2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Jack Delano, East bound track of the Santa Fe R.R. across desert country near South Chaves, New Mexico.
Je dois cette nouvelle traduction en anglais d’une de mes notes à l’amabilité de Douglas Robertson. Rappel Toutes les langues (ou presque) dans la Zone.
Bien que je n’aie encore pu lire les différents articles critiques et témoignages composant ce dossier auquel François Monti et Éric Bonnargent ont participé parmi d’autres noms nettement plus insignifiants comme celui de Guillaume Vissac, je signale à mes lecteurs que le dernier numéro de la revue Cyclocosmia est consacré à Roberto Bolaño. Avant même d’avoir parcouru les pages de cette revue et d’en relever les qualités et les défauts, ce que je ferai peut-être, force est de constater qu’il s’agit d’un bel objet.
This text, which one may term an attempt at kaleidoscopic criticism, is to be subsumed in its entirety under the baleful sign of Bifurcaria bifurcata. I have dedicated it to François Monti, who, through his excellent notes, made me discover the novels of Roberto Bolaño.
“From that which is lost, irremediably lost, I desire to recover only the day-to-day availability of my writing, a few lines capable of seizing me by the hair and setting me back on my feet when my body is no longer capable of doing so.” Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp (Christian Bourgeois, translated by Roberto Amutio), p. 123.
“When they arrived, the vanished writers were in the dining room, having supper and watching the news on TV. There were lots of them, and almost all of them were French, which surprised Archimboldi, who had never imagined there were so many vanished writers in France. ” Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2008*), p. 857.
“2666 es uno de esos monumentos que han llegado para quedarse, para permanecer. Bolaño, para nuestra felicidad, y con modales de faraón todopoderoso pero mortal y ateo, ha erigido esta pirámide que lo sobrevive y lo honrará por siempre. Pirámide frente a la que nosotros, afortunados testigos, turistas privilegiados — como suele suceder con las pirámides –, no dejaremos nunca de preguntarnos, una y otra vez, cómo cuernos fue que lo hizo.” Rodrigo Fresán.
It’s obvious: these are certainly not the very mediocre articles of the so-called French literary press, with the exception, perhaps, of Philippe Lançon’s review in Libération (itself making a pretty poor showing alongside the meditation on the impossibility of writing a review of 2666, rather than a review, signed by Roger Fresán in El País), which can teach us something, whatever that may be, about 2666. At best they allow us to read, without our holding the book in our hands, a quarter of its dust-jacket, and perhaps even, in the case of the finest of these journalistic essayasters, the press kit that came in the mail with Bolaño’s novel. Thus the reader who has read on the Web the cloned texts devoted to the posthumous novel of this magnificent Chilean writer will have been astonished to learn that his last book is: big, even very big, that it mixes together all the literary genres (not true), that it is an epic, that it is colorful, that it is apocalyptic (not true, since it reveals nothing), that it evokes love, sex, corruption, fear, solitude, death and evil, like practically every book ever written or even dreamt about since the invention of writing, and that, even so, since it is big and even very big, nay, positively imposing, this was the minimum that he was entitled to expect of such a massive tome. Not much? No, to the contrary, it is the very most that literary criticism as practiced by the media and the reviews seems capable of producing. Moreover, we should not castigate it at all unfairly, this gabby eunuch jobbing in the noble profession of criticism: it is illusory, after a single reading of 2666, perhaps even after a second and third, with pen in hand, and index cards duly filled out, to pretend to write anything other than generalities. François Monti besides, in a magnificent outline of an essay, has evoked this impossibility, for the moment, of entering this novel, of indeed burrowing to its center, and thence extending its not infinite but assuredly very numerous beams. We shall try to deliver some generalities that at least Christian Bourgois’s press kit has not whispered at all. Let us hope also that the publisher will have the idea of delivering to the public the notebook that Bolaño kept, according to Ignacio Echevarría, during the revision of his tentacular novel, which will doubtless be of service to the critics, at least the true critics (the false ones will content themselves with reading through the same quarter of the dust jacket again, and if they have the time, the first ten pages and the conclusion of this book-to-be), to do their work correctly, to blaze new trails, to set aside false clues, to heap up coruscating hypotheses in short, to discharge their duties in the crow’s nest more or less punctiliously. To complete our list of this novel’s virtues, I