A literary rebel born in Chile in 1953, Roberto Bolaño spent much of his adult life as a poet living on the margins of society as he moved from one low-paying job to the next. It was only when he shifted his focus to fiction in his later years that he became a major literary figure and Latin American voice of the 20th century. Bolaño’s massive final novel 2666, which consumed him in his final years, is a stimulating, thrilling and disturbing work, reflecting the writer’s own experience of a life filled with plentiful chaos.
Published posthumously in 2008 (Bolaño passed at the age of 50 in 2003), 2666 serves as a global portrait of the modern world and the artist’s role within it, as well as a culmination of the themes and obsessions woven throughout Bolaño’s body of work. The many events and characters of Bolaño’s literary universe (a world so distinct that critics have coined the term Bolañoverse to describe it) share parallels with the writer’s own time spent in several countries and his dedication to art and those who pursue its creation.
Bolaño was the son of a truck driver (and sometime amateur boxer) and a school teacher. Skinny and near-sighted, he was often bullied at school, and in spite of his dyslexia, he developed a love of books, particularly poetry. As a teenager he moved with his family to Mexico City, where he dropped out of school, ending his formal education. He found work as a journalist, became involved in left-wing politics and continued his self-education through the random method of shoplifting books. His taste encompassed everything from Jorge Luis Borges to Mark Twain, Herman Melville to Philip K. Dick. “The good thing about stealing books,” he quipped in an interview with Argentinean author Mónica Maristain, “is that unlike safes, one can carefully examine their contents before perpetrating the crime.” In 1973, Bolaño returned to Chile to support the embattled regime of Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president. Allende’s reign ended violently on September 11, 1973 after a CIA-sponsored coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In the wake of Allende’s murder, Bolaño was arrested and jailed, and nearly joined thousands of others who were imprisoned, killed or sent into exile. Instead, in an incident he later wrote about in two short stories, “Dance Card” and “Detectives,” he was spotted and released by two former classmates now working as prison guards. Or at least that is the believed sequence of events; as with a number of stories about Bolaño’s life, more than one version exists, with many contested facts. Since 2009, some of his friends and colleagues from his days in Mexico have questioned whether he returned to Chile at all.
By 1975, however, Bolaño was back in Mexico, where he co-founded infrarrealismo, a Surrealist-influenced, anti-status quo poetry movement. He developed a reputation as a literary enfant-terrible and professional provocateur who, according to his editor Jorge Herralde, was “feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody, bursting into literary presentations and readings.” By 1977, the movement had fizzled, and Bolaño left Mexico for Europe, eventually finding his way to Spain where he would spend the rest of his life. He worked as a dishwasher, bellhop, costume jewelry salesman, garbage collector and a night watchman at a campground – a low-paying but intellectually uncompromising job that allowed him time to write often. He met his wife, Carolina López, in the late 1970s, and by 1990 they had a son, Lautaro, and soon after that a daughter, Alexandra. Fatherhood drove Bolaño to shift from poetry to fiction – he felt responsible for the future financial well-being of his family, and thought it would be easier to earn a living writing fiction. His instinct proved correct. Spurred on both by his need to provide and by his failing health (he was already suffering from the effects of the liver disease that would claim his life), he wrote a series of compact, potent novellas. Among them were Distant Star (1996), the story of an airman working for the Pinochet regime who freelances as a murderer of women, and Amulet (1999), set during the army raid of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1968. Then in 1998, he published The Savage Detectives, his most acclaimed book to be released during his lifetime. Set in Mexico City in the 1970s, the novel draws on Bolaño’s past as a revolutionary poet and literary provocateur. In the book’s opening section, Bolaño’s alter ego, Arturo Belano, presides over a haphazard bunch of literary rebels alongside Ulises Lima, a melancholy Mexican poet modeled after Bolaño’s friend and fellow infrarrealiste Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. In the second section, the story abruptly breaks off, switching to a series of testimonials from people who encountered the two poets in the subsequent decades. The novel’s final section jumps back in time to the 1970s, following Belano and Lima as they travel to the desert state of Sonora in Northern Mexico in a quixotic search for a long forgotten figure from Mexico’s avant-garde poetry scene in the 1920s. Their journey takes them to a city called Santa Teresa, a fictional town that would play a central role in the author’s final novel, 2666. The Savage Detectives put Bolaño on the literary map, earning him two of the most prominent prizes in Spanish language literature – the Premio Herralde and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize.
