2666: Part 4 – The Part about the Crimes

Minimum number of Mexican mayors who have been killed by hit men in the past decade: 44

According to the April 2016 Harper’s Index, narcos assassinating government officials disrupts society in profound ways, way more than what stylized portrayals of narcotraficantes in media dare to capture. Senior year of high school (Class of 2000), the most impressionable movie of the year was the film Traffic.

This novel, 2666, is very much about borders, both figuratively and literally.  To review: the first part about the critics serves as prologue, and the second part appears to be semi-autobiographical, while the third part stands as a concise example of how skilled the author can write and copy the greatest hits of 20th century machismo in American Literature.

Weighing in as the belly of the novel, a white whale well into 266 pages long, part four is unavoidable and difficult to endure.  The part about the crimes, catalogues over a hundred murders, compounded with a survey of maquiladoras, prisons, and boom-bust development (the oasis-mirage real estate of urban sprawl coupled by bank speculation, foreclosures, and renovations).  Now we have Roberto Bolaño channeling Melville and Thoreau too.

Henry David Thoreau may have been inspired by Mexico to execute his infamous civil disobedience, but he spent the arch of his life chronicling the habitats of Cape Cod.  The wreck of St. John sinks to the core of American muckraking.  As the New Republic says, “It is a kind of extended prose elegy, written to bear witness to and make sense of the tragedy that befell that shipload of Irish immigrants.”  Thoreau cared about the borders of his day that were most local, and the deaths of Irish immigrants washing ashore on the beaches of New England called Thoreau as much as the Mexican-American border calls Bolaño.

The obsessive compulsive, white giant draws the most attention through part four.  Almost an identical reversal of a concept found in Murakami’s 1Q84the concept of the Little People — Bolaño uses the mythos of the Giant to build tension in an otherwise blatant political diatribe, akin to Orwell’s 1984 and the book within the book.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Bolaño uncovers the plight of turn of the 21st century proletariat.

Not that the Northeast has little to say about the human drama playing out in the Southwest, the 2000 film Dark Days lurks in the shadow of Hollywood blockbusters like Traffic.  The underground dwellers in NYC have a lot in common within the dump dwellers of Mexico (complimentarily drenched in sunshine to the point of blindness).

Contemporary World News has covered the Syrian refugee crisis with an almost eager ignorance of any other border dramas simultaneously unfolding.  North America fails to address its own immigration record when speaking grandiloquently about Europe and the Middle East.  From Guantanamo Bay to Ciudad Juárez (aka Santa Teresa), serious Human Rights issues are frozen in an undefined state.  American Democrats rarely criticize the Obama administration’s handling of immigration, but it is far from inept as Republicans are oft to paint it as.  The frightening reality hides an ugly chapter in American History today.

The part about the crimes details the crimes alright, but it does not answer the question of who the criminals are for real?  The character of Lalo Cura blurs the line between narco and police.  Apparently the free trade agreements between countries are as insidious as the real estate schemes between banks or the under the table negotiations between criminals (on both sides of the fence).  The 2001 documentary Life and Debt deftly sings a conspiratorial tune about the long term effects of the globalized economic assault of the West.  The Juan de Dios Martínez of 2666 is a questionable character.

There used to be an Indian settlement here, remembered the inspector.  A policeman who’d lived in the colonia had told him so.  He dropped onto a bench and gazed up at the imposing shadow of the tree silhouetted menacingly against the starry sky.  Where are the Indians now?  (Page 366)

2666: Part 3 – The Part about Fate

“A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake.”  (Page 231)

Of all the imagery presented in this novel, 2666, the one image that burns brightest in my mind is that of an Aztec pyramid — as seen from the inside, like how it is described in this story, a hollowed inner temple vastly cavernous, a vertigo inducing abyss crowned by a prism of obsidian projecting down a spectrum of clean sunlight to bloody rose colored hues.  Likewise, the third sentence of part three (above) sets the stage for a dream, and readers will have to decide whether it truly can be called a nightmare or not.  Either way, this part may be numerically the middle or center of this five part story that is 2666, but it may also be the true start of the novel’s narrative chronologically; it is the most youthful and vibrant.  Moreover, if the author is revealing any autobiography through his work, then this part surely breeds from Roberto Bolaño’s time spent in Chile and Mexico — and his earlier employment in writing.


The Savage Detectives earned Bolaño attention prior to 2666, and it has more of a Latin American style, stained in retrospective.  Whereas parts two, one, and five feel more mature and more European — or modern too.  Consider the numerical representation of Pi: 3.14159.  A reader could take the story of 2666 and understand as well, if not better, if it was ordered in this way: the protagonists of part three and part one are creating the literature of part four, in that that the characters are on the periphery, partly responsible, while surely reading about the same lives listed in part four;  simultaneously, the answer to part one’s call is found in part five.  Basically, part three is the novel Bolaño wished to write in his youth, and 2666 is the novel he ended up writing as his Swan song.

Bolaño is expressly applying for recognition from critics and schools (both brick and mortar and those of thought) and other award-giving bodies that would ever seek to honor a writer or artist for such technical skill.  Competitive writers seek to win contests and trophies like a coveted Nobel or Pulitzer.  The academics both high and low in parts one and two are now presented Bolaño’s resume or portfolio.  Fittingly, the title character of part three is named Oscar Fate, as if it is the fate of this author to be recognized as true and deserving of an award.

He surveys a slew of genres in American Literature ranging across the board, but oddly he does not play up a strong proletarian genre: Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or something akin to The Grapes of Wrath,  or say a short story like Daniel Mainwaring’s Fruit Tramp. (Although, readers will find that Bolaño rectifies the omission and doubles down by adding another neglected genre, prison stories; in part four he frames the largest part of 2666, the long list of crime scene reports, with a prisoner’s narrative and the straightforward lives of factory workers.)   The American, especially Modernist, take on Literature is sure to include these genres.  Furthermore, a pulp story worthy of Quentin Tarantino or James Ellroy or Robert Rodriguez — who is explicitly included in 2666 as a character in part three, aside from the mention of Spike Lee — can be easily found in the cross country adventures of Oscar Fate.  You name it: Alexi Sherman, Jack Kerouac, combined and you have all this mixed with a protagonist that also comes from Harlem — works as a journalist for an African American magazine and founded his career upon a Black Panthers article — and you just begin to scratch the surface of this mixed genre tribute.

Part three arrives through a sharp transition, not unlike a palette cleanser served in the process of a five course meal.  The story takes at least two dozen pages to reconnect with the preceding two parts of the novel.  Nevertheless, the grittiest 20th century writing is unleashed here, a cornucopia of tropes including gonzo “reportage” layered with a Western vibe and Hollywood’s shadow.

Oscar Fate, the main character, travels between New York City the Midwest and a Southwestern border town — by car and plane — and changes from a Leftist magazine writer into an investigative reporter, while trying to maintain a job as a sports writer covering a boxing match —as if that’s not enough, the pugilists are Mexican and American; it’s like Orson Welles and Hemingway fighting over allegorical metaphors of where the real manifest destiny of the American Spirit resides.  The best noir can be found in part three; it’s dark and twisted and ultimately an appetizer for the headliner that is part four.

As a mega novel over a thousand pages long, it is important to note that the most pages are dedicated to the main course in part four.  Part three could stand alone as a novel on its own, however the first two parts might not stack up if they were published separately.  Consequently, the idea that 2666 is a future wasteland depends on where the listener stops the record, if it is played on a loop.  If we ground the center and foundation of this novel as stemming from the actions documented in part four, then part three could easily have been set in the future, a future imagined by that of the 20th century.  While published in the early 2000s, the novel summarizes the 1900s in one fell swoop.

The idea of a novel as a vehicle or medium is thoroughly explored by Bolaño and part three is his precious novella; it’s his signature move and it boggles the mind that he has not received more recognition for his efforts here.  The literary obsession over character-detectives and multicultural storytelling continues to be revered by critics the world over.  Unfortunately, 2666 is often mistaken as a bloated book late to the 21st century, a century in which the novel fights for attention as much as the migrant laborer or the Invisible Man that is Oscar Fate.

“I’m American.  Why didn’t I say I was African American?  Because I’m in a foreign country?  But can I really consider myself to be in a foreign country when I could go walking back to my own country right now if I wanted, and it wouldn’t even take very long?  Does this mean that in some places I’m American and in some places I’m African American and in other places, by logical extension, I’m nobody?”  (Page 283)

Yes, Ralph Ellison is hard to miss in part three.  Oscar Fate only recognizes his Black identity when he is faced with a restaurant full of Mexicans and Indians and he continues to be an outsider struggling to understand Spanish while realizing that the American public could care less about an outsider’s story.  In fact, the sharpest irony of this part is the eventual confrontation of Óscar by Oscar.  Fate shows Amalfitano (from part two) that language, whether through letters or numbers or English or Spanish, can only explain so much.  The nature of life will erode meaning just as the book hanging out on the clothesline.  Despite the fact that the little old drunk is technically not behind bars, the cultural tribes we think we belong to shift with apparent motion.

“Dreams converged on common ground” when the two Oscars meet.  A surreal encounter, drawn by Wolfgang Paalen and played through a zoetrope.  The “accidental sports writer” spends more words describing El Rey del Taco than the main event of the boxing match.  After all, Fate’s dream ends with a blurry drive into the blazing desert heralded by the song of Las Mañanitas.