shall add that 2666 is, by dint of its intention, of its excessiveness, ultimately of its range (I have absolutely not spoken of style, inseparable from a book that I have read only in Robert Amutio’s admittedly excellent translation), a book absolutely a thousand cubits above the most ambitious French novel written in these last thirty years. Noble souls, scandalized by that which they will take for exaggerations, approximations, ridiculous schematizations, will have a new occasion to ponder the incapacity of French literature, with a few rare exceptions, like that of Julien Capron’s first novel, Amende honorable, to hoist itself up to a height that is in fact a well, the well of literature that does not content itself with playing at being Lautréamont in a scarf and slippers, at being the space cadet brought up on Albator, Cobra and, in the best case, Avalon, at being the aging bimbo, worn out like a white sock in the bathtub of the festivo-public(l)ito-performativo-megalo-pseudo-literary man, shaking his butt more than his leg at Parisian cocktail parties and confusing Kierkegaard with a brand of Danish toothpaste, at being the aged, egolatrous whore, dragging along her peremptory disgust at everything, at literature, and subsequently at herself, distilling her hatred and her immense cupidity into books that have less density than a soap bubble, even at being the feminist workers of Saint Ovary the Redeemer, who, as is well known of these theologians of ugliness (often their own ugliness, the invincible lack of femininity of the feminists, these women who are nothing of the sort by dint of wanting to be women at any price), are none too keen on men and yet devour them like an irascible and insatiable idol. I believe I have faithfully summarized the principal tendencies of contemporary French literature. This preamble permits us, I hope, to observe that the incompetence of almost all the novels that are written in France is equalled only by the almost total incompetence of the critics who sing the praises of certain insignificant qualities thereof that have already been harped on about a thousand times. Parasites are intoxicated by the meat that they consume, it is a self-evident law of every food pyramid. Whence comes this undeniable incompetence? Its causes (political, sociological, economic, historical, and of course spiritual, the former ones being of an invisible order) are multiple, complex, ancient of course, but there is one that seems to me to be bizarrely underestimated: French publishers publish a great deal of shit (the word, an elegant one, is that of Gilles Cohen Solal, an editor at the blog of his colleague Léo Scheer) that they themselves perhaps cannot manage to regard as literature. Fortunately, the press attachées and their friends the journalists, who have a sense of smell as underdeveloped as their sense of sight, get wind of nothing. A pile of shit that is normalized, standardized, perfomativized, well calibrated to deliver to us its most subtle aromas of sex, of violence, of contrite political correctness, of the hatred of France, of its history, of its most illustrious authors, of the hatred of God, of the love of the poor, of the marginal, even if it is not artistic, of the crippled, of the homeless person, of the brown, of the black, of the yellow, of the red, of the entire earth in its variegated diversity with the exception of that country of arrogant and capitalistic white colonizers that is France; a turd of biological origin to give pleasure to the ecologists and thereby to obtain a governmental rubber stamp certifying its undeniable traceability, a turd having the shape of time (square) as well as its smell (bad, as goes without saying) and consistency (crumbly). Let us be frank here: 90% of the time that a literary critic, whether amateur or professional (but especially professional) devotes to reading French novels is time wasted on filling his lungs with a languorous, rapid, delicate, violent, exalting, depressive, jubilant, nauseating, sordid, divine cloud of distilled shit. Having defended tooth and nail those 10% (all right, let us be optimistic : 20%) of novels that do credit to French literature, I have no lesson of any sort to learn from anyone, be he an author, a publisher, a journalist, a critic, or a blogger. Is this sufficiently clear? Do I really need to recall a specific passage written by Robert Bolaño himself who, in 2666, which makes fun of vanished writers, almost all of them French for some reason, grouped together in a psychiatric asylum (pp. 856–861) and questions himself, without giving us either a convincing or satisfying answer (perhaps because the titles that they have chosen are all excellent, and were all written by masters), about the astonishing tropism that impels readers to choose minor books rather than great ones ?: “Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. 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 terrified us all, that something that comes us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” (p. 227).
