2666: The Part About the Critics (Book 1)


A big thanks to Claire and Steph for suggesting read-along of Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666! They've described what they're hosting as a "do-as-you-please read-along," and suggest spreading the five books (or parts) of the novel over five months, interspersing them with other books so as to avoid burnout. They're also asking for monthly check-ins and reading notes. Taking my cue from the "do-as-you-please" aspect of this project, and from Bolaño's own desire that each part of 2666 be published as its own free-standing novel, I think I'll just read this at whatever pace seems right to me, and write up a review of each of the five sections as I get to them. I'll wait to publish each of them, though, until the month allotted by Claire and Steph for that particular book. Sound good? Good.

And now that we've got the logistics out of the way...

I thoroughly enjoyed The Part About the Critics, which is the first book of the five that make up 2666. With all the talk of sex and violence surrounding this novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in these first pages, by Bolaño's light, satiric touch and keen sense of the absurd. (We all know I'm a sucker for absurdism.) More than anything, his style and subject matter reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov: the ridiculousness and insularity of academia, the minute dissections of the reading life, the way that the four protagonists are more than a little silly, yet still sympathetic - Bolaño and Nabokov both handle all these elements masterfully. Bolaño has a firm grasp of the "don't belabor every little joke" principle of humor: his anecdotes are peppered with light, unexplained touches that I found hilarious. In this passage, for example, he writes a brilliant send-up of the self-importance among two opposing camps of scholars studying the enigmatic German author Archimboldi:

The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier's fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.

Although the overarching joke here is a good one (only academics themselves would be so absurdly self-involved as to liken their conferences to Napoleonic battles; it's like something out of a Christopher Guest film), there are so many tiny, near-irrelevant touches that heighten the humor. It's somehow hilarious that the students have come "by train or in vans." The caution or incaution of the conference audience is equally hilarious, given that all most of them are doing is nodding or shaking their heads, as is the fact that Morini finds the suggestion of humor somehow more offensive than suffering or civic duty.

But more than being funny, the pan-European, colonializing self-importance of the critics (representing the big four European centers of France, Spain, Italy, and England) holds a darker note. In this scene, they've come to a German city to attack and triumph over German scholars, in a discussion of a German author, and they are outraged when their interpretations are challenged. The German scholars, who attempt to locate the work of Archimboldi within a greater context of German literature as a whole, are ridiculed. Instead, the protagonists favor of a glamorous, individualistic interpretation that allows Archimboldi to belong to everyone and no one (but mostly, to the four European critics).

Later, when three of the four friends descend on a small Mexican border town to search for Archimboldi himself, their cultural arrogance becomes even more obvious. When a Mexican Archimboldi scholar addresses a note "Dear Colleagues," for example, two of them burst into laughter while the third finds the note depressingly pathetic. None of them seriously consider that a professor from Latin America could possibly be worthy of their regard, yet they fully expect local cooperation in their obsessive quest to track down a writer who obviously wishes to remain hidden. When their motivation is questioned, indeed, their interrogator is met with blank incomprehension: "Because we're studying his works, said the critics."

But the darkness in this first book is not limited to the cultural imperialism of the four protagonists. Indeed, the Mexican section of The Part About the Critics begins to introduce a more sinister note all around. There is a feeling that something is wrong in Santa Teresa, and Bolaño does a fantastic job of creating, via certain bizarre incidents, that atmosphere of vague but profound unease. The critics learn, for example, of an unexplained war between cabbies and hotel doormen, in which the doormen will beat the cabbies senseless unless the latter pay them off. A group of drunk Americans in the bar seem to be observing something of great interest in the street, but when the critics try to share the view, there is nothing to see. Even the critics' hotel rooms and the landscape outside are vaguely unnerving to them. And then there are the rumors of the hundreds of murdered women that have been turning up in the area, about which none of the Europeans can get much information. Something is definitely rotten, and the critics are tempted to put it all down to the lack of civilization in this backwater Mexican burg. At least one of them, though, has the nagging feeling that this vague "something" has been wrong all along:

These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. Bu Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn't understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them, with that slightly repulsive young man they had met in Toulouse, with Dieter Hellfeld and his sudden news about Archimboldi. And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written about, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself, if only intermittently, who read and made notes on an interpreted Archimboldi's books.

And looking back, the reader does remember examples of the same kind of skewed-ness taking place in Europe. There's the recurrent theme of the painter Edwin Johns, who cut off his painting hand, and a certain academic conference "of which Morini had reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax." And then, of course, there is the deliciously bizarre scene about the mugs. I won't say any more. You'll just have to read it for yourself.

I love this kind of unknowable, semi-surreal wrongness in literature, and have ever since I was a child. So Bolaño's mix of Lynchian unease with absurdist humor is pretty much guaranteed to please. I'll be eager to see what the second book of 2666 holds in store.


  • I'll be rereading this for the readalong, Emily, but I very much enjoyed your review. Bolaño goes off on great tangents about everything under the sun, but for me he's probably at his best talking about reading and writing and readers and writers as you touch on above. Can't get enough of the guy's books! You have a very nice blog here, by the way--I shall return!

  • Thanks for the thoughts - I was almost going to read this for the OT challenge, before I knew that it was so long! I'm reading another book by Bolano instead. I'm looking forward to meeting this author, and only more so after your review. :)

  • Hey Emily, thanks for reading along! I'm running a little behind, but I will get back to your thoughts later. I didn't read it yet (afraid of spoilers)! So I just want to cheer you on. I'll link to this as soon as I have my post up. :D

  • So I finally finished it. And wow. It feels exhilarating. I need some time to gather my thoughts. Relax a bit, read your notes. I love how you compare Bolaño to Nabokov. I didn't really see that. But then I only ever read Lolita and my reading of that was quite tainted because of the subject matter which bothered me too much, so I don't remember much of his writing exactly.

    Anyway, really excellent post! I felt exactly the same as you with almost everything ("that atmosphere of vague but profound unease," "unknowable, semi-surreal wrongness in literature," "mix of Lynchian unease with absurdist humor"), you just made it sound better than I could ever articulate. So thank you. (May I copy your entire post to my blog? Lol.)

    The skewed-ness that you mention really set the mood for the book. I don't think it would have the same lingering and foreboding effect if not for that. And this is what kept me on my toes the whole time.

    My thoughts are whirling, I can't even begin to sit down and write. Isn't this completely heady? And it's only the first part. I'm almost afraid to delve on the second.

    By the way, you may write ahead of the designated months if you wish. On my part, I'll just return to your posts after I've read them, so it really wouldn't matter if you go ahead entirely. :D

  • Great review! You picked out some really interesting points which I hadn't previously considered.

    I wonder if the repeated reference to Johns will come back to haunt them later in the book. Do think some one else is going to lost their hand?

  • Emily - Wonderful review. I enjoy your take on "unknowable, semi-surreal wrongness". Speaking of Lynch, I kept waiting for the dwarf to show up!

  • Wow! This is such a great review of what happened in the first part. You really touched on a lot of things I didn't even notice. That's the thing I really enjoy about this read-along. The first thing you brought up that I hadn't noticed was the critics representation of Europe when contrasted with their interaction with the Mexican intellectuals. Very fascinating!

    Great comparison to Nabokov! Overall great great review. I really can't wait to hear what you have to say about part 2!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography