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"The truth," one character in 2666 notes, "is like a strung-out pimp in the middle of a storm." Of all the quotes one might pull from its 900 pages, this provides the most concise, and arguably the best, encapsulation of the novel's personality. It is a traumatising, almost maddening book, and large parts of it are not particularly pleasurable to read and seem almost pointless. Grappling with it, trying to understand it, is like trying to understand a strung-out pimp in a storm. But, like the simile, in which the novel's central themes of violence, sex, insanity and loss are also compressed, 2666 is undeniably brilliant.

It is maximally ambitious and massively, unapologetically long, containing a huge cast of characters whose stories sometimes have beginnings or endings but almost never have both. Scores of characters appear fleetingly in unexpected, almost unwelcome digressions. A character might be telling a story about someone who told a story about someone (who told a story), and a protean narrative voice will shift between those of the various story-tellers while remaining in the third person. There are incarnations of historical figures and living people, sometimes under their real names, sometimes under aliases, and imaginary characters with nicknames and pen-names, with pregnant, mythic names or mundane ones, or, mystifyingly, with the names of real people on whom they are not based. The novel is full of dream sequences, nightmare sequences. It features the 10-page paragraph and the five-page sentence. To add further ambiguity, Roberto Bolaño had not quite finished revising the book when he died, and it is unclear to what extent its five parts were intended to stand as independent novels or novellas. For those without Spanish, the final barrier to interpretation is reading the novel in translation, although all the indications are that Natasha Wimmer has done a magnificent, superhuman job here.

The novel has only two concrete elements that are constant or semi-constant. One is Santa Teresa, a fictional industrial town situated in the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico, close to the US border. It is based closely on Ciudad Juárez, a real Mexican city where, since 1993, hundreds of women and girls have been raped and killed, their abandoned bodies found at a rate of almost one a week, without any convincing investigation by the authorities. This is the doom-laden setting for the middle three sections, and it is where all roads ultimately lead.

The other major entity in 2666 is, rather incongruously, an imaginary German novelist who writes under the absurd pseudonym Benno von Archimboldi. He dominates the first and last sections, but is absent, except in faint spirit, from the other three. Besides Archimboldi and Santa Teresa, and a handful of lesser characters that crop up more than once, there is no common ground between the sections in terms of plot. It is theme alone that binds them together.

Some of the sections may not be effective as individual books, or at least would be nowhere near as commanding in isolation as they are in concert with the rest, but the group can certainly be read out of order, or in various combinations. One of the most obvious of these alternate arrangements, for simple chronological reasons, is to start with the last part followed by the first, making the novel circular. The resulting structure is something like a spider's web, on any part of which the hapless fly of a reader may land, with Santa Teresa, or whatever Santa Teresa stands for, waiting in the centre.

All roads lead back to Santa Teresa, but they come from wildly different directions: via Harlem, Arizona, almost every country in Europe, several universities, at least three insane asylums, an horrific Mexican prison, and both the German and Russian sides of the Eastern Front in the Second World War.

Each of these sources, and there are many more, contains a dozen characters, a dozen half-told tales which are included only because they bear some relationship to a particular theme. The themes are strictly oppressive: madness, disappointment in love, violence in sex, homophobia, prostitution, corruption, failure. The beauty is in the way they are brought out, by subtle correspondences within the disparate sweep of the narrative. Several dominant motifs emerge, centred in the characters' dreams and flights of madness, and particularly in Bolaño's often staggering similes. It would be impossible to give enough examples to fully illustrate either the precision or the gigantic scope of this process, but a single particularly dense example may hint at it. In the second section, a philosopher named Amalfitano is slowly going mad:

The voice said: be careful, but it said it as if it were very far away, at the bottom of a ravine revealing glimpses of volcanic rock, rhyolites, andesites, streaks of silver and gold, petrified puddles covered with tiny little eggs, while red tailed hawks soared above in the sky, which was purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death.

Images of birds of prey, their wings and claws, litter the novel, as do images of ravines, craters and crags, along with many other recurrent motifs. The web is utterly complex, but in luminous moments like this one, multiple motifs briefly align. It's in these alignments that Bolaño gently urges the reader to begin to see the hawks as an incarnation of whatever force is killing women in Santa Teresa, and the ravine — that ravine at the bottom of which many of the girls' bodies are found, that public grave into which every unidentified body is tossed, that mass-grave into which Jews on the Eastern front are pushed — as the abyss on the brink of which we all stand, facing away.

It is easy to see why 2666 is a critics' favourite. It has a depth far beyond what one reviewer is able to touch on, and in its enormous size, incredible variety and detail it will be an almost inexhaustible goldmine for those willing to really commit to it. It will justly exert a major influence on other writers. But there will also be many readers who decide that some of the stories in the sprawling universe of 2666 work better than others, and that the quest for totality has resulted in a work that is not just imperfect but diluted.

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