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Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666' | The Nation

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Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666'

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Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

The Part About the Goat

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Marcela Valdes
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After years of correspondence, the two savage detectives finally met in November 2002, when Gonzaléz Rodríguez traveled to Barcelona for the official launch of Huesos. Anagrama had bought the book for its prestigious Crónicas imprint, setting it alongside works by Günter Wallraff, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Michael Herr. More than 100 people attended the debut presentation. Months later, the Mexican consulate would decline to send a representative to a theatrical performance inspired by Huesos, stating that its officials "don't support works that denigrate Mexico."

Huesos was launched in Spain partly to protect its author. When it was printed, many of the government and police officials fingered by González Rodríguez were still in power, and its account of systematic corruption in Juárez angered those who wanted to portray Mexico as a civilized nation. But press coverage for the book in Europe provided González Rodríguez with a measure of protection against reprisals. After such coverage, there would be no way of making the book or its author quietly disappear when Huesos was later released in Mexico.

Bolaño didn't attend the launch, but early the next day González Rodríguez and a friend headed north to the seaside town of Blanes to meet him and his family for lunch. They arrived several hours late. Hung over from the previous night's celebration of dinner and absinthe, González Rodríguez and his friend had boarded the wrong train. Bolaño forgave their late appearance, opening a bottle of wine and offering ham sandwiches. Knowing that Bolaño's illness made it impossible for him to drink liquor, González Rodríguez had brought him a half-kilo of coffee from La Habana, the cafe in Mexico City that Bolaño immortalized in The Savage Detectives. Bolaño's liver was so bad that he couldn't drink coffee either, but González Rodríguez recalls that he opened the bag and buried his nose in it.

For the next several hours, they talked about the murders in Juárez. For once, they had no worries about tapped phones or intercepted e-mails. Bolaño could ask all the questions he wanted.

Listen, Bolaño joked, I'm going to make you a character in my novel. I'm going to plagiarize the idea from Javier Marías, who made you a character in La negra espalda del tiempo.

González Rodríguez felt his stomach sink. Really, Roberto? he said. With my name?

Yes, don't worry about it, Bolaño said. His daughter, Alejandra, was playing with González Rodríguez's friend. Bolaño looked happy. González Rodríguez didn't know what to say.

The next evening they met for sushi in Barcelona. This time they talked, not about Juárez but about literature. Bolaño asked if writers in Mexico still wore beards or if they'd all cut them off. At one point, he announced that he and Mario Santiago had officially dissolved the Infrarealist movement in Paris in 1992. He's crazy, González Rodríguez thought. He thinks that the only Infrarealists who matter are him and Santiago.

Shortly after this visit, Bolaño published the essay "Sergio González Rodríguez Under the Hurricane," which declared his affection and admiration for the journalist and sang the praises of his book. González Rodríguez's "technical help in the writing of my novel," he wrote, "has been substantial." And Huesos en el desierto is "not only an imperfect photograph--how could it be anything else--of evil and of corruption; it also transforms itself into a metaphor of Mexico and of Mexico's past and of the uncertain future of all of Latin America."

Seven months later, on July 1, 2003, Bolaño was admitted to a hospital in Barcelona. Two weeks later, he died.

When 2666 was released in Mexico in 2004, González Rodríguez could barely bring himself to read it. "It took me months to read the section about the dead women," he says. "It terrified me. To live through it is one thing, but to see it told by a great literary master like Bolaño isn't funny. Roberto is crazier than a goat, you understand? You can't believe it because in some way you're there."

As a reporter, González Rodríguez had cultivated a critical distance that helped him ignore how easily he could be attacked again. Finding in 2666 a character with his name pinioned to a world of killers and cover-ups shattered that illusion. At one point Bolaño even describes a kidnapping exactly like the 1999 attack on González Rodríguez, except that it ends in death. It's not clear whether the reporter who dies is the character "Sergio González."

