Bolano's 1100 page (Spanish Edition) magnus opus is mesmerizing and hypnotic; full of magical stories, violence, sex, meta-fiction, and lies--a lot of lies and a great deal of misdirection.
When I finished the novel I started again; it was the only thing to do; there was too much to absorb on the first reading; too many themes--writing, violence, detectives, murder, identity, travel, death, books, libraries, biographies, success, failure, race, fascism, Nazis, and war.
The writing in itself is beautiful, a poet's book, written by a poet, and translated beautifully by Natasha Wimmer.
The story, in a nutshell, is the life story of a German soldier by the name of Hans Reiter, who, in mid-life in the bombed-out city of Cologne, after the Second World War, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes his first novel. This story seems to be a conflation of several writers' biographies--Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, and surely Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau (I don't think you will see this in any other critique of the book but Bolano gives a brilliant clue at the end of the novel and the parallels between Benno and Prince Herman are quite interesting to trace. Why did he chose him? Because he is better remembered for the ice cream named after him than the books he a wrote and the life he lived.)
From this brief synopsis grows a story of the world in the Twentieth Century. It begins with Reiter's birth in Prussia and ends in the present day. The book contains hundreds of characters and their stories, each told by the same voice, a narrator, who Bolano once said was the fictional poet, Arturo Belano, a character in his brilliant novel--"The Savage Detectives."
So, we have a story told, not shown, which covers eighty years.
The novel contains five parts, which are almost self-contained, but when read together fit perfectly. The five parts are: (1) The Part about the Critics; (2) The Part about Amalfitano; (3) The Part about Fate; (4) The Part about the Crimes; and (5) The Part about Archimboldi.
Part One tells the story of four academics reading, studying, and writing about the reclusive Archimboldi, who is being considered for the Nobel Prize. Their study leads them ultimately to Sonora, to Santa Teresa (a conflation of Jaurez and Heroica Nogales), where a serial killer is operating.
Parts Two, Three, and Four take place in Sonora and involve--a university professor, an American journalist, and many detectives. These three sections all involve the killings in Santa Teresa from one view or another.
Part Five is a chronological telling of the life of Archimboldi, which precedes the action in Part One.
Throughout the telling of the story hundreds of books are mentioned and discussed. Some are real books; some are made up; and others are simply conflated. However, ultimately, it is a writer's book or perhaps just a book for readers, real readers, readers interested in mystery and games, language games, and ghastly murders.
The plot of the novel is driven by mysteries: where is Archimboldi, who is Archimboldi, who is killing the women of Santa Teresa? However, the beauty of the book is in the slow telling of the stories and the minutia of the details.
I cannot do the novel justice; it has to be read closely to appreciate it, but there is a clue to its most fundamental theme: throughout the novel people are buried in mass graves, the graves are hidden because more often than not the murderers are trying to hide their crimes. However, in each instance, the graves are discovered and the bodies uncovered; just as stories are told and the secrets revealed. And herein lies the meaning of the title and I think the fundamental theme of a book full of themes and ideas; it arises or it is hidden in a quote from the "Savage Detectives:" "Guerreo, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else."
In other words, our world is more like an uncovered cemetery of the future, full of violence and death. The science of the Twentieth Century devised ways to systematically kill thousands of people. But even now, after the war, the killing continues in the bizarre nightmare milieus of border towns, the situs of the maquiladoras, in refugee camps in Africa, in race wars all over the war, the Fifth Ward, in Compton, in our back yards.
Santa Teresa is supposedly modeled on Juarez where there are 340 maquiladoras operating. Here is the future, stranger than we can imagine, which makes the book in my mind slipstream and connects it to "Moxyland," one of the novels I reviewed last month.