It's part of the rhythm of our self-absorbed American culture that we seem able to process only one foreign language writer at time. But when we do, we do it with a vengeance. And so, every three or four years, the press is suddenly filled with the discovery of some new literary genius — Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, Michel Houellebecq — who we're all supposed to read.
The current literary "It" boy is Roberto Bolano, the Chilean-born writer whose reputation has surged since his work first began being translated into English in 2003. If the bad news is that this acclaim happened too late — Bolano died that same year at age 50 — the good news is that he deserves it. He's clearly the greatest writer to have appeared in Latin America since the so-called "boom" that produced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. And he knew it. In fact, Bolano took pride in being against magical realism. He derided his predecessors' eagerness to adopt the role of literary lions dispensing wisdom in perfectly crafted novels.
While all of Bolano's books are interesting, three knocked me out. By Night in Chile is a lacerating little novel about a literary-minded priest who backed General Pinochet's dictatorship. The Savage Detectives is the great Mexico City novel, a freewheeling tale about a group of young poets known as the Visceral Realists. And then there's his latest: 2666, superbly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is a magnum opus about, well, almost everything.
The book is hard to describe because it's broken into five, loosely overlapping parts. It begins with four literary critics obsessed with finding a German writer named Archimboldi. Their quest takes them to Santa Teresa, an imaginary Mexican border city modeled on the real Ciudad Juarez. Like a black hole, this brutal city eventually sucks in all the book's major characters — an alienated professor, a black journalist who's covering a prize-fight, and the novelist Archimboldi himself. What they share is a foretaste of danger, a sense that they're tiptoeing on the razor's edge of apocalypse.
I'm tempted to call Bolano the love-child of David Lynch and Jorge Luis Borges — he's that visceral and erudite — but this wouldn't do justice to his ambition. 2666 aims to be nothing less than a massive epic of modernity, ranging from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to yuppie London and the cruel Sonoran desert. Bolano always championed messy books like Moby Dick, and that's what he offers here: 912 pages of vivid characters, startling dream sequences and stories within stories within stories, all told in the seductive voice of one who experiences the world more intimately than we do and can capture all its nocturnal melancholy and unexpected sunbursts of beauty.
Like all of Bolano's work, 2666 is obsessed with writers and writing, which is one huge reason he gets rave reviews from — you know — writers. His books celebrate those devoted to the grand existential leap of literature, both the search for meaning that is the writer's task and the brave, often foolish lives of those obsessed with work that doesn't offer you any security. Yet what makes Bolano great is that he's never blind enough to believe that literature is a religion or that it can transcend earthly existence. He never lets us forget that, beneath writers' vaulting words, the world still exists in all its pain, struggle, inequality and violence.
That's why the key section of 2666 is called "The Part About the Crimes," a chilling tour de force that chronicles the routine rape and murder of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa — a fictional version what was — and is —happening in Ciudad Juarez. Bolano gives us an unforgettable portrait of an earthly hell, a dusty, sun-flayed sprawl of shacks and little factories just teeming with lost souls — gangsters, corrupt cops, media mystics, heartless bureaucrats. Most lost of all are the city's young women, who are exploited at work, sexually devoured and literally tossed dead onto the trash heap. "No one pays attention to these killings," a character remarks at one point, "but the secret of the world is hidden in them."
This is a thrillingly upsetting line, and coming across it, you grasp why Bolano is idolized by so many other writers and why, in a few years time, we'll be seeing novelists doing knockoffs of his work. At a time when so many authors seem to skate along the surface of things — piling up brand names, displaying their childhood love of comic books or hailing small-town cats that saved Iowa towns — his stinging vision of life has hit our shores at just the right time. It measures perfectly with our current mood of precariousness, brought on by war and economic collapse. Reading Bolano, you never feel that he's just fooling around. This was a man who was always looking for the secret of the world.