“On the way to Tucson, Fate didn’t recognize any of the things he’d seen a few days before, when he’d traveled the same road in the opposite direction.  What used to be my right is my left, and there are no points of reference.  Everything is erased.”  (Page 348)

2666: Part 2 – The Part about Amalfitano

“… 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 et 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 something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”   (Page 227)

This is the rationale for tackling 2666: literature’s toughest works seem boundless and paradoxically all-consuming.  Part 2 of this mega-novel stars a philosophy professor named Amalfitano that retreats into a performance art/thought experiment when confronted with the disintegration of his family.  As his loved ones fall like rose petals from a decaying plant, Amalfitano concerns himself with a Geometry textbook by Rafael Dieste, a rare and mysterious book that he suspends on a clothesline in his back yard.  The book is utterly cryptic while also touting clear mathematical truths, and it delights Amalfitano to no end that it is vulnerable to the elements and time, that even the purest truths will wither into dust, adding to the desert sands.

Bolaño’s misanthropic, apocalyptic view pays homage to his roots, his academic roots, his time spent in Mexico, his roots as a father and family man caring and worrying about his child, his roots as an underground or underrated author.  Moreover, he shows readers that there are stories we will never hear, and there are authors of greatness hidden behind time and language.  All this occurs while nonchalantly parodying a Shakespearean plot.  Amalfitano plays the role of Hamlet.


Roberto Bolaño baits critics in Part 1 and deconstructs criticism, and if that’s not enough he proceeds to challenge critics in Part 2 with profound philosophical problems.  He calls to order tales from the Araucanian or Mapuches, indigenous tribes of South America that melt history and language.  Even Rafael Dieste is hard to comprehend, forcing the thorough critic to translate texts and commit to deeper immersion.  The Galician poet, Dieste is comparable to M.C. Escher, yet less translated.  Never-mind Amalfitano, all this goes down smoothly with a heavy glass of mezcal, watching the Sun set.

“Just pretend the book doesn’t exist.”  (Page 191)

In true Bolaño fashion, consider another underdog Hispanic author: Virgil Suarez.  I was fortunate enough to be a student in a few of his classes on fiction technique.  Speaking of which, the following are some excerpts from a research paper dated April 7, 2004:


Irrigation, Irritation: We’ll All Be Dammed!

Fittingly named, Crescencio serves as the striking crescendo in Sheila Ortiz-Taylor’s Coachella. … I could not help but wonder if there was a real Old Guerrero.  … Could a town be flooded and people be forced to evacuate?

Upon beginning my research, I remembered news stories about a massive dam in China, the world’s “largest dam construction project” to be precise.  “Numerous Chinese towns and farms have been reportedly flooded for this project (Cheng).”  The Three Gorges Dam is just one insight into this phenomenon of damming.

The BBC did a special report on dams that touched on among other things the history and global entirety of damming (Sutherland).  Something like close to all the rivers in the world are nearly dammed. … As for Crescencio, the water crisis in the southwest U.S. and talk of the Colorado River was not that unfamiliar.

Apparently in treaties made between Mexico and the U.S., water issues were an explicit factor.  U.S. officials say that under a 1944 treaty, Mexico owes Texas farmers 1.5 million acre/feet of water. Each acre/foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons (1.24 million liters). The treaty gives Mexico a larger quantity of water — but via the Colorado River far to the west (Watson).

Mexico is now struggling to uphold their side of the treaty due to irrigation problems.  Mexican farmers cannot afford the intricate sprinkler systems that efficiently use water, forcing them to usually flood fields and in many eyes waste water (Watson).  … What good is land if it is barren and dry?

Guerrero Viejo by Elena Poniatowska, wrote a book specifically about this town.  It was a real town and still exists.  … Old Guerrero is still alive!  Not only had this town existed, but the greatest news of all was that this town partly survived the flooding and recently reemerged; it now serves as a tourist attraction.

Flooded in 1953 under a government program, Guerrero Viejo was completely drowned and its residents forced to flee to New Guerrero.  Located in northern Mexico, “Guerrero was founded in 1750 in the frontier state of Tamaulipas (Poniatowska).”  It was known for being a congenial, colonial town, but unfortunately met its demise—or at least for Crescencio, and many others who did not return.  It wasn’t long before the flooded area dried-up due to water consumption and the incredible thirst of the arid climate it resides in.

Now people travel to Guerrero Viejo to witness the miracle that is this baptized mirage.  The pictures in Poniatowska’s text, eloquently captured by Richard Payne, reveal a crumbled ghost town stained by receding watermarks.  All that stands of substance are some old walls and the spectacular church, Our Lady of Refuge.

