Slouching Towards Santa Teresa
Roberto Bolaño's utterly strange masterpiece.
Imagine reading case reports like these, one after another, for almost 300 pages, and you will get a sense of the bludgeoning effect of "The Part About the Crimes." The violence becomes simultaneously banal and unbearable in its sheer reiteration; at times, it requires a real effort to keep turning the pages. Yet in this way, Bolaño succeeds in restoring to physical violence something of its genuine evil, in a time when readers in the First World are used to experiencing it only as CSI-style entertainment.
At the same time, Bolaño manages to suggest that the violence in Santa Teresa is something much more than a local crime wave. One of the characters who looms into individuality, out of the anonymous crowd of the dead, is Klaus Haas, a German-born American citizen who is imprisoned by the Mexican police as a scapegoat for the murders. He may or may not have killed a woman—Bolaño never lets us know for sure—but he is certainly not "the Santa Teresa killer," if only because the murders continue after he is arrested. Yet when Sergio Gonzales, a journalist reporting on his case, calls Haas in jail, Bolaño writes that over the phone line he "heard the sound of the desert and something like the tread of an animal." It is an understated but clear allusion to Yeats' "The Second Coming," where the poet sees "somewhere in sands of the desert/ A shape with lion body and the head of a man," and asks, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
In this indirect fashion, Bolaño hints that Haas is, if not an anti-Christ, at least a sign of the times: a beast whose advent signals some cosmic realignment. It is just one of countless moments in 2666 that suggest the metaphysical dimension of Bolaño's vision. The attentive reader will be reminded of a remark by a minor character in the novel's third section, some 200 pages earlier: "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them." And then she might remember a strange dream that Espinoza, one of the critics, had in Part 1, in which "he could see the still, bright desert, such a solar yellow it hurt his eyes, and the figures on horseback, whose movements—the movements of horses and riders—were barely perceptible, as if they were living in a world different from ours, where speed was different, a kind of speed that looked to Espinoza like slowness, although he knew it was only the slowness that kept whoever watched from losing his mind."
Time and again, Bolaño hints, without ever quite saying, that what is happening in Santa Teresa is a symptom of a universal derangement in which hidden dimensions of reality are coming horribly to light. That is why so much of the activity of 2666 takes place not along the ordinary novelistic axes of plot and character but on the poetic, even mystical planes of symbol and metaphor. It is in Bolaño's allusions and unexplained coincidences, in his character's frequent, vividly disturbing dreams, in the mad recitations of criminals and preachers and witches—above all, in the dark insights of Benno von Archimboldi, who finally takes center stage in the book's fifth section—that the real story of 2666 gets told. That is one reason why the book is so hard to summarize—and why Natasha Wimmer's lucid, versatile translation is so triumphant. 2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.