It's like a story out of a Stephen King novel.
Stricken with a fatal disease, an obscure novelist races against the clock to finish his final book. Published posthumously, it becomes an international bestseller, securing the author's fame for the ages.
But this isn't a thriller. It really happened. In 2003, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño died at his home in Spain shortly after completing his magnum opus: 2666, a sprawling novel with a massive cast of characters and multiple settings in Europe and North America.
The novel was translated into English by Natasha Wimmer and published in the United States by Farrar-Straus & Giroux in 2008. The book was the literary event of the year and was the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
The novel was not exactly primed for breakout success. There are hundreds of characters. Its subject is relentlessly dark. It weighs in at nearly 900 pages. A walk in the park 2666 is not.
The book is divided into five sections. "The Part about the Critics" describes the careers of an incestuous confederation of literary scholars obsessed with the work of a reclusive German author who writes under the pen name Benno von Archimboldi. After receiving a tip that the author was spotted in Mexico, the critics decamp to Santa Teresa, a desolate, industrial city in the Sonora desert in the shadow of the United States border: "red-tailed hawks soared above in the sky, which was purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death."
In Santa Teresa, the critics meet a Spanish philosophy professor whose collapsing career and tenuous grip on sanity is explored in "The Part about Amalfitano." Abandoned by his demented wife, Amalfitano begins to hear a disturbing voice and becomes increasingly paranoid.
"At some point during dinner, Amalfitano thought he noticed a rather murky exchange of glances between the rector and his wife. In her eyes he glimpsed something that might have been hatred... When he recovered and looked at the other dinner guests he realized that no one had noticed the slight shadow, like a hastily dug pit that gives off an alarming stench."
The only thing holding Amalfitano together is his love for his daughter, Rosa, who attracts the attention of Oscar Fate, a good-natured but naïve American sportswriter from Harlem who's come to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. In the novel's third section, "The Part about Fate," Santa Teresa's dark side lures Fate into a nightmare that is part pulp fiction, part psychosexual thriller.
"Brother, this city is a shithole," said Omar Abdul.
"Well, there are some beautiful women here," said Fate.
"The women here aren't worth shit," said Omar Abdul.
"Then you should go back to California," said Fate.
In "The Part of about the Crimes," Bolaño pulls no punches and reveals in lurid detail the discovery of scores of murdered women. The prose he uses to describe the crime scene feels like it was lifted from the pages of a true-crime novel, which, in a sense, they were. Santa Teresa is Bolaño's fictionalized Juarez, where hundreds of young women and girls have been killed and dumped in the desert that surrounds the city in all directions.
"The woman seemed to be about nineteen and the cause of death was various stab wounds to the chest, all or almost all potentially fatal, produced by a double-edged blade. The woman was wearing a pearl-gray vest and black pants. When her pants were removed in the forensic lab, it was discovered that she had on another pair of pants, gray. Human behavior is a mystery, declared the medical examiner."
"The Part about Archimboldi," 2666ís final section, comes full circle and deals with the story of how the obscure German author became a cult figure. Death haunts virtually every page of Bolaño's masterpiece. Whether it was the realization that his own demise was close at hand, or the need to speak out on the horrors of Juarez while he still could, we feel the end at every turn.
Yet there is very little resolution in 2666. There are no heroes; nor is the reader comforted with the myth of a single villain. Bolaño seems to be suggesting that what makes Santa Teresa so terrifying is that we created this world and we allow it to continue to exist. Our silence makes us culpable.
That's scarier than any bogeyman we could conjure up. On this score, Stephen King agrees. In his review of 2666 he wrote, "Bolaño paints a mural of a poverty-stricken society that appears to be eating itself alive. And who cares? Nobody, it seems."
That was in 2009. Four years later, women are still dying, and we still don't care.