Imagine walking the streets of a foreign city late at night. You’ve just arrived after a long, dark drive, and you’ve been warned that this city is notorious for crime. Despite knowing the potential danger, you yearn to investigate your surroundings. You toughen up and prepare to dive deep into an investigation, doing whatever it takes to protect yourself during your “private eye” style quest. Though at first it may not appear obvious, this is the situation in which protagonist Oscar Fate finds himself in Part Three of Robert Falls’ and Seth Bockley’s five-part stage adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, aptly titled “The Part About Fate.”
Bolaño was a fan of pulp fiction and found inspiration for his writing in the detective genre. He stated that if he could not be a writer, he would have wanted to be a homicide detective. While the influence of the detective genre is perhaps most evident in his novel The Savage Detectives, 2666 uses conventions from the noir genre as well. As Daniel Zalewski explained in a 2007 The New Yorker article, “Bolaño’s fiction repeatedly features a noirish hunt for a missing writer. For Bolaño, whose protagonists are usually poets, the detective plot adds bounce to stories that might otherwise seem leadenly preoccupied with literary matters.” This is certainly true of 2666, which begins with a group of European academics on the hunt for an elusive author, Benno von Archimboldi. The academics’ search leads them into the heart of the fictional Santa Teresa, Mexico—a dark city known for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women.
Oscar finds himself in this exact city in the third part of the novel and play, the part that most closely coincides with the conventions of the detective genre. And in particular, Oscar’s journey through Santa Teresa echoes that of one of the most famous American “hard boiled” detectives, Sam Spade. The latter was introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, which was also made into a popular 1941 film by John Huston—now largely considered the first film noir. In the novel, Spade must navigate the mean streets of San Francisco in order to investigate the murder of his business partner, Miles Archer. Similarly, Oscar has to maneuver the terrain of Santa Teresa in 2666 in order to accomplish his assignment as a journalist. Oscar, an investigative reporter from Harlem, New York, comes to the city to cover a boxing match after the sports reporter of the publication he writes for mysteriously dies. But once Oscar arrives in Mexico, he becomes far more interested in investigating the murders of the women working at the local maquiladoras (factories).
Like the audience, Oscar is an outsider in Santa Teresa and thus becomes a surrogate, guiding viewers through the mysterious city. Though he does not actively attempt to solve the murders, he does take an explicit interest in reporting on this ignored mystery. In the play, he tells his editor that he wants to write “a sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world. A piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story…” This line of dialogue both cements Santa Teresa’s role as a noir city and a symbol of sin and also underscores Oscar’s role as the “detective” within this narrative thread of 2666. And though Oscar wants to investigate this story, he soon becomes entrenched with a crowd himself that resonates with the dark and dubious image of Santa Teresa. He attends the boxing match with four locals: Charly, Chucho, Rosa and Rosita. Oscar takes a particular interest in Rosa, but her close friend Rosita could be said to fit the role of another famous noir figure: the femme fatale. While Rosa is the symbolic “damsel in distress” who Oscar feels compelled to protect from the aggressive Chucho, Rosita’s character is more morally ambiguous. In the film noir tradition, femme fatales are both alluring and destructive figures—characteristics Rosita displays throughout her time with Oscar.
Oscar’s relationship with Rosa and her friends also highlights another trait of the detective figure: a morally ambiguous nature. Like the cities they traverse, noir detectives need to be tough–and take some rough actions in the course of their investigations. In the case of Oscar, we see this in his willingness to protect Rosa at all costs–even if it means behaving violently against Chucho. In this sense, though, we also see that Oscar is tough enough to combat what he finds in Santa Teresa. Thus, Oscar’s journey in the play also highlights Santa Teresa’s role within 2666 as a symbol for evil and the ills of humanity. Like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Oscar finds himself hardened by what he witnesses in the city around him. Just as Spade’s resolve to find justice for his business partner represents a human side to his character, Oscar’s willingness to protect Rosa adds a bit of hope into the bleak landscape of city life in 2666.