Such pointed mind games aside, any Mexican journalist writing about cartels or corruption would have felt vulnerable in 2004. That year, five investigative reporters were killed or disappeared in Mexico. One of them was shot to death in front of his two young children. According to a report put out by Reporters Without Borders last year, Mexico has become the second-most dangerous place in the world for journalists, the first being Iraq. Alejandro Junco de la Vega, the president of Grupo Reforma, recently told an audience at Columbia University that his three newspapers no longer run bylines, in order to protect their journalists. "We find ourselves under the siege of drug lords, criminals," he explained, "and the more we expose their activities, the harder they push back." Junco himself has moved his entire family to "a safe haven in the US."

So it may be a coincidence that the same year 2666 was published, González Rodríguez decided to stop traveling to Juárez. He'd heard there was a bounty on his head in the state of Chihuahua. Suits alleging slander had been filed, and he risked being jailed the moment he set foot in the state. Given these maneuvers, his lawyers recommended that he not enter Chihuahua under any circumstances. (It wasn't until April 2007 that President Felipe Calderón signed a federal law that decriminalized defamation and "insults," and obliged state governments to do the same.) The last time González Rodríguez visited, nobody wanted to talk about what was going on. It had become a city of closed doors.

Neither Huesos nor 2666 is an easy book to read. I was plagued by nightmares as I read both of them. Their pages are like freshly dug graves, but they are shadowed by different philosophies of evil. In Huesos, Juárez is a casualty of rampant corruption. When cops and courts look the other way, González Rodríguez believes, brutal acts become ordinary events. The rape and murder of women, the assassination of journalists, the kidnapping of people for ransom: none of these crimes are page-one news in Mexico anymore. "A malevolent person, like a serial killer, can unleash a kind of sweeping effect," González Rodríguez says, igniting a mechanism of extermination that rivals that of any totalitarian dictatorship. This "normalization of barbarism," he argues, is the most serious problem facing Mexico and Latin America today.

In the final section of 2666, "The Part About Archimboldi," Bolaño presents a more sinister vision of evil. The section opens at the end of World War I, with a wounded Prussian's return home. Everything is changing, a stranger tells him: "The war was coming to an end and a new era was about to begin. [The Prussian] answered, as he ate, that nothing would ever change." Indeed, the whole finale of 2666, which spans the First World War to the late 1990s, seems designed to prove Archimboldi's belief that history is nothing more than a series of instants "that vie with one another in monstrousness." As Archimboldi fights for the Third Reich on the Eastern Front and starts his career as a novelist in the ruins of Berlin, Bolaño regales us with tale after tale of rape and murder. In the hills of Germany, a man kills his wife and the authorities turn a blind eye. During the war, city folk who flee to the country are routinely robbed, raped and killed. The land around a Romanian castle is filled with buried human bones, and allusions to the Holocaust abound.

In this landscape of brutality and impunity, Santa Teresa seems less aberrant. It's just one of many places where an underlying, pervasive evil has broken the surface. As it is now in Santa Teresa, the novel seems to say, as it has always been, as it shall be in the cemeteries of 2666. Evil is as widespread and eternal as the sea.

This vision of violence brings to mind America's own apocalyptic writer, Cormac McCarthy, but Bolaño's novel has more sex and comedy, and his hero is quite different from those in The Road or Blood Meridian. Archimboldi marches through the battlefields of Poland and Romania like a man trolling along the bottom of the sea, immersed in the deep's dark horror yet untouched by it. As a teenager, he reads Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and is captivated by the idea of a "lay and independent" medieval knight. His own holy grail turns out to be a dead man's diary he discovers in an abandoned shtetl.

A lay and independent knight: these words could describe both the great detectives and the great writers who wander through the pages of 2666. All of them are loners who devote themselves to reading and swimming in the abyss. Being a writer in this world is as dangerous as being a detective, walking through a graveyard, looking at ghosts.

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