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It seemed it might never stop; behind it a train Of souls, so long that I would not have thought Death had undone so many. - Canto III, Dante's Inferno

In a 2003 interview with the Mexican edition of Playboy, which turned out to be one of his last, when asked what hell was like, Roberto Bolaño, the now-internationally celebrated Chilean-born poet, critic and novelist answered: "Like Ciudad Juarez, which is our curse and our mirror, the unquiet mirror of our frustrations and of our vile interpretation of freedom and our desires."

Juarez, a Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., has a population of more than 1.5 million and is one the fastest- growing cities in the world. The driving force behind its explosive growth is its 300-plus maquiladoras (i.e. assembling plants).

It also has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico: Since 1993, 400-plus women have been victims of sexual homicides; many of them were factory workers between the ages of 12 and 22. Although there have been some arrests and convictions, the overwhelming majority of cases remain unsolved.

  • 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 898 pages, 3 volumes, $33

2666, Bolaño's posthumous magnum opus, is set in several countries (e.g., Germany, Spain, Britain, the United States, Russia) and dozen of cities (e.g., Berlin, Madrid, Paris, London, Detroit), but it revolves around the Mexican city of Santa Teresa, a sort of fictional Juarez, placed near the Sonora-Arizona border, where his second-last novel, The Savage Detectives, violently concludes. In Bolaño's Santa Teresa, as in the real Juarez, women are regularly being killed and their mutilated corpses turn up in ditches, parking lots and garbage dumps. The worst of these dumps is the condemned "El Chile" (the original Hebrew word for "hell" in the Gospel of Mark is Gehenna, i.e., the fiery garbage pit at the southwest of the old city of Jerusalem; in 2666, "El Chile" equals hell).

Although the novel's large cast circles Santa Teresa and is eventually drawn to the city like water to a drainage hole, 2666 opens in modern-day Europe with The Part About the Critics, the first of the novel's five parts.

In the opening pages, French critic Jean-Claude Pelletier, Italian critic/translator Piero Morini, Spanish critic Manual Espinoza and English critic Liz Norton all become enthralled by the works of elusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi and, eventually, by one another. Archimboldi's works have unsettling and hallucinatory effects on the critics, like a "steaming cup of peyote." Other elliptical artists fill these pages, such as English painter Edwin Johns, who cuts off his painting hand, takes it to a taxidermist and installs it in an artwork.

While contending for the affections of Liz Norton, the critics attempt to locate the German master's whereabouts. Pelletier, Espinoza and Norton are led to Santa Teresa - Morini stays in Italy because of declining health - after receiving a tip from a man named El Cerdo, "the Pig," that Archimboldi was spotted on his way to northwestern Mexico. Where, in The Savage Detectives, the hunt for the mysterious Mexican avant-garde poet Cesárea Tinajero sets in motion the plotline(s), the hunt for the elusive Archimboldi sets in the motion the plotline(s) of 2666 (if poets and poetry are at the heart of The Savage Detectives, then novels and novelists are at the heart of 2666).

In searching for Archimboldi in Santa Teresa, the three critics meet Prof. Amalfitano, a Chilean-born Archimboldi translator/expert and single father living in exile. "Exile must be a terrible thing," Norton says to Amalfitano, to which he responds: "I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate." The professor and his daughter, Rosa, are the subjects of The Part About Amalfitano.

As Rosa becomes involved with Santa Teresa's criminal underworld, Amalfitano begins to unravel psychically, pinning a geometry textbook to his backyard clothesline ("The idea, of course, was Duchamp's"). He also suffers severe insomnia and strange fantasies featuring Boris Yeltsin, "the last communist philosopher," who, between singing ballads and swigging vodka, tells him, "Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, that's what it all boils down to, but that's no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it's also sex and Dionysian mists and play."

Quincy Williams, a.k.a. Oscar Fate, a journalist for a Harlem-based African-American cultural magazine, heads to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match after travelling to Detroit, where he interviews one of the founding members of the Black Panthers, Barry Seaman, who now delivers lectures to young people and writes barbecue cookbooks (e.g., Eating Ribs with Barry Seaman).

With The Part About Fate, the focus moves closer and closer to the novel's heart of darkness: namely, the murdered women of Santa Teresa. En route to the haunted city, Fate's path crosses that of Prof. Albert Kessler, an American expert on serial killers, who is also en route to Santa Teresa. Kessler delivers one of the novel's most memorable monologues on what violence is registered and what violence is not: "During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then was shot and killed by the police. The story didn't just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe. ... How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren't part of society." (As Guadalupe Roncal, a fellow journalist, says to Fate re the murdered women of Santa Teresa: "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.")

Exhaustively catalogued, hyper-disturbing, brave and wholly original, The Part About the Crimes is a shock to the psyche, leaving an ineliminable stain. The violent tension that has been mounting (in the way that only Bolaño - or director David Lynch, an influence - can mount violent tension) explodes like a city's worth of backed-up toilets and sewers. This chapter records every sexual homicide from 1993 to 1997, while telling the stories of the detectives, doctors, professors, journalists, drug lords, lawyers, vandals, talk-show hosts, clairvoyants, protesters, suspects and families involved: "The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list."

The novel, of course, returns to Archimboldi, a.k.a. Hans Reiter, born to a one-eyed mother and a one-legged father. The fifth and final section, The Part About Archimboldi, is set up as a kunstleroman - a portrait of the artist as a young, middle-aged and old man - that travels from Germany to Second World War Russia (by far some of Bolaño's most ambitious and thrilling writing) and sheds light on Archimboldi's connection to the northwestern Mexican metropolis. However, it is at a farmhouse in a small Ukrainian village that Reiter (not yet Archimboldi) finds "the papers of Boris Abramovich Ansky and the hiding place behind the hearth." In these papers, he reads about the tragic fate of Efraim Ivanov, a Soviet social-realist turned science-fiction writer (modelled, at least in name, on Soviet SF writer Ivan Efremov), who attracts admirers such as Maxim Gorky, only to end up a victim of Stalin's murderous regime.

2666 is Roberto Bolaño's last novel, one he worked on until his death in July, 2003, at the age of 50. It is complete, achieved and satisfying, though there is an unignorable urgency to it that is truly mesmerizing and breathtaking, "like the minutes of those condemned to die, like the minutes of women who've just given birth and are condemned to die, who understand that more time isn't more eternity and nevertheless wish with all their souls for more time, and their wails are birds that come flying every so often across the double lakeside landscape, so calmly, like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats."

Although existentially unsettling, 2666 is also funny, very funny, and oddly reassuring; no run-of-the-mill apocalypticist, Bolaño maintains a belief in art, in a "third leg," even though so much conspires against it, like time and the ways it distorts and disintegrates everything.

2666 holds an "unquiet mirror" up to hell and stuns with its brilliance. It is a heroic achievement, a modern epic - a masterpiece.

J. S. Goldbach's first collection of short stories, Selected Blackouts, will be published next spring.

The Beginning

The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D'Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn't realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D'Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.

From that day on (or from the early morning hours when he concluded his maiden reading) he became an enthusiastic Archimboldian and set out on a quest to find more works by the author. This was no easy task. Getting hold of books by Benno von Archimboldi in the 1980s, even in Paris, was an effort not lacking in all kinds of difficulties. Almost no reference to Archimboldi could be found in the university's German department. Pelletier's professors had never heard of him. One said he thought he recognized the name. Ten minutes later, to Pelletier's outrage (and horror), he realized that the person his professor had in mind was the Italian painter, regarding whom he soon revealed himself to be equally ignorant.

From 2666