Like all great novels, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a novel that evokes other novels, an infinity of texts, in a metaphorical, circuitous, harebrained, or quite real way. However, this labyrinth of literature in which we lost ourselves during hours of reading that were as joyous and full of admiration as those devoted to Gass’s Tunnel were long and painful, does not conceal at its center the terrible Minotaur that José Bergmamín called the novelistic monster. In losing himself in the infinite library that owes as much to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges as to Ernesto Sábato’s trilogy of novels, Roberto Bolaño has but a single idea in mind: to embrace reality at any price, to seize the raw material of our everyday life, so that we may be critics, killers, whores, or simple adolescents (sometimes, these are whores) whose body has been abandoned at the bottom of an illegal garbage dump in South America. Does he succeed? No novelist can claim to have captured even the most minuscule particle of the most insipid reality. And yet, as God is practically absent from 2666, as this book may even be regarded as an atheistic artistic masterpiece, which, according to George Steiner, is an aberration, I must admit that the Chilean novelist is sometimes quite close to a revelation. Not a reality that would be given to him in triplicate or centuplicate, we all know that real life, which is absent, is all the same a bit less present when it is chock-full of art and, particularly, of literature. Not the accession to Mallarmé’s absolute Book which, poor thing, never manages to read (and to write) more than a few infinitesimal crumbs of it but indeed the entrance of a universe that with Siegfried Kracauer we might term that of the anteroom, which the author defines thus: “Ambiguity is of the essence in this intermediary area. A constant effort is needed on the part of those inhabiting it to meet the conflicting necessities with which they are faced at every turn of the road. They find themselves in a precarious situation which even invites them to gamble with absolutes, all kinds of quixotic ideas about universal truth” (1). And, the author continues (2): “Focus on the ‘genuine’ hidden in the interstices between dogmatized beliefs of the world, thus establishing tradition of lost causes; giving names to the hitherto unnamed,” which seems to me a possible definition of the work realized by Roberto Bolaño in 2666.
A Difficulty. “Sometimes he thought it was precisely because he was an atheist that he didn’t read anymore. Not reading, it might be said, was the highest expression of atheism or at least of atheism as he conceived of it. If you don’t believe in God, how do you believe in a fucking book? he asked himself (p. 550). An obvious difficulty: Roberto Bolaño, even while writing remarkable texts, does not believe in literature, each or almost all of his texts mocking the ridiculous pretensions of the literary set, of avant-garde pseudo-artists, and, naturally, of critics. He is obviously well aware of its somber powers, the awesome powers of literature, the overwhelming surplus of joy, of knowledge, and of pain that it bestows in the greatest abundance, but he does not believe in it, in exactly the same way as he does not believe in God, all the while being certain that his books will be read a century hence, when the tartufferies of Northomb, Sollers, and a good thousand others will have been forgotten. This obvious paradox is illustrated by the life of Benno von Archimboldi, which starts out like that of a mental retard, at least of a simpleton who desires nothing more than to contemplate algae during lengthy unoxygenated diving sessions, and ends with the possibility, for this same man, now turned novelist, of receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. This is not some satirical pot-shot directed at literary men and their parade of official honors, but a cruel truth: the novelist of genius is not a person of obviously dazzling intellectual ability. He reserves his satire for everything else, genius being distinct from intelligence, and being capable, after all, of taking care of itself without God’s help, inasmuch as it modestly takes God’s place whenever it creates something, particularly when it writes a novel as remarkable as 2666.
I am not very satisfied with what I have just written. Perhaps believing in God is nothing more or less than being able to take care of oneself without the help of books, those immense towers of Babel erected heavenwards, in order to rediscover the vox cordis dear to Pierre Boutang, the daughter of the secret that must be transmitted by word of mouth. I also tell myself that 2666 is perhaps a desperate attempt, while amassing a monstrous quantity of sentences, to attain silence, the silence of Archimboldi’s fate, the silence announcing the arrival of the giant in the parched earth of the desert, the silence that cannot but pursue a novelist such as Bolaño. I am now reading Ce qui est écrit est écrit (Les provinciales, Cerf) by Henri Du Buit, a strange essay (bizarrely written, in concatenations that are flexible to say the least, as if writing and style maimed the fluidity of conversation to which this book aspires with all its might, without, however, being able to reconcile itself to abandoning its inconvenient crutch: writing) that in the wake of Tu n’ecriras pas mon nom, asserts that the West’s signal misfortune is that it has not managed to preserve the real presence of the word. But it is collapsing under the weight of writing, the Web naturally being in the eyes of the author the last garish mask that writing has rigged itself out in on a thousand faces. And so if 2666 is the absolute novel, the world-encompassing novel to invoke an image beloved by the journalists, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the novel of the exit from the novel, not at all in the ridiculous sense that the Byzantines (or the Algebrosistes, as Marcel Jousse terms them) have given to this expression, but in a sense that would postulate silence as the goal of writing. A mystical position? Quite obviously, we are in the Zone. All genuine writing, and this is a commonplace that for all its banality bears repeating, in recapturing the demiurgic gesture of the Creator, affirms the preeminence of a single action, which is a prayer: the quest for God, the Word which is silence. Silence, not muteness, the silence which is gesture, an ancestral knowledge according to this selfsame Jousse (see his Anthropolgie du geste), a gesture that intimates and establishes, that consecrates and broadens all speech into the infinite kingdom of silence, as I have attempted to show, without words, which is to say obliquely (or imperfectly), in my Éloge de Mouchette illustrated by the magnificent gestures filmed by Malick’s camera. In McCarthy’s novel, which is read by idiots simply as a novelistic investigation of the manifestations of irrationality in man when he is stripped of his humanity, the gesture is certainly the first attempt, desirous even of forgoing an immense religious tradition, to found the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, McCarthy’s recent novels, as they keep refining themselves, are rediscovering an orality that cannot but lead to this conclusion: the triumph of the word, of speech, mimicked by a writing that prohibits those ever-so-knowing meanderings of Roberto Bolaño’s, is destined to lead the American novelist to silence. The idiots, always the same, will be stunned by this apparent failure. Doubtless they will also invoke, the image is lovely and especially convenient, the tutelary shadow of Rimbaud, without however understanding the absolute necessity that will have led McCarthy not to the exterior of writing and of literature, but to its innermost recess which is: silence.
