Sunday, May 31, 2009


by Roberto Bolano

After completing Summer Reading Project #1, I'm left reeling, pooped, exhausted, confused, relieved, sad, happy, content, full. Over the past few weeks, this almost 900-page novel had become my part-time moonlighting job.

This book, this mammoth, was the homecoming queen of 2008. I remember reading tons of blogs and articles about it at the end of last year. Time magazine named it Book of the Year. It was everywhere. First published posthumously in 2004 in Spanish, it was translated and published in English last year. Bolano had mostly completed the novel when he died in 2003, at the age of 50, of liver disease. He had wanted each of the five parts of the book to be published separately, but I guess the publishers liked it better as a whole.

1. "The Part About the Critics"

The first part follows four European literary critics who are obsessed with a reclusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi (definitely a non-German name). They are scholars of his work but they've never met the writer and they know very little about him or his personal life. They come to learn that his last known whereabouts are in a Mexican town on the U.S.-Mexican border, Santa Teresa. In a desperate attempt to locate the old man, they go to Mexico but have no luck finding even a trace of Archimboldi.

2. "The Part About Amalfitano"

In this part we get to know a philosophy professor who teaches in Santa Teresa. We first meet him in Part I, where he is a minor character -- a guide for the literary critics. Now we learn more about his life, his daughter. Perhaps he is slowly going insane. He hangs a geometry book on a clothes line outside, a la Marcel Duchamp, to see how the pages? the ideas? survive the elements. I could have done without this section of the novel.

3. "The Part About Fate"

This part follows an African-American journalist sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match between an American fighter and a Mexican opponent. He meets Lola, Amalfitano's daughter. He also learns about the deaths of many women in Santa Teresa and wishes to stay in town to write an article about these serial crimes.

4. "The Part About the Crimes"

The longest and most difficult part. Bolano catalogues the hundreds of women who have been killed in Santa Teresa. They were wearing such and such clothes, they had such and such wounds, their such and such bones were broken, they were such and such raped. The police have a suspect in custody, a German named Klaus Haas, but the murders keep happening. Are the police detectives incompetent? Are they part of a conspiracy, a drug cartel?

5. "The Part About Archimboldi"

We meet Archimboldi at last, learn about his small-town childhood, follow him to World War II, meet his family, his friends, his lovers, trace his steps as a writer. Is every single question answered? No. And while that's certainly maddening, it almost makes the novel stronger.

This novel is bizarre and superb, and all of those critics and bloggers and commentators did not lead me astray. On a final note, New York Magazine picked its "Five Most Unskippable Passages in 2666" which I very well plan to go back and re-read. My personal favorite sentence in the book comes from Part V, when Archimboldi is renting his first typewriter from an old man and the old man says: "Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it's knowledge and questions." Right on.

5 out of 5

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