Epic in its proportions, 2666 is a modern day mystery novel more akin to James Joyce than anything on the shelves by John Grisham. The five sections that comprise the book are set around the world, yet the heart of the narratives remains bound to the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. An industrialized hub, Santa Teresa is home to a multitude of maquiladoras whose workers are paid paltry sums compared to their American sisters directly across the border. An obvious portrait of Ciudad Juarez, Bolaño does not fail to leave out one vital detail. Throughout the book we are confronted with a string murders that exclusively target the women of Santa Teresa. It is clear that Bolaño is not only describing Ciudad Juarez, but he is boldly describing the femicide that has plagued the city for over a decade.
The novel opens with a group of European academics in search of their muse, Benno von Archimboldi. An elusive German writer, he is known only to his publisher. The scholars spend their days teaching his writing and attending conferences devoted to his work. Driven to find Archimboldi, their search brings them to Santa Teresa. It is here that they lose the trail, but they do not give up hope. “Archimboldi is here, and we’re here, and this is the closest we’ll ever be to him,” explains Pelletier, a French scholar who has devoted his life to Archimboldi. It is here that Bolaño reveals the nature of his beast. This town teetering on the brink of fiction and reality is the closest the reader will get to understanding the mystery that unfolds throughout the book. No matter how far Bolaño takes us away, it is to this town that we will eventually return.
Unique to other fictional tales that grapple with femicide, Bolaño does not mythologize the killings. Artfully, he creates a surreal world in which giants exist and wars rage on in castle-filled lands. But he handles the killings with a realistic integrity that enriches the text. The longest and most painfully poignant section titled “The Part about the Crimes” describes the killings and sexual abuses in detail, employing a style that stands apart. We learn the names of the women killed, and of the many more that remain unidentified, with family too far away or too scared to claim their lost daughters and sisters. Just as he does when the trail runs dry on Archimboldi, Bolaño leaves the reader with little closure. Some of the killers are found but most cases remain unsolved.
Written at the end of Bolaño’s life and published posthumously, 2666 is an expansive novel whose stories wildly unfurl leaving the reader with more questions than answers. At the close of the book the truth behind the mysteries remains elusive, however one thing is clear: the murders are not a fantastical portrait of society; rather they are an mercilessly truthful reflection of a world wrought with problems. In this respect the line between fiction and reality is appropriately steadfast in Bolaño’s profoundly affecting new novel.