Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 898 pp., $30
There is an unwittingly funny passage in the Spanish edition of Ignacio Echevarría's introduction to "El Secreto del Mal," a still-untranslated collection of Roberto Bolaño's stories, a passage that could easily have been cribbed from one of Jorge Luis Borges' metafictions or, more to the point, from one of Bolaño's. Echevarría observes that Bolaño's work is "governed by a poetics of incompleteness." Bolaño tends to interrupt his stories with other stories, and those with other tales in turn. He spends page after page building tension, then mischievously buries the climax or neglects it altogether. This makes it difficult to determine, Echevarría laments, which "among the pieces that he did not end up publishing can be considered finished."
A good trick. Less funny, though, than it could be, because we know that "2666," Bolaño's last and greatest novel, was not completed to the author's satisfaction when he died at 50 in 2003 while awaiting a liver transplant. "There are more than a thousand pages that I have to correct," he told a Chilean newspaper a month before his death. "It's a job for a 19th century miner." Despite the book's unfinished state, Bolaño left instructions that the five subsections that comprise "2666" be released separately, hoping this arrangement would better provide for his children. Fortunately, his heirs disobeyed him and published "2666" as a single giant work, strange and marvelous and impossibly funny, bursting with melancholy and horror.
Most of Bolaño's earlier novels and much of his poetry have dealt in one way or another with the political convulsions that shook Latin America in the '60s and '70s. Bolaño, who was born in Chile, moved with his parents to Mexico City as a teenager in 1968, the year of the student massacre at Tlatelolco.
Five years later, after the election of Salvador Allende, he returned to his birthplace "to help build socialism," he said, but arrived in time to witness its defeat. After Pinochet's coup, Bolaño was arrested and briefly jailed. He went back to Mexico City, where he co-founded a group of proto-punk poet-provocateurs called the Infrarealists, whose absurdist reign he mythologized in the novel "The Savage Detectives." "Our ethics is Revolution, our aesthetics is Life: one-single-thing," Bolaño wrote in the first -- and only -- Infrarealist Manifesto.
Throughout his work, literature and politics would remain inextricably bound. The revolution was to have been fought not just with bullets, but in the everyday, and through poetry. By 1977, though, his faith had collapsed. Bolaño left for Europe, intending the impossible: "to live outside literature." He would remain there, vagabonding about for years, ultimately settling in Spain and trying, on the page, to come to terms with the failure of his generation's insurrectionary hopes, with what in one poem he would describe as "that unnamable thing, part of the dream, that many years later / we will call by various names meaning defeat."
So it should come as no surprise that Bolaño's writing would be obsessed with writers, and specifically with the relationship writers have to power. His "Nazi Literature in the Americas" is a collection of short biographies of imagined neo-fascist authors, variously enamored with violence and authority. "Distant Star" expands into a novella one of those chapters -- about a pilot who, when he is not writing cryptic verses across the sky, lends a hand to Pinochet's death squads. And "By Night in Chile" records the confession of a poet, critic and priest who, of all things, tutored the dictator in Marxist thought.
In "2666," Bolaño for the first time lays aside the great disappointment of the 1970s. He is not any less interested, though, in literature and power. All but one of "2666's" five sections focus on scribblers of one sort or another: the first on a comically repugnant group of European academics who specialize in the work of a reclusive German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi; the second on a sad, Bolaño-like, Chilean exile professor of philosophy; the third on a black American journalist weightily named Oscar Fate; the last on the mysterious Archimboldi himself.
Writers fill the ranks of the minor characters too. Few come off very well. A Nazi journalist transformed into a tramp by Hitler's defeat whines that "he had been a coward, but never a Nazi, not a real Nazi. . . . We wrote what they told us to write." The Soviet sci-fi novelist Ivanov understands "a real writer" to be "a responsible person with a certain level of maturity. . . . Above all, he had to keep his voice down, unless everyone else was raising his." Then there's the Mexican writer "known to his friends as El Cerdo" (the Pig), who, having learned that "distancing oneself from power is never good," stopped writing and started carrying a pistol after becoming a high-ranking cultural official.
Yet if distance from power remains, for Bolaño, a measure of literary virtue, the characters who resist the lures of the powerful don't fare much better. Bolaño rewards them with anonymous deaths, endless wanderings, madness. At one point a French essayist, "a vanished writer himself," escorts Archimboldi to "a house for the vanished writers of Europe, a place of refuge." It takes Archimboldi a few hours to understand he's in a madhouse. He promptly flees. If there is a lesson here, it's that no one gets to rest.
And how could they? "2666's" major story lines converge in the fictional northern Mexican city of Santa Teresa, a stand-in for the industrial border town of Ciudad Juárez, where, since the early 1990s, the bodies of more than 400 women and girls have appeared, usually raped and sometimes mutilated. Asked in the last interview he gave how he imagined hell, Bolaño answered, "Like Ciudad Juárez, which is our curse and our mirror."
Through the frightened eyes of the Archimboldi scholars, he describes Santa Teresa in Boschian terms: "To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and they even watched a match . . . between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame, or mutilated or blind, and sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras."
In "2666's" fourth and longest section -- "The Part About the Crimes," it's called -- Bolaño describes the discovery of each cadaver found in Santa Teresa in cold, forensic detail. It is painful to read, and difficult to put down. Women's bodies are left like sacks of trash in alleys and makeshift dumps, in the lots outside the maquiladoras, in arroyos and in the open desert. Police investigations are cursory when not willfully inept. The press is bored with the story. "No one pays attention to these killings," someone -- he can't remember who -- tells Fate, "but the secret of the world is hidden in them."
This is no ordinary whodunit, but it is a murder mystery. Santa Teresa is not just a hell. It's a mirror also -- "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant, useless metamorphosis." It is a city of migrants drawn from points south by the proximity of the United States and work in the foreign-owned maquiladoras: "[b]adly paid and exploitative work, with ridiculous hours and no union protections, but work, after all." The many currents of the contemporary globalized economic order, with all its inequities and waste, converge there. Santa Teresa is, quite literally, the secret of our world, the blood-stained back door to the frail stage-set of North American affluence.
Bolaño was not being simply ironic in naming the city after a saint famous for her ecstatic encounters with the divine. He wrote "2666" in a race against death. His ambitions were appropriately outsized: to make some final reckoning, to take life's measure, to wrestle to the limits of the void. So his reach extends beyond northern Mexico in the 1990s to Weimar Berlin and Stalin's Moscow, to Dracula's castle and the bottom of the sea. A Bobby Seale-like ex-Black Panther shares gourmet recipes from the pulpit of a Detroit church. A fascist Romanian general is crucified by his own troops. A detective named Juan de Dios sits in his kitchen and sobs without tears. Sisyphus pushes a stone to the top of a hill. Stories sprout from other stories. Digression rules. Nothing is ever finished, nothing answered, nothing solved. Bolaño is too smart, or too sad, to attempt to piece it all together. He leaves it to a minor character -- an artist confined to an asylum, no less -- to point the finger at a "senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous explosion, we find communion."
Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."