2666

Issue section: 
(344)

Roberto Bolaño, Picador; £20

This is a bewildering book. Like its predecessor, The Savage Detectives, it is an exhausting journey backwards and forwards across the globe, in and out of bars and brothels, leaping from culture to culture.

In fact, 2666 is not one but five novels, intended by its author, who died in 2003, to be published separately. In the end they were put together in a single volume, although the link between them is very tenuous.

One is a search for a writer - Archimboldi - whose real name and whereabouts are never really determined. In fact everything about him is at the level of hearsay - even when we are told his story in the fifth novel. The other link is the Mexican border town when he is rumoured to have lived - Santa Teresa. The town is a lightly disguised metaphor for Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds of women have been murdered in recent years by unknown killers - just as they are in Santa Teresa.

The fourth and longest of the books, The Part about the Crimes, is an unrelenting forensic catalogue of horror, worthy of James Ellroy, the master of pulp fiction. The dead women are young, and most of them work in the "maquiladora" assembly plants along the border. They are largely migrants, undocumented workers whose deaths just serve to underline the brutal indifference to their fate on the part of the factory owners, the police and the state.

The link between the stories, it would seem, is the search itself - an investigation that exposes the violence, fleeting passions and hypocrisy of worlds as far apart as the academic congress of the first novel, the prize fight of the third, the police investigation of the fourth, the biography of Archimboli in the fifth, that travels through every kind of distraction and detour and transformation until the young German soldier finally turns into the elusive Archimboli.

Bolaño described himself on his business cards as a "poet and vagabond", as if the two things were one and the same. The group of poets at the heart of The Savage Detectives call themselves the "visceral realists" - a kind of joke at the expense of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which Bolaño claimed to despise. Their story follows Bolaño's own history very closely - his wanderings, his drug addiction, his sexual obsessions and his obvious conviction that it is random events that shape the lives of people.

In 2666 the writer Archimboli moves from the literary world of post-revolutionary Russia, through the Second World War, to Spain, Italy and Mexico. Chance and a cruel fate shape every life - so the very idea of history is called into question. All that there can be, it would seem, is a record of events, however disconnected they may seem, and literary reflections on them.

Like Jorge Luis Borges, whom he greatly admired, Bolaño seems to see chaos and violence just beneath the ordered surface of the world. But unlike Borges, whose writing was economical in the extreme, Bolaño records every minor detail but provides little in the way of explanation. Perhaps that's what he meant by "visceral realism" - a journey away from history and into literature itself?