Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Roberto Bolaño: 2666

Nicholas Reid reviews Roberto Bolaño's 2666.
Roberto Bolano was a minor poet, born in Chile in 1953, exiled from the military coup there, and spent most of his later life in Mexico and Spain. Although he was a fervent left-winger himself, he had a reputation for seeing Latin America's leftist literary establishment as gutless, elitist and complacent. He was notorious for his fierce criticisms of the revered novelist Isabel Allende.

In the 1990s, needing to earn a living for his family, Bolano turned from poetry to fiction. He began to turn out dark, satirical and often oddly surreal short novels that gradually gained critical praise. But for the last four or five years of his life, he was working on something really big. In 2003, at the age of 50, he died of liver failure (exacerbated by a history of drug abuse). He left behind him a huge, unfinished manuscript divided into five parts. His literary executors debated whether they should publish it as five shorter novels or as one big one. They decided to go with one big one.

2666 was published in Spanish in 2004. It was at once hailed by Spanish and Latin American critics and became a huge bestseller. Natasha Wimmer's English-language translation came out in 2008. The praise continued. 2666 was seen as the most stunning Spanish-language novel since Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude, but completely different in tone from the old macho poseur. The Picador paperback edition quotes enthusiastic reviews by John Banville, Susan Sontag, Colm Toibin and Edmund White, among others. The word "masterpiece" is used frequently. On YouTube, I have accessed Spanish and Portuguese language promos which sell it to readers in a style usually reserved for movie blockbusters.

So here is a certified masterpiece, a critical and popular success. Now how dare I say, after making my way through its 900 pages, that I have not been knocked over in the tsunami?

Let's make it clear that I am not at all scared of long novels. In fact there are some that are among my best friends. Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Mann, Morante – bring 'em on, I say.
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