Bolaño is to be ranked, with this novel, among the greatest novelists. Cervantes (there is, I trust, no need to be more specific), Sterne (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy), Dostoyevsky (all of his writings), Borges (all of his writings as well), Sábato (his trilogy of novels, especially the last part, Angel of Darkness), Broch (The Guiltless), Musil (The Man without Qualities), Canetti (Auto-da-fé), Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!, Parabola), Melville (Moby-Dick), Conrad (Nostromo), Joyce (Ulysses), Corti (The Red Horse), McCarthy (Suttree), certainly not Vollmann. Gass? No. Not a single French writer, either dead (well, one: Proust) or living, apart from Paul Gadenne with his Hauts-Quartiers, who is in any case forgotten. And I just now suddenly thought of Abellio’s La fosse de Babel. Who will be surprised, moreover, by this absence of French novelists? Not the author of 2666, who mocks the literary pretensions of French writers…living and dead, or, rather, institutionalized, as he should do. This will to be a worthy servant of literature even while mocking it is illustrated by a passage of our monstrous novel in which Reiter, who, having only just become the mysterious Benno von Archimboldi, pays a visit to an old man who used to be a writer and who is going to sell him a typewriter with which Reiter is subsequently going to write his own novels, attaining thereby a bizarre glory since it is the achievement of a handful of readers and scholars scattered throughout the globe who regard the author as one of the greatest writers, perhaps even the greatest, albeit after Kafka. In this lengthy passage, a story within a story (the author in fact multiplies these infinite regresses), the old author expounds his curious theory of literature, according to which minor writers simply do not exist, unless they do so under the hardly enviable auspices of an optical illusion, or, to put it in conclusively metaphorical terms, as so much camouflage: “Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.” (p. 790). This theme of occultation, adjacent to that of camouflage (p. 786) is perhaps even the mark of the Devil, who, according to José Bergamín, enjoys nothing so much as sidling up quite close, as close as possible, to his Enemy, to the point of clinging to the Victim’s flanks. But 2666 is not, strictly speaking, a novel about evil, and we shall have no real need to summon the books of authors who, like Enrico Castelli or Erwin Reisner, have studied the pictorial techniques used by artists in the representation of the demon, so as to apply them to our novel. 2666 is a novel about literature, writing, inspiration, literary criticism, the mysteries of the fate of men, especially of those men who involve themselves in writing, the secret of the glory of a work of art exactly, which is to hatch hidden from view, surrounded by a multitude of ordinary trees that hide from the pests (or the absent-minded, or the imbeciles, or the critics) what is it is truly important to see, and accordingly hide and protect: “There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!” (p. 786). The old writer who tells the young Benno von Archimboldi this strange story has suffered the consequences of his curious theory. If authentic art has meaning only because it aspires to the uniqueness of genius, it is futile to believe that an artist or a writer who has not, from the penning of his first sentence, set for himself the aim of laying waste to sacred truths, will be anything but an amateur: “But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, if you play close attention, are not written by them” (p. 785). Inspiration is an illusion. Not because it is derived from some redoubtable Fury that wants to tear the artist to pieces, an old tale from the age of Petrarch, but because it is the self-expression of literature, that is to say, of all other books, of all the other great books, since small books do not exist, since they constitute merely the shell of literature according to Bolaño. This poor writer, let us term him the ordinary writer, you and I, will never amount to anything whatsoever, according to the old man, who continues: “There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always nothing. There’s nothing in the guts of the man who sits there writing. Nothing, I mean to say, that his wife, at a given moment, might recognize. He writes like someone taking dictation” (p. 786). Taking dictation from the great works, of course, from the great authors since “Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi […]” (pp. 785–786). At which point, the writer who has renounced writing, expounds to Archimboldi his most obvious conclusion : every minor writer is a willing and even happy plagiarist: “Plagiarism, you say? Yes, plagiarism, in the sense that all minor works, all works from the pen of a minor writer, can be nothing but plagiarism of some masterpiece. The small difference is that here we’re talking about sanctioned plagiarism. Plagiarism as camouflage as some wood and canvas scenery as a charade that leads us, likely as not, into the void” (p. 797). Which is basically to say that literature is constituted solely by its greatest successes. Everything contributes, as in the philosophy of Hegel, to this splendidly obvious conclusion, the triumph of Spirit, in this case, the great novels. Everything, even the institutions entrusted with allegedly separating the wheat from the chaff: “Play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers. Also: the promise of their future happiness. A forest that grows at a vertiginous rate, a forest no one can fence in, not even the academies, in fact, the academies make sure it flourishes unhindered, as do boosters and universities (breeding grounds for the shameless) and government institutions and patrons and cultural associations and declaimers of poetry — all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden, all aid the forest to reproduce what must be reproduced, since the process is inevitable, though no one ever sees what exactly is being reproduced, what is being tamely mirrored back.” (p. 787). Here, then, is something that will reassure the bad publishers (they will know who they are; hint: they publish, with good reason, a great deal of shit): for all the critical acclaim garnered by his incompetence, we will know that Tarik Noui is not the author of Serviles servants, which was written long before Noui watched the early episodes of Albator and, on a grander scale, Francis Ford Coppola’s film, by a certain Joseph Conrad. Which is to say, moreover, in inversion of Borges’s celebrated proposition that a “great writer creates his precursors,” that a great writer does not even need descendants since, once and for all, he not only delves back into history but also skims through the whole of it, logically, from the past to the future. Which is to conclude, in a word, that a great artist, that his masterpiece, is this: a singularity in the astrophysical sense of the term.
Paraphrasing the author (3), we may write that “there is no lack of enigmatic or extravagant characters, but the central figure, the one who stands alone at the heart of the vertigo and the accursed babbling of the decade, is without a doubt Benno von Archimboldi.” About whom, however, there is nothing really exceptional, as his creator delights in demonstrating, doubtless to mock the pretensions of the critics who see him as a future Nobel laureate. There is another center, a hidden center, in 2666: the secret identity (despite strong hints that they emanate from mafia-like networks linked to the drug trade and high-class prostitution) of the killers of hundreds of young women? The city of Santa Teresa, paragon of a modern and inhuman city? The traversal of the last century with Archimboldi’s story? The evil unleashed by the Nazis, which does not seem much more terrifying than the evil that is eating away at Santa Teresa? Some book with a mysteriously-titled book that one of the characters superstitiously ties to a linen rope? The giant haunting the dreams of Archibaldi’s nephew and prim sister, who is quite reliable and who is not Archimboldi. I do not know. I must reread this book, and even after I have reread it, I am uncertain whether I shall be able to answer. This lack of an answer obviously has nothing to do with the very relatively unfinished state of 2666, which I to the contrary find astonishingly structured.
I spoke of the incompetence of French criticism in relation to this novel (and in general). This is, alas, not a gratuitous assertion. Here are some examples of British and American, Spanish (and Latin-American), and even Italian reviews. The reader will compare this text with the essayasters of the principal French dailies and judge if I am mistaken. The New York Times Book Review. Times Literary Supplement. La Stampa Tuttolibri. La Tercera (Chili).
“They talked about Pelagia or Pelaya, an Antiochene actress who, in her apprenticeship to Christ, changed her name several times and passed as a man and assumed countless identities, as if in a fit of lucidity or madness she had decided that her theater was the whole Mediterranean and her single, labyrinthine performance was Christianity” (p. 862). Notes *Unless otherwise noted, page references are to 2666 (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2008). (1) Siegfried Kracauer, History : The Last Things Before the Last (New York : Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 216. (2) Ibid., p. 219. (3) Étoile distante (Christian Bourgeois, coll. Titres, 2006, translated by Robert Amutio), p. 134.
Originally published at www.juanasensio.com on March 12, 2010.