Tuesday, October 26, 2010


by Roberto Bolano

I finished this book in July and it is almost November and I still haven’t written a review of it. Work has been crazy and we went on vacation etc. and I cannot blame this particular book for putting me so far behind in book write ups, but I must admit that I don’t really know what to say about this book. When it first came out it made quite a sensation so of course I immediately bought it. I started reading it in January and read it in the three sections that my book was divided into with other books in between. This is how Publisher’s Weekly described it:

Last year's The Savage Detectives by the late Chilean-Mexican novelist Bolaño (1953–2003) garnered extraordinary sales and critical plaudits for a complex novel in translation, and quickly became the object of a literary cult. This brilliant behemoth is grander in scope, ambition and sheer page count, and translator Wimmer has again done a masterful job. The novel is divided into five parts (Bolaño originally imagined it being published as five books) and begins with the adventures and love affairs of a small group of scholars dedicated to the work of Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German novelist. They trace the writer to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (read: Juarez), but there the trail runs dry, and it isn't until the final section that readers learn about Benno and why he went to Santa Teresa. The heart of the novel comes in the three middle parts: in The Part About Amalfitano, a professor from Spain moves to Santa Teresa with his beautiful daughter, Rosa, and begins to hear voices. The Part About Fate, the novel's weakest section, concerns Quincy Fate Williams, a black American reporter who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight and ends up rescuing Rosa from her gun-toting ex-boyfriend. The Part About the Crimes, the longest and most haunting section, operates on a number of levels: it is a tormented catalogue of women murdered and raped in Santa Teresa; a panorama of the power system that is either covering up for the real criminals with its implausible story that the crimes were all connected to a German national, or too incompetent to find them (or maybe both); and it is a collection of the stories of journalists, cops, murderers, vengeful husbands, prisoners and tourists, among others, presided over by an old woman seer. It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one.
blurb from Publisher’s Weekly via Amazon.com.

I am not sure I agree with Publisher Weekly. My favorite parts were the first “The Part About the Critics” which describes the scholars who have devoted their lives to analyzing Archimboldi searching for him in Mexico, and the final “The Part About Archimboldi” where we learn the full life story of the missing author. I thought the first part was extremely funny describing the self absorb scholars and the entire academic world. I also enjoyed the writing style, although some have found it too detailed:
The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times…The word euphemism ten times…. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times.
I thought this was a much more interesting way to convey the gist of the conversation without actually telling us what was said. I also thoroughly enjoyed the long and complicated Archimboldi story.

I found the Part About the Crimes by far the weakest part and had to force myself to get through it. I knew going in that it was going to be lengthy and overwhelming with incident after incident of murder and rape recounted but I had not anticipated that it would be so boring. Far from bringing home the horror of the crimes it simply made me blaise. Or perhaps that was the point, I don’t know. I just kept thinking he needed an editor.

I am glad that I read it but it certainly wasn’t one of my more memorable reads this year (other than the fact that it took up so much of my reading time). I might consider reading the Savage Detectives but am not rushing to do so.

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