In her 2008 review of the English translation of 2666, The New York Review of Books critic Sarah Kerr wrote, “Bolaño had a deep skepticism about national feeling, and it has been said that his work starts to point the way to a kind of post-national fiction.” When interviewer Maristain asked the writer whether he considered himself Chilean, Spanish or Mexican, he asserted, “I am Latin American.” In writing 2666, which begins in Europe but then travels to Mexico, and whose cast of characters includes – among many others — a depressed Chilean academic living in exile with his Spanish daughter, a novice Mexican homicide detective and an African American journalist, Bolaño crafted an epic of the Americas. The fictional city of Santa Teresa, where much of the novel takes place, made its first appearance in the Bolañoverse in The Savage Detectives. It was here that his pair of vagabond poets traveled in search of their elusive literary hero. In 2666, Bolaño returns to Santa Teresa, but this time the imagined city takes on a much darker, more violent role. He modeled Santa Teresa on the real Northern Mexico city of Cuidad Juárez; Bolaño was inspired by the reporting of Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who spent over a decade investigating the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and 2000s. For Bolaño, the stories Rodríguez covered became “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.”
Like Bolaño himself, the artists in 2666 are marginalized, driven to poverty and madness by their commitment to their art. But they are also the truth tellers, the rebels willing to stand up to the corrupting forces of power and money.
Bolaño was drawn to detective fiction – he even claimed that he should have been a homicide detective rather than a writer. The novel is filled with detectives: from the amateur academic sleuths in the first of its five parts, who are hot on the trail of a mysterious writer, to the reporters and homicide detectives who dominate the third and fourth parts through their investigation of the murders of the women of Santa Teresa. Those murders serve as the malignant core of the novel, and the city of Santa Teresa– with its gaping economic inequity, its American-owned factories beckoning migrants from across Mexico, its violence and corruption and proximity to a vast, anonymous desert—becomes a character in its own right. By drawing on the reality of Ciudad Juárez while crafting his own fictionalized landscape, Bolaño was able to blur the lines between what he knew and what he imagined. And what he imagined is an almost apocalyptic landscape, consumed by violence, madness and greed. But there is something redemptive in Bolaño’s universe as well – and that redemption can be found in the power of art and the heroism of the artist.
Just as 2666 is filled with violence and death, it is also populated with art and artists – poets, painters and novelists who are driven to create in spite of, or because of, the horror that surrounds them. Bolaño named Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes and Moby Dick by Melville as two books that most marked his life – and one can see the idealism and obsession that drove the protagonists of those great works in the characters present in Bolaño’s own great epic – including the artists. In an essay titled “Borges, Bolaño and the Return of the Epic,” author Aura Estrada compares Bolaño to one of his other great influences – the Argentinean short story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges – and argues that both writers saw literature not as a “path to respectability, recognition or personal fulfillment; nor a difficult and perverse means of scaling the social or economic ladder; but rather as a martyrdom or a pilgrimage, or a martyred pilgrimage towards total annulment: the literary nirvana.” He was not, Estrada wrote, concerned with “writing well,” but instead sought to “unmask the atrocities committed in the name of ‘elegance’ and ‘good taste.’” Like Bolaño himself, the artists in 2666 are marginalized, driven to poverty and madness by their commitment to their art. But they are also the truth tellers, the rebels willing to stand up to the corrupting forces of power and money. In Bolaño’s mythology, “poets are beings who have nothing to lose.” But this kind of reckless heroism is not limited to the generative artists in Bolaño’s world. The readers, scholars and lovers of books have a nobility as well, and their journeys to find and understand the artists whose work moves and transforms them is as mad and quixotic as any journey in this massive, unwieldy and wildly moving book.
At one point in the novel, Amalfitano, the Chilean literature professor living in exile in Santa Teresa, asks a young pharmacist what books he likes. The young man replies that he enjoys The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Bartleby by Melville and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. What a sad paradox, Amalfitano thinks, that the young man prefers these authors’ minor works over major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, Bartleby over Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities. Now even bookish young 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. 2666 is clearly Bolaño’s great, imperfect, torrential work, blazing a path into the unknown. Weaving together three continents, hundreds of characters and a history of violence that cuts a deep swath through the 20th century, the book – and the Goodman’s epic adaptation – ends less with an answer than a continuous series of questions. “Instead of completion” argued Kerr, at the end of the novel, “we have the physical sense of being in the presence of a confounding object, which we are not yet done investigating.” Readers – and audiences – will join the ranks of Bolaño’s heroic detectives, diving headlong into a series of confounding mysteries. But perhaps, as one of Bolaño’s characters proposes, “the secret of the world is hidden in them.”
Goodman Theatre thanks the following Donors for their generous support of 2666: