What significance does the titular year 2666 have in understanding this story? Critics may hold the 666 reference as devilish or simply shocking, keeping with a religious allusion of the biblical beast from ancient Rome. Yes, the conservative fear of numbers usually boils down to symbols and meanings, so the intent really is placed in a specific historical context. Cesar, the executioner of Jesus Christ, is the devil incarnate and the numerals 666 represent this villain. Bolaño fixates on the Roman culture because it mimics the dramatic bloodbaths of the Aztecs, but the real meaning of the year 2666 is not rooted in the Christian superstition, actually it fits neatly with the historical reality of Rome itself, the birth of Western Civilization.
April is the month of Spring. Windy, sporadically rainy, cloudy, full of ups and downs in temperature and in bloom. In the world of Literature, April has also become the month of Poetry and even more recently the month of Shakespeare. The icon of English, Shakespeare is famously born and deceased in the same month, possibly on the same day too — along with the other notable icon of Literature, Cervantes.
The language barriers between English and Spanish present different lenses to view the significance of these authors. Shakespeare and Cervantes are contemporaries and representative of the zenith in Western Europe’s Renaissance. Now, depending on the language, the view of these figures divides into the Spanish realization that Cervantes created the first literary Novel (and died as an artist and soldier), or the English capitulation that Cervantes happens to be blessed by the birth of Shakespeare (and “the zenith” of the English Renaissance does not conclude with Shakespeare, remember it is the British empire that supersedes the Spanish empire). The Sun never set on the Spanish empire, only for so long.
Shakespeare was a profitable capitalist and marketed his estate like a smart artist. Cervantes may be ignored or misinterpreted because of the dominance of English language instruction. If more readers read and understood Spanish, Cervantes would be seen as an equal to Shakespeare. The egalitarian in me knows that these authors deserve an equal amount of spotlight and apparently their shared death is notable for this bridging of cultures, so it is interesting to analyze the timing of this anecdote. The dates of recorded history differed between the English and Spanish.
By as much as a dozen days, some figures show 10 to 13 days differed between the English calendar based on the traditional Julian Roman calendar, named after Julius Cesar; and the Gregorian calendar adopted by Spain in the mid-1500s as part of a deal by the Pope of the name Gregory, asserting the continual power of the Holy Roman Empire as seated in the Vatican City by extension of the European monarchs and their royal blood lines that included the King of Spain. England did not conform to the Gregorian calendar until the mid-1700s and simply forfeited more than a week of time like a jumbo-daylight savings switch in which you lose not just an hour of time but more than an entire week’s worth of time in one stroke of the clock. So, Cervantes and Shakespeare could have died on different days depending on which calendar you observed at that time in history, or now.
Either way you look at it, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) claims April 23 as World Book Day, with a substantial significance given to the shared death date of Shakespeare and Cervantes. A third author also claims a part in the history of this day: Gómez Suárez de Figueroa and known as El Inca or Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. He is the first published author (of European descent) of the New World born in the New World and writing about the New World. El Inca stands as an important figure in literature in that he is the first authorial American to enter the Western canon of Literature.
“Therefore their deaths demand vengeance of God, or rather mercy, in order that the people of these countries, who are in darkness, may be some day enlightened with the light of the Faith ; and that their lands, sprinkled with the blood of Christians, may bear fruit worthy of the sanctity of blood so sacred.”
Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca 1539-1616
Florida of the Inca
The last words of his history on Florida are about the conquistadors dying in the New World at the expense of numerous Native deaths. He speaks of blood in such rhetorical ways like in the style of Spanish Catholicism, then and now. From the Romans to the Aztecs, Bolaño builds this bridge and ties up a ton of loose ends in the final part of 2666. Part five is a just dessert for the reader. After getting through the grueling part four, part five is satisfying and causes one to reflect. Furthermore, the goal from the very beginning, starting with the search by the Critics in part one to find this mysterious author finally pays off in the end. There are too many details that would spoil the experience of having read this book personally, but it is safe to say that part two and three are diversions and part four is a piece of penance, while part five reveals a solution to a puzzle; it’s also the point in which I realized the real meaning of the title, 2666.
Usually, the title is said to be not mentioned at all in Bolaño’s novel, yet mentioned in his other works rarely as a future date in time. His appeal as a sci-fi genre technician is possibly overstated, and it was definitely misinterpreted by myself. I kept thinking 2666 was a future date in the standard Gregorian calendar, I now realize that Bolaño was alluding to a different date in a different calendar, the truly Roman calendar, the AUC (ab urbe condita). The Roman scholars that dated their works with AUC timestamps paid honor to the “founding of Rome.” This record of time began earlier than the Gregorian calendar that starts with Jesus Christ.
2666 according to the Roman AUC calendar would be approximately the same year as 1913 according to the Gregorian calendar of the Modern West. 1913 makes perfect sense for the title of Bolaño’s masterpiece, 2666. 1913 is right in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, at the height of Pancho Villa’s power and his control of Ciudad Juárez, the exact setting of the novel’s universe, the fictional Santa Teresa. Not only was Pancho Villa criss-crossing the Mexican-U.S. border and fighting in the bloody Mexican Revolution, the anecdotal story of a famous author lost in the same setting also occurs in 1913.
Ambrose Bierce, the iconic American Literature figure known as a subversive liberal and talented outcast, travels to the Mexican border town and disappears in his last year seen alive. Bolaño has to acknowledge his knowledge of Ambrose Bierce as the true Benno von Archimboldi, also known as the German author Hans Reiter and the star protagonist of part five of 2666. Like World Book Day, Bolaño bridges the language barriers of English and Spanish culture by linking all of these global allusions within this novel. You may even say he builds tunnels rather than bridges, for in the same fateful year of 1913, the real 2666, the novel Der Tunnel by German author Bernhard Kellermann is first published in the month of April.
Der Tunnel is classic 20th century narrative about a tunnel connecting Europe to the Americas through the Atlantic; it was remembered as an ironically utopian take on the future from the year 1913, since the world suffered mostly war over the next thirty years rather than materially acquiring social progress on the level of infrastructure building and harmony between nations. In fact, the more modern movie version of the novel uses the Berlin Wall as symbolism, so it is not hard to see the tunnels of El Chapo in the same light. Bolaño builds tunnels connecting English and Spanish realities and threads them into a global garment, one to be worn and too, be-warned.
The past has much to teach us about the future. The last part of this monumental novel, 2666, reminded me of Steinbeck’s classic novella The Pearl. Even though Bolaño’s finale is about a European author coming of age in a war torn world, a reader can sense the universal struggle endured by countless others across this globe as equally fitting; and The Pearl’s narrative is inspired by a Mexican folk tale no less, so Bolaño is alluding to yet another American Literature icon. (Read the previous part reviews for more.)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won a Pulitzer Prize in the same year that 2666 was widely celebrated and honored. The two novels brought attention to Latin American Literature in contrasting ways and their critical reception is just as striking. 2666 was written earlier than Oscar Wao and it continues to amaze audiences. While Junot Diaz is eager to grow his portfolio and promote new projects, Bolaño’s collection is more engaged in preserving or conserving. Bolaño died before he could see the success of 2666, and the novel had to be translated; it garnered international audiences.
Growing up, my father would tell me stories about Trujillo’s control of the Dominican Republic. I would hear about his eye witness account of protesters gunned down and piled under a bridge near the Capitol’s airport; and spending time in jail for getting too close to the revolution. As a Dominican academic, I followed Junot Diaz’s publications. I bought Oscar Wao when it was released and read it quickly, but it did not resonate with me. Diaz is a talented and accomplished author and I prefer his poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Machismo, in writing and of writers, can best be explained by Junot Diaz himself.
Years after reading Oscar Wao, I discovered 2666, well after the hype of 2008. Full disclosure, I found 2666 in 2015, spent a few months reading it with no research or annotation, and then spent the last half a year or more annotating and re-reading and researching. Oscar Wao pales in comparison to my direct and visceral experience in the Dominican Republic, and in reflecting about the place. I simply cannot see the forest for the trees in this situation. I should be writing a review about Oscar Wao, but I’m more compelled to talk about 2666. The mystery and ignorance only strengthens its allure. Archimboldi, the author the Critics of part one are desperately seeking, lives the life of an artist, an artist especially of the 20th century.
Julia Alvarez wrote about the Mirabal sisters during the time of the Trujillo dictatorship, In the Time of the Butterflies. Roberto Bolaño wins a Kafkaesque victory, by posthumously writing the tale of a Latin American martyr, even if it is told through the egotistical lens of a European eye. The only literature more fitting for part five would be the 1984 play The Cuban Swimmer by Milcha Sanchez-Scott.
from the book “Trujillo: The Death of the Goat” by Bernard Diederich (1978):
“The cowardly killing of three beautiful women in such a manner had greater effect on Dominicans than most of Trujillo’s other crimes. It did something to their machismo. They could never forgive Trujillo this crime. More than Trujillo’s fight with the Church or the United States, or the fact that he was being isolated by the world as a political leper, the Mirabals’ murder tempered the resolution of the conspirators plotting his end.” (71-72)
In the end, Bolaño takes a play straight out of Castro’s playbook, greeting the U.S. President over fifty years later and as soon as Obama leaves the Caribbean, Castro rebukes the U.S. visit in the state controlled news source Granma. Bolaño builds this brilliant bildungsroman, or künstlerroman, of an European artist, the same kind the Critics of part one idolized and worship. After showing audiences, a glimpse into his real life (part 2), his best literary abilities (part 3), and the real lives of those around us (part 4), Bolaño concludes his magnum opus with the fantastic biography of the man he hopes to be remembered as, but instead of riding out into a glorious sunset, he miraculously ends on a delightfully humorous note, a cutting comeuppance that ultimately lets him keep his unique authority.
Bolaño hits a homer, no, a grand slam, with the mega-meta-novel 2666. His Euro-centric finale centered on a white giant seems to be pandering to the critics, or Bolaño could simply be showboating his skills once again. Either way the audience gets what they want. Bolaño delivers a buffet of bangers, and mashes it up into a crisp, salty mofongo; he plays the field like a Renaissance man and covers all the bases, you name the position and he’s got it covered; he’s the designated hitter ready for the sacrifice fly.