finalised when he died, and he had originally planned its five sections as separate novels. At 900 pages in the English translation, it is not a light read, but I believe it repays every single page.

2666 is largely set in Mexico, where it revolves around a huge chain of grisly murders of women, although its opening section concerns four literary academics and takes place between Europe and London. Pelletier, Espinoza and British woman Liz Norton, along with a translator, Piero Morini, wheelchair-bound due to MS, are drawn together by a mutual fascination with the work of a mysterious German author known only as Archimboldi. They resolve to track down the elusive writer, and their companionship soon leads to a ménage à trois between the first three. They travel to various European symposiums on Archimboldi, including one in which they hear a Swabian writer lecture, and who claims to have met the German with the Italian name. He tells a strange tale, which sets the tone for 2666. It is a novel which, in that indefinably mysterious Latin American novelistic tradition, is composed of tales within tales.

Things between the three lovers become fraught. Pelletier and Espinoza, quite out of character, badly beat up a troublesome taxi driver in London. Morini’s health declines. Without wishing to issue any spoilers, the ménage à trois ends in the most surprising way possible. The academic colleagues pursue an artist across Europe because he claims to have known Archimboldi. The man is most famous for one particular work of art which features his painting hand, which he amputated himself, suspended in front of a canvas. The mere presence of the mysterious writer of mysterious books in the lives of the students begins to bring in its wake chaos and disorder. And then, suddenly, we are in Santa Teresa, Mexico, to see a man called Amalfitano.

Amalfitano is a 50-year-old Chilean professor of philosophy and, as with writers such as Conrad and Lawrence, although you never feel Bolaño presents a complete autobiographical sketch in the form of any of his characters, they still seem present as fragmented, aspects of themselves appearing amid the dramatis personae. Amalfitano, new to town, has a 17-year-old girlfriend, Rosa, whose mother Lola is scouring Europe looking for a poet with whom she once had a fling before locating him in an insane asylum. There is always the sense that 2666 will go off the rails into surreal farce – it is not, thankfully, of the genre known as magic realism - yet it maintains its equilibrium, like a very serious drunk. Also, once we are in Mexico, we begin to feel ourselves in the middle of that lazy, sensual, existential emptiness that provides the ground-note for so much Latin American literature. It is not long before the murders begin, and this short section ends, replaced by a meditation on journalism.

All five sections are identically titled save for their subject matter: The Part about the Critics, The Part about Amalfitano, and so on. When I reached the third section, The Part about Fate I was naturally expecting the grim visitor pounding on the door at the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but Oscar Fate turns out to be an American journalist sent, outside his usual brief, to cover a boxing match in Mexico when the boxing correspondent of his magazine is killed in a mob hit. ‘Oscar Fate’ is not his real name, which is Quincy Williams. We are never told why.

Fate is told about the murders by another journalist, and contacts his editor to try to persuade him, unsuccessfully, to let him cover the story. This section is fulfilling not least because it revolves around race – Fate is black - without ever, unlike our brave new world of sensitivity readers and Black Lives Matter, descending into a screed about racism.

The Part about the Crimes lists, exhaustively and with a grisly rhythmic tempo, the slaughter of 112 women in and around Santa Teresa in the mid 1990s. The main sub-plot revolves around police inspector Juan de Dos Martinez who, having met the directress of a local sanitarium, Elvira Campo, older than him, begins a temperamental and passionate affair with her. Parallel to the ongoing serial killings, Martinez has to marshal his incompetent police force as they try to solve the regular incidents of urination and defecation on local church altars by an unknown criminal known as ‘The Penitent’.

At this point, with suspicion playing around the action like a desert dust-storm that the mysterious novelist, a man with a German name held by Mexican police, may be a suspect in the murders, spoilers would be inevitable with any more explanation of the narrative. Suffice to say that in the final section, The Part about Archimboldi, one of the tales within tales is an extended story of a German soldier on the Eastern Front during World War 2, and proves that Bolaño as a novelist is just as much at home writing of this period as he is with the emptiness and moral nausea of 1990s Mexico. Each of the small sub-narratives is a masterpiece in itself, combining to form a novel all the more fascinating and compelling for its individual parts as for the sum.

2666 is no mere babuschka doll of a novel, stories inside the story proper but each integral to the others. Instead, it is a patchwork quilt of small entropic episodes from disparate lives which may occasionally interleave but in which the characters remain alone. It is a lonely novel, despite its vast cast. Decay, destruction and death are the suns around which it orbits, and yet the galaxy it unfolds is vitally alive.

This is a very modern novel and yet its themes are ancient, as old as writing itself. The small chain of disasters each life unravels into somehow bolster the integrity of each of the characters as they pass on and off the central stage. 2666 is both desperate and strangely uplifting, a tale of what it is to live and die, of the central paradox of life as both vital and shot through with its own hearts of darkness. This is Daedalus’ labyrinth with no Ariadne’s thread and in which each character is his or her own minotaur.

I will let Bolaño himself, a man who for once we can honestly say died far too young, sign off this review. This is from a black pastor’s speech about reading in prison and, although lengthy, it is worth every word. It is from my favourite of the novellas that make up 2666, The Part About Fate, and although I wasn’t desperate when I read it, nor did it save my life, this novel – which I have read three times and can’t wait until I have forgotten enough about it to make that four - made me think long and deep about that life. What else, in all conscience, can we ask from literature?

‘I was doing something useful. Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach. And you, who are so kind, now you must be asking: what did you read, Barry? I read everything. But I especially remember a certain book I read at one of the most desperate moments of my life and it brought me peace again. What book do I mean? What book do I mean? Well, it was a book called An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire, and I promise you that is one useful book, or at least it was of great use to me’.

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