Category Archives: literature

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.
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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.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón: review 

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ***1/2 

The Shadow of the Wind is an ode to gothic thrillers, love stories, whodunnits, The Phantom of the Opera, the Empire Strikes Back, the people of Barcelona and, most importantly, all of those who treasure literature.
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The adventure begins in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the most overt metaphor for the loss of literature consuming the 21st century (of which there are many).

The protagonist, Daniel, is full of adolescent awkwardness; the journey through his teenage years resonates. Full of empathy and intrigue, Daniel makes for a fantastic focal point around whom the local community ebb and flow.

The novel’s moral compass, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a revelation. Human quote machine, spiritual guardian to Daniel, womaniser extraordinaire and possessor of a fantastically developed appetite for life (and good food). Given a second chance when found in the streets by Daniel, the two characters are the source of huge emotional investment from the reader.

The mystery driving the narrative ticks along at great pace. The real life situations of the local community weave in and out of Daniel and Fermín’s work in his father’s book shop. Their investigations, which in turn lead to love, loss and love again, lead them up many a blind alley. The action that intersperses the romance and mystery is superbly written, and Zafón conjures two very authentic Barcelona’s: aristocracy and nobility rule the first, whilst the Civil War has engulfed the second.

Unfortunately, the phenomenal effort of building the setting and characters is all but destroyed during the big reveal. A 90 page letter from a recently deceased character, to be read only upon their death, reveals all of the mystery.

The investment in the characters for this pay off is gutting, and lazy. The action does pick back up, but by then the magic has dissipated. A shame.

Bolaño – The Savage Detectives: review

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño. Picador. *****

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Stumbling across Bolaño’s Savage Detectives at the staff book swap left me reminiscing over my discovery of Borge’s Collected Fictions. Fittingly, Detectives struck my like a bolt of lightening. And they say that lightening doesn’t strike twice.

Overtly autobiographic (the main character’s name is Belano), stylistically Borges-hero worship, for great swathes this fantastical text is more poetry than novel.

Bolaño’s work is an exquisite demonstration of descriptive prose. The world-building is sublime. Jumping from continent to continent, through a generation of characters who serve as friends, lovers, admirers and enemies, the reader can’t help but get lost in it all. Countries and cities that the reader has never visited, appear in the mind as though traversed daily. The building and crumbling of friendships and relationships similarly engross the reader. There is just so much to see here.

The book is book-ended by the diary entries of a testosterone-fuelled teenage poet. Said poet hero worships Belano, and his accomplice Lima, setting the scene for a phenomenal journey out of 1970’s Mexico City and in to the 21st century. The enormous Act II encompasses the adventures the protagonists take from teenage poet-revolutionaries to middle aged men. This expanse is narrated from the points-of-view of those who know (or think they know) the poets best.

So fascinated by the autobiographical nature of the fiction, I read all I could find on the author. This unsolicited Bolaño quote captivated me:

“[Literature] is the product of a strange rain of blood, sweat, semen, and tears.”

The Savage Detectives is emphatically that. This tale of two vagabond poets is so beautifully written, so painstakingly constructed, that after 580 pages the reader is so consumed by the characters’ worlds that you can be forgiven for assuming you had really been there, an innocent observer throughout.

This is the second Spanish-to-English translated work I have come across by complete fluke. This coincidence, the similarities with the work of Borges, and my absolute absorption in Bolaño/Belano’s world demanded further reading.

My next challenge is 2666, Bolaño’s tour de force, which will provide me with plenty of reading over the Christmas break.