… Farmers here say they are hurting too. The area’s reservoirs are at less than 25 percent capacity. “The water levels have dropped so low that cars and bodies started appearing,” agricultural engineer Humberto Estrada said. “They found the body of a mayor who was missing. All kinds of things at the bottom of the dam have started appearing over the past few years (Watson).”  … Ultimately, the story of these people will surface along with the many other drowned ghost-town stories thought to be forgotten but later recalled by greed and thirst.

Works Cited

Cheng, Tony.  “China’s Ghost Town Vanishes.”  The BBC’s East Asia Today.  5 Sept. 2003.

Poniatowska, Elena.  Guerrero Viejo.  The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Sutherland, Ben.  “Dams Stir Water Arguments.”  BBC News Online.  17 Mar. 2003.

Watson, Julie.  “U.S. and Mexico in standoff over water.”  Associated Press.  3 May 2002.

Gran Calavera Eléctrica by José Guadalupe Posada


2666: Part 1 – The Part about the Critics

The very first sentence, first paragraph, first few pages, establishes a clear milieu of European erudition.  Roberto Bolaño starts 2666 with an appeal to the guardians of the Western canon.  These critics, the critics that jet around the globe hopping from one guest lecture or academic seminar to another, the professors of World Literature that reside in ivory towers, these authors and devoted readers must be won over ultimately.

German, French, English, Belgian, Polish, Prussian, Italian, Latin, Christian, all are assembled and addressed like a hearty salad full of raw fruits and vegetables.  Bolaño projects himself as the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, a man of the 20th century methodically securing his position in the canon and surrealistically similar to the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.


The critics appreciate the mystery of this author, his allure stretches back to antiquity; but, one cannot fully grasp the true intention of this artist.  The form is apparent.  Still, there exists a “biographical lacuna” that lurks like a black hole deep in outer space.  Readers are forewarned about the incompleteness of the story, indeed the missing content, the deeper meaning evades those that look closely.

amigara fault

An apt analogy can be seen in The Enigma of Amigara Fault.  Voyeurs are infatuated by the holes that seemingly resemble a perfect fit for themselves, almost as if looking into a mirror.  Moreover, the view from the other side is frightening, particularly the longer we leer into the void.

Is this just a joke on still life paintings?  Or is this part about the critics an elaborate political cartoon, satirizing the global politics of the 1900s?  Either way, Bolaño leaves room for the freelance hacks and bloggers to chop it up and blend the metaphorical cornucopia of produce into a pulpy juice.

“… the glory he coveted was that of the writer, not the translator.”  (Page 6)

Multilingual translations add a layer of ambiguity to World Literature and are required of an author’s work to find a place in our contemporary canon.  Commercial and critical success compound when applied to multiple markets.  Who else but these overly-educated critics can even begin to translate the works of such reclusive authors?

Although 2666 stands as a date in the future, it fails to capture the technology of the future.  The same technology that enables amateur author’s to translate and publish in unprecedented ways, fails to affect the narrative in any noticeable way.  Would an Archimboldi of the 21st century really require an esoteric fan club of dedicated critics?

Roberto Bolaño takes the path commonly attributed to many Modernist authors.  He travels abroad, witnessing major political strife, dabbling in the third world, all to nestle into a death bed cocoon.  The resulting posthumous publication metamorphose the man into an ephemeral legend or myth.  Readers may glimpse a bit of compulsion.

“The word solution was said twelve times.  The word solipsism seven times.  The word euphemism ten times.”  (Page 41)

The theme of the misunderstood artist that enjoys the process way more than the results surfaces through the subplot of Edwin Johns.  Bolaño adds more layers of obfuscation by critiquing the critics.  He dares to bite the hand that feeds him.  Marcel Duchamp serves as the Dadaist poster boy for this paradoxical point.


Stacey D’Erasmo deftly summarizes the Bolaño-Duchamp connection in a New York Times review:

“Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings. Is it courageous to read Plato during a military coup or is it something else?”

Morini, Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton would probably say “yes” to the above question.  Even though, the high priests of critical literature are late to the party, to cut off their nose to spite their face.   Bolaño writes for himself foremost; the publications are for his posterity, an investment and an inheritance for his estate.

“Because he believed in investments, the flow of capital, one has to play the game to win, that kind of thing.”  (Page 97)

Back on the streets, outside the bedrooms of the bourgeoisie, paces and pulses the next generation of young readers and writers.  Spitting truth nonchalantly, they see a story for what it is.  The author is omnipresent; he exists as an idea seized in the minds and hearts of his followers wherever they may be.

“The Internet bookstores worked.  Culture, despite the disappearances and guilt, was still alive, in a permanent state of transformation…”  (Page 136)