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Originally published November 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 20, 2008 at 6:45 AM

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Book review

"2666": Restless writer takes saga on convoluted route

Roberto Bolaño's massive five-part novel "2666" is the magnum opus of the Chilean novelist and poet who died in 2003, incorporating everything from literary critics on the trail of a reclusive writer to the gruesome murders of women factory workers in and around Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Special to The Seattle Times

"2666"

by Roberto Bolaño,

translated by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

912 pp., $30

To read Roberto Bolaño's massive and final five-part novel, "2666," is to embark on a gigantic journey with this restless and imaginative writer, whose prose ranges as far and wide as did the author's own path across Chile, Mexico and Spain.

Bolaño, the author of the highly regarded "The Savage Detectives", left "2666" almost complete upon his death at the age of 50 in 2003.

He originally intended the novel to be published as five separate books, one per year, and I'm not so sure he was wrong; though eventually it becomes clear that the five parts all relate to a central theme, they are remarkably different from each other in many respects.

How to describe this mammoth book with its mysterious title? That title, some commentators believe, might stem from Bolaño's view that 2666 was the year of an approaching apocalypse, but that concept isn't really borne out in the novel.

What we have instead is a saga that starts and ends in present-day Germany, but takes a convoluted route on its way. Every piece of it seems somehow different from every other piece, written by an author who composes everything from sharply pointed dialogue to sentences that spin on and on for five pages.

The wryly witty opening "book," called "The Part About the Critics," is a deadpan-funny account of four very different literary critics on the trail of a mysterious and reclusive writer, Archimboldi, who ends up in the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa — where someone is killing hundreds of women factory workers. (The town and the events are based on real-life Ciudad Juárez, where more than 400 women have similarly disappeared in the past 15 years.)

The second part, "The Part about Amalfitano," details the life and times of a widowed professor and his teenage daughter; the latter is featured at greater length in the novel's very diffuse third section, "The Part About Fate."

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Toughest to read — but profound in its impact — is the fourth part, "The Part About the Crimes," in which the gruesome focus is on the Mexican murders.

Dark and somehow dispassionate despite the outrage it stirs in the reader, this section is full of macabre details from the police records: how the women would disappear and the corpses would later be found, with precise accounts of the condition of the remains and the remnants of their clothing.

Even this chapter, however, is leavened with ironic humor, as the beleaguered policemen make endless jokes about women (along the lines of "How do you give a woman more freedom?" — "Get her a bigger kitchen"). Bolaño tells us after this witticism, "A great blanket of laughter arose over the long room, as if death were being tossed in it."

This chapter is a maelstrom of wickedness, incompetence, indifference and injustice, described without judgment but with compelling narrative virtuosity.

Finally, in the fifth section ("The Part About Archimboldi"), the novelist returns to his original subject, that mysterious German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, who in turn ends up in Mexico at the novel's end, bringing the epic full circle.

The writing style, with each page full of brilliant touches, is hard to categorize.

Originally a poet, Bolaño writes this massive novel with a poet's ear for the succinct word — yet there are single uninterrupted sentences that go on for five pages, with clauses heaped upon clauses.

His stylistic range is as vast as the canvas of this mighty novel, one that may well change you as you read.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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