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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.

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