By the time Farrar, Straus and Giroux published 2666 by Roberto Bolaño in 2008 the author had been dead for five years and his reputation as a literary and cultural icon had been established with a series of “smaller” books published by New Directions and what was thought to have been his masterpiece The Savage Detectives. The excitement leading up to the publication of 2666 contained bits and pieces of information concerning the book’s subject matter, its page length, the question of if the book was in fact finished at the time of Bolaño’s death, whether it was a novel, several novels, or something conceptually new, and so on and so forth. FSG could not have hoped for a better marketing campaign as the book sold extremely well once published and went on to win the Nation Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
I have written elsewhere about my obsession with Bolaño and will not rehash that here. The purpose of this piece is to comment upon the re-reading of 2666, a novel that certainly demands to be re-read. The complexities of the beast that is 2666 cannot be understood by a first, second, or even a third reading. The book is like a hallucinatory experience while walking into a house of mirrors. The reader is lead closer and closer to abyss while the landscape is constantly changing and falling away. There is no terra firma here, only the a profound sense of increasing dread as the characters are drawn to the apocalyptic nightmare that is Santa Teresa, a sort of geographical equivalent of the Anti-Christ. As Charles Bowden writes in his book Murder City on Ciudad Juarez, the model for Bolaño’s fictional Santa Teresa, “There are no facts;” instead, there only nightmares.
I began re-reading some of Bolaño’s fiction for an article on the character of Oscar Amalfitano, that sad professor at Santa Teresa University in Sonora. I began re-reading 2666 from the beginning, but with the plan to skip the last chapter about the enigmatic German writer Benno von Archimboldi. The novel begins with a 159-page piece titled “The Part About the Critics.” This part follows four academics, all experts on Archimboldi, around Europe searching for clues to the existence of the Pynchon-like author. Three of the academics wind up in Santa Teresa because of a tip that Archimboldi was recently spotted in Mexico City on his way north to Sonora. The four academics, or critics (Bolaño had little respect for academic critics so the label is pejorative) represent Europe: there is the Frenchman Jean-Claude Pelletier; the Italian Piero Morini; the Spaniard Manuel Espinoza; the Englishwoman Liz Norton. “The first time Pelletier, Morini, Espinoza, and Norton saw each other was at a contemporary German literature conference held in Bremen in 1994.”
It isn’t so much the events which unfold in “The Part About the Critics” that concern me here as it is the experience I am having at re-reading this part for the fourth or fifth time. Most of the text is familiar to me, but with subtle differences and slight details that I had forgotten. For the past several nights I have dreamt of the four critics in disturbing, nightmarish ways. During the day I find it hard to tear my thoughts away from them. On my way to work in the mornings I am playing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds alternatively with Daniel Lanois, and this seems to be a fitting soundtrack to 2666. I think that at times I may be hallucinating. This time around I find that I don’t really like these characters. I am finding them selfish, neurotic, and obsessive. For example, it is only with this fourth or fifth reading that I came to the realization that three of them (Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton) travel to Santa Teresa on the trail of Archimboldi for selfish reasons. Archimboldi is on the short list for the Nobel Prize and the critics want to be the ones to bring him out into the public limelight in order to solidify their own reputations outside the academy. With the exception of Norton, each of the critics has translated works by Archimboldi into their respective languages. Moreover, because they are translators they also look down on other academics that do not speak German or translate. This is, for me, the most realistic element of the portrayal of the academics. Academics, especially in English and foreign languages can be petty, selfish, rude, and egotistical. If you doubt this then just attend an MLA conference. This is not to say that academics in English and foreign languages are this way individually; there is something that happens to a great deal of them when they descend from the skies upon the city chosen for the MLA. Perhaps most of all, academics in these disciplines are highly territorial. Like dragons guarding treasure, some academics (it is only out of a hesitant politeness that I do not write “all academics”) will go to great lengths in the attempt to sabotage the reputation of a fellow academic they see as encroaching on territory. The whole situation could not be more absurd, but is, for the most part, accurate, I assure you. This is the world of the critics as portrayed in 2666.
To paraphrase Umberto Eco, one reads to find out what happens, but one re-reads to find out why those events happened. Serious readers will submerge themselves in a book countless times. Why? To discover the secret of the text, a skeleton key that will unlock the book’s “true” meaning for them. But a book, any book worth re-reading, will contain many secrets, secrets that will evolve and change as the reader evolves and changes. The world of the reader does not stand still and remain stationary, so why would we expect the world of the book to do likewise? A book (and here I am speaking of novels) that contains only one meaning is at risk of becoming petrified. The solidification that a singular meaning carries with it in turn threatens the reader with the same petrifaction. Nevertheless, serious readers will continue to re-read in a hermeneutic process of elimination that can eventually lead to self-loss or madness, which in the end amounts to the same thing, just ask Cervantes.
Reading is a process of elimination. When we lose ourselves in a book we leave a part of ourselves behind. We emerge from the reading changed, for better or worse. And just as the reader takes on aspects of the book being read, the landscapes of the books also attach themselves to the reader. The city of Santa Teresa and the lives of the three academic critics who traveled there hoping to uncover their own secret are a part of my psychological makeup now. I’ve walked the streets with the critics and I’ve been an observer of their lives. In a way I could say that I haunt the text just as much at it haunts me.
I was too preoccupied to find out what was going on to pay close attention during my first reading. Now that I’ve gone back several times I find that I am seeing things differently. The work of Roberto Bolaño is a house of mirrors anyway, so the reader should not necessarily try to find a way out of the narrative, a solution. Instead, the reader should sit back and allow the wave of the text to wash over him or her. Surrender. Submit. Allow the tidal wave of language lead you toward its Dionysian ecstasy.
Corollary. One must reread Bolaño.