Rather than let this blog die a slow, agonizing death because of my weekly posts on Internet Monk, I have decided to do a read-through of 2666 by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. 2666 is a departure for me, as I usually read speculative literature, and Bolaño, although I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call him a “mainstream” writer, is not a writer of speculative fiction. He also doesn’t fit neatly into the niche that aficionados of Latin American literature like to call ‘magic realism’. 2666 isn’t even considered his best book, although it was his last book, and supposedly, the one that killed him.
I cannot make any pontifical judgments about Bolaño because 2666 is the only thing I have read by him, and I have only read the first 125 or so pages of what is close to 1000 pages. So writing this will be very much le passage du vierge au marié. In addition, I have not read a lot of “serious” late 20th century literature. Supposedly, there are a baker’s half-dozen great living American writers; Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, William Vollmann, Sarah Addison Allen. None of the people whose lists I read include John Crowley, but I would. So, from all the works of these eight authors, I have read Blood Meridian, Omega Point, Tar Baby, and bits and pieces of The Ice Shirt, Crying Of Lot 49, and Underworld. That’s it. Oh yeah, I’ve read Little, Big as well, and I would stack it against any of those others. I just say this so you’ll know you’re not dealing with a heavyweight literature wonk that eats Derrida and drinks Wittgenstein. I am just an ordinary book lover interacting with an extraordinary writer.
Bolaño is extraordinary in that I believe he believes that literature matters. That is an uncommon opinion these days. DeLillo’s book Omega Point in particular is so nihilistic that it even calls into question the use of language itself, foreseeing a frigid autistic future where all of us will be bound within the isoglosses of our own idiolects. Communication will not so much be impossible as just not worth the effort. The endless repetition of ritual motions will be so much more engaging. So far, although Bolaño seems to be acutely aware of the decline and decay of nearly everything, he refuses to play the Asperger’s card. From what I have read so far, I think Bolaño had something he wanted to say, and it sounds important enough that he was willing to race against his own mortality to say it.
I am reading 2666 in translation. Reading in Spanish is still tough sledding for me. Everything I have read about Roberto Bolaño is that his Spanish is muy picante, very flavorful. Bolaño travelled widely and his works contain a lot of slang from a lot of different Spanish-speaking countries. I have a PDF of 2666 in Spanish, and his Spanish doesn’t seem to be insurmountable. If I run into a part in the translation where it looks like it might merit a glance at the original, I have it at hand. Vargas Llosa’s La Tia Julia y El Escribidor was a lot harder, and I don’t think I could have finished that book if I hadn’t married a Peruvian and thus was passing familiar with Peruvian idiom. Bolaño’s Spanish seems much more cosmopolitan to me, more like ‘Spanish as a world language’. Compare it to the way V. S. Naipaul or Junot Díaz write in “World English” if you like.
As I mentioned before, Bolaño writes as though literature matters. He says about certain works
“What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish 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. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Literature is, or should be, about being human, and being human is not for wussies or cowards. It is not something you agree to. It is not something that comes with a thirty day (or even thirty year) satisfaction-guaranteed warranty. It will certainly break your heart at least once, maybe several times. I have a suspicion that Bolaño himself had his heart deeply broken by being human. 2666 starts out with a depiction of four friends, professors of German literature in different European universities. Despite the cruel satire with which Bolaño portrays academic life in second-tier universities, there is never any sense that the four friends are wasting their time, or that they are spending their lives in a fruitless pursuit.