2666 – Roberto Bolaño: review

2666, Roberto Bolaño. *****

Bolaño’s tour de force takes visceral realism – a poetic movement first coined in The Savage Detectives – to the Nth degree. The sheer absurdity of Bolaño’s scope and vision when world-building is breathtaking, mind boggling.

The Part about the Crimes is essential reading. As a feminist text, Bolaño uses forensic reports as a device to ensure no glorification of the rapes and killings can take place: the horrific deaths of young women, many of whom remain unidentified, are stacked up as case files in front of the reader. This is visceral realism. Factual descriptions relay each hideous murder; it is a very deliberate undertaking that the reader is forced to confront each of these female deaths. And there are literally hundreds. So heavy going was this 400-page section, that it took me a month to complete. Intermittently, female homicides not linked to the killing spree appear as coroner’s reports. This further emphasises the singular lack of safety that women face in fictional Santa Teresa. It is not a stretch to reflect on the basic welfare of women inhabiting the real world.

This main section of the text is an ordeal for the reader. The approach contrasts so spectacularly with the time-lapse, almost cartoon panel-whiz through the Second World War in the finale: The Part about Archimboldi. The intimate, detailed focus on femicide in Mexico sharply contrasts with the Boy’s Own Adventure of Reiter, the German Soldier, who survives the war without killing a single enemy combatant. Simiralrly, the way Zimmer, a German civil servant, passes off his role in the genocide of the Jews he mistakenly takes delivery of dramatically contrasts with the section that has proceeded it. It suggests how easy it can be to gloss over historical atrocities, to wash yours hand of them or say: not my problem.

2666 explores feminism in literature and society: Norton, the female Professor, takes many lovers, even sharing two of her male colleagues, and eventually settling down with a third. At no point does Bolaño’s portrayal of her behaviour conjure the words slut or whore; a description she would no doubt receive from certain male perspectives. Had the gender roles been switched, those same male voices would have celebrated Norton’s Casanovian spirit. Retrospectively, The Part about the Critics is so important in proceeding the killing spree: there is no opportunity to victim-blame, as so frequently happens in 21st century media.

2666 explores death and violence. It forms a contemporary commentary: in 2017, you can turn away from the news, you can turn off the TV and opt out. And yet conversely, our lives seem so saturated with instant, 24/7 news, that you can find yourself zoning out of the reporting of even the most horrific murders or terror atrocities.

By electing to read 2666, which at all times remains a work of fiction, the reader is forced to confront these issues in a way that the social media age has so harmfully dehumanised. By forcing yourself through The Part about the Crimes, it’s not “just another day” of news to tune out from. What is truly concerning is that it takes a work of fiction to make you realise this.

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