Is This Novel a Masterpiece? Chilling: Pink Crosses Mark the Spot Where the Corpses of Eight Women Were Found in 2001 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Living on Borrowed Time: Bolano Worked on 2666 for Five Years

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID SEXTON

2666: A NOVEL by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Picador, [pounds sterling]20)

ROBERTO Bolano died in July 2003, at the age of 50, in hospital in Barcelona while waiting for a liver transplant. He had known for more than 10 years that his liver was severely compromised, probably from hepatitis C contracted while he was a heroin addict.

For five years he had been working furiously on this enormous novel before his death and hoped to do more. In June 2003, he told a Spanish paper that he had to correct more than a thousand pages, "labour worthy of a 19th-century miner", and would do it after the operation.

"I am third on a list to receive a transplant". He never made it to the top.

Bolano was born in Santiago, Chile, the son of a truck driver and a teacher.

The family travelled around a lot and, when Roberto was 15, moved to Mexico City. As an adolescent, he read ravenously and started writing poetry, but he was also dyslexic and dropped out of high school, becoming politically active as a Trotskyist and travelling to El Salvador.

In 1973, back in Chile, he was arrested after Pinochet's coup and was lucky to be released, when, after eight days, a prison guard remembered him as a school-friend. For some years he wandered hippyishly around Europe, doing odd jobs, calling himself "Roberto Bolano, Poet and Vagabond".

In the Eighties he got off heroin, settled in Blanes, a Costa Brava tourist town, and married a Catalan. In 1990, they had a son, and later a daughter and Bolano decided that, to make a living for his family, he needed, like it or not, to switch from poetry to prose.

He published a series of novels and in 1998 won the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker Prize for The Savage Detectives, until now his best-known novel in translation.

Bolano left instructions for 2666 to be published in five parts, one per year, to provide for his children after his death.

His literary executors reversed this decision and have published it as a whole, a huge book of more than 900 pages of small type, taking a solid week to read.

It's a good decision because the novel does, in an eccentric and original fashion, finally cohere.

The first section, The Part About the Critics, an extended Borgesian fable, presents four literary scholars, three men and one English woman, Liz Norton, who all work on the same writer a mysterious, elderly German novelist called Archimboldi who, though now of possible-Nobel-winner stature, has masked his biography and disappeared from view.

All three of the male critics fall in love with Liz and she has complicated affairs with them. Then they learn that their author, Archimboldi, might be found in a Mexican border city, Santa Teresa and three of them set off to look for him.

Santa Teresa is clearly modelled on the city of Ciudad Juarez, notorious for hundreds of unsolved cases of the rape, murder and mutilation of young women.

The critics do not find Archimboldi in this unnerving place and, with the end of this section, they disappear from view.

It is Santa Teresa itself that proves to be at the centre of 2666.

The second section, The Part About Amalfitano, presents the descent into madness of a local professor, whom the critics have met only in passing, who knows the work of Archimboldi but doesn't especially value it.

In the third, The Part About Fate, a black American reporter called Oscar Fate comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match and gets sucked into the city's underworld of drug barons, bodyguards, nightclubs and murder. …