Saturday, May 1, 2010

2666, by Roberto Bolaño

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them. —Oscar Fate, 2666
I'm aware of two authors who have made lasting formal innovations in the novel during my adult life: W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño.

Both writers died—Sebald in a car accident; Bolaño, as predicted, of liver failure—precisely when they were becoming internationally recognized as major figures in world literature.

Not surprisingly, they were exploring the same phenomena: the decadence of civilization, organized evil, the transformation of beauty by science, an obsession with literature, the relationship between storytelling and love. Bolaño adds to this list an unapologetic fascination with the connection between sex and violence, suggesting that the two are not merely interrelated by indistinguishable.

The reader's great fortune, of course, is to see the difference in their formal approaches to those phenomena. They could hardly be more different. And yet like all great art both possess an aura of inevitability.

With each passing week, 2666 looks more and more like the great novel of our time. Like all great novels, it's prophetic—by which I mean: it announces, in advance of everyone else, where the seeds of our destruction lie buried. Dostoyevsky foresaw the destruction of Europe in the death of Christianity and the displacement of 19th century liberalism by totalitarianism aligned with science. In our case, Bolaño sees our doom sprouting in a dusty desert Mexican city named Ciudad Juárez.

Five years ago, to declare Ciudad Juárez the source of our doom would have seemed crazy. No longer. Mexico's descent into madness and our inability (political, moral, economic, aesthetic) to cope with that descent looks more and more like Yeats's rough beast. And the rise of the police state in Arizona demonstrates that we're placing our hopes for the future in armed conflict. History has given us plenty of lessons on what happens next.

I suppose it's a shame that Bolaño didn't quite finish his book. Like The Savage Detectives, it suffers from untidiness. On the other hand, untidiness is no doubt one of its ambitions, being a repudiation of the myths of control and perfection that Bolaño saw as dishonest and dangerous ugliness. He spent his youth, after all, in exile from Pinochet's Chile.

2666 can be exceedingly difficult to read. The long middle section, called "The Part About the Crimes," gives us an unblinking collage of the murders of hundreds of girls. I don't know how Bolaño intuited that the 1990s murders of girls in Ciudad Juárez foretold the dissolution of the Mexican state—and possibly the beginning of the end of liberalism in the Americas. Regardless, the question now is, What else does this novel foretell, that we're still failing to see?

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