Fiction — print. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Picador, 2008. Originally published 2004. ￼898 pgs. Purchased.
In the introduction to Bolaño’s novel, which was published posthumously, his editor explains that Bolaño intended for the novel to be published as a five novel series rather than as one colossus tome. Up until Part 5, I wondered if his heirs and publisher had done him a disservice in publishing this collection as one novel. Each part felt standalone; the content and focus of one part was different from the next with only the occasionally overlap of characters.
- In Part One, readers are introduced to four academics enthralled with the writings of a reclusive German author named Archimboldi as they make a plan to track him down based on an alleged sighting in Mexico.
- In Part Two, readers are introduced to a Chilean philosopher who arrives in the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa from Spain with his daughter, Rosa. The philosopher grows concerned that his daughter will end up abused or murdered due to her inheritance of her mother’s flighty behavior.
- In Part Three, readers meet an American journalist sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. Disenfranchised with the assignment, the journalist looks for another story and learns from a Mexican journalist about a string of unsolved murders. He starts his own investigation after his newspaper rejects the story, leading him to meet Rosa from Part Two.
- In Part Four, readers are eventually introduced to a police detective in love with an elusive older woman after a nauseatingly long recollection of the young women brutally raped, murdered, and largely ignored by the police in Santa Teresa.
- In Part Five, readers are introduced to the German mother of a man convicted of committing the murders in Part Four, despite the fact that the murders continue after he is arrested. In recounting her life story, readers learn she is the only sister of the German author whom the academics in Part One were interested in tracking down.
As daunting as the size of this novel is, Part One was quite the hook for me. I was rather enthralled with the academics and how their love for Archimboldi manipulated their relationships and decisions. I found the shift to entirely different character and storyline to be rather jarring and disappointing given how Part One ended, but Bolaño’s writing style is so vivid and intricately written that I was charmed enough to push forward.
Calm is the one thing that will never let us down. And ￼Amalfitano said: everything else let us down? And the voice:￼ Yes, that’s right, it’s hard to admit, I mean it’s hard to have to amid it to you, but that’s the honest to God truth. Ethics lets us down? The sense of duty lets us down? Honesty let us down? Curiosity lets us down? Love lets us down? Bravery lets us down? Art lets us down? That’s right, set the voice, everything lets us down, everything. Or let you down, which isn’t the same thing but for our purposes it might as well be, except calm, is the one thing that never lets us down, though there’s no guarantee of anything, I have to tell you. You’re wrong, said Amalfitano, bravery never lets us down. And neither does our love for our children. Oh no? said the voice. No, said￼￼ Amalfitano, suddenly feeling calm. (pg. 208)￼
Parts Two and Three had compelling moments; I was particularly intrigued by the gentleness the philosopher showed to his estranged wife when she returned after years of silence. But Part Four was a slog to get through. Reading about hundreds of murdered women – I wondered at one point if the title was the number of women murdered – was very difficult and provided a strong incentive to put the book aside and stop reading.
But I persevered and was rewarded with a final fascinating and (finally) connecting chapter. The chapter explains how pain permeates through generations, how horrors in one generation and/or one part of the world can bleed over to another.
Bolaño’s novel may be considered unfinished, but I felt like this chapter provided the closure that I needed. The stories told have stuck with me not because questions linger (although, some do), but because of the quality of Bolaño’s writing and the way each part enveloped me as a reader. I’m less muted in my praise than some of the major publications that brought it to my attention back in 2008, but I still gladly and eagerly gave this novel four starts on GoodReads.