2666 – Roberto Bolaño. Part 1: The Part About the Critics

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Steph and Claire are hosting a read-along for the highly acclaimed book, 2666, by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The novel is 900 pages long, and divided into 5 parts. We are reading one part a month, for the next five months.

Here are my thoughts on Part 1: The Part About the Critics, pp. 1-160

Part 1 introduces us to four academics who specialise in the German author Archimboldi. Archimboldi has disappeared, and the academics are keen to discover his whereabouts. They travel to various literary conferences to discuss his work, and hope to find potential clues to his location. There is also a strange love triangle which develops between three of the academics. Not much happens in this section, but each of the characters is introduced vividly. Part 1 doesn’t really work as a book in its own right, but is a good beginning to what will hopefully be a well developed plot.

I found the formality of the book strange to begin with. Perhaps it is just the British culture, but it was really weird for me to read all the characters being referred to by their last names. I got used to it after a while, but then some characters started to be introduced by their first names. Does anyone know why this is?

Sometimes the book went into too much detail:

All four were put up at the same hotel. Morini and Norton were on the third floor, in rooms 305 and 311, respectively. Espinoza was on the fifth floor, in room 509. And Pelletier was on the sixth floor, in room 602.

I felt like it was waffling a bit, and adding too much unnecessary information. I’m sure the book could be reduced down to half its size without losing any crucial points. Does anyone else feel it would benefit from some word pruning?

The plot was a bit unbelievable in places. The scene with the taxi driver was a bit far fetched for me. It is quite normal for someone to say that:

….London was such a labyrinth, he really had lost his bearings.

The cabbie isn’t quoting Borges in saying this, it is a phrase in common usage. I certainly didn’t know that this phrase originated from Borges, and even if the taxi driver was aware of this fact I’m not sure why it resulted in him being severly beaten. It was all a bit odd to me. Did anyone else understand why this section was in the book?

The writing was reminiscent of Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels, although this maybe just because both were set in the world of academia. Does anyone else see a similarity between these two books?

I think it has the potential to be a really good book, and look forward to reading the next four sections, but I am really pleased that we are reading the book over several months, as I think the density of the text would really put me off completing this book in one go, and I would probably have been tempted to give up.

Overall, part 1 was quite average, but has the potential to be the start of a really good book.

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What did you think of part 1?

Are you enjoying the read-along?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this massive book!


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16 Comments

  1. Sandy says:

    Good luck to you on this one! Even if you broke it up into 10 parts, I think I would run the other direction. So I will happily read your opinions instead!

  2. Jackie says:

    Sandy – LOL!!! It isn’t that bad really – it is shorter than Gone with the Wind!!

  3. Steph says:

    Yay! I thought your recap of this section was fabulous! I’ve finished Part One as well, but I’m waiting to post on May 31, so that anyone who hasn’t finished yet doesn’t feel bad and knows they have the full month to read (plus, then I can link to everyone’s recaps thus far!).

    I agree that this section was not as bad as I was anticipating, but there were parts that got overly detailed, and there was this sense that this part was written somewhat aimlessly. I was surprised to find moments of humor, but I also thought there were some “macho overkill” moments too.

    If Claire and I weren’t hosting this, who knows when/if I would have tackled this behemoth. But I’m glad I have, because even though this section perhaps raises more questions than it answers (which is fair since it’s just beginning), I am enjoying the book and look forward to the next part!

    And I completely agree that Part 1 is really not a book in its own right. I would say that very little happens, and in my mind, the characters were not very well fleshed out (aren’t the two young male scholars kind of interchangeable?).

  4. Jackie says:

    Steph – I agree that the two male scholars are interchangeable. It is strange how some bits are so detailed, but others so vague. I look forward to reading your post.

  5. Lu says:

    I just finished it, so hopefully I’ll have my thoughts up soon!

    Great recap. I have to think about these things some more, but I actually enjoyed the randomness. It reminds me of some of my other favorite books. You never know when one of those details is going to come back at ya. (Maybe? That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.) After finishing, I really wanted to keep reading, but I had some self-control and put it down.

  6. Jackie says:

    Lu – When I finished this part I was really glad ti have a month before having to read the next part!! I can only stand the randomness for so long!

    I really hope those small details come back at a later point. I can see why it could be the beginning of an amazing book. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

    I look forward to reading your comments soon.

  7. claire says:

    Woohoo I finished it! I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t, as we are very busy packing up for the big move on Monday. So now I can get to reading your posts, relax for a bit, before I start gathering my thoughts.

    You raised some really good points here. First, I never really noticed about the last names until you pointed it out. I realize now that the reason it felt natural to me, and didn’t bother me, was that I grew up in a culture that used last names more prominently. When I went to the US to study in college, I remember the shock at discovering that students referred to their much older professors by their first names!

    The details didn’t bother me either. The room numbers (as you stated), for example, only served to enhance the images in my head. I didn’t feel it needed to be pruned. I was completely engrossed and thus felt that every word served a purpose and was effective.

    The part about the taxi driver might’ve been included to show how finely the ice we are treading on is, in resorting to an act of violence. I think this may be an important part in leading to the next few books.

    I’m glad you liked it, and looking forward to the next part. I really really loved this and I know it’s a bit abrupt in its ending, but I am okay with it as a standalone, in fact. I guess it’s because I’m very accepting of the plot not being how it should be.

    Whew. So many thoughts racing in my head, don’t know how to pin them down. I’ll try to post some points not yet touched by you or others who’ve already done their post for the month.

  8. Jackie says:

    Claire – Congratulations on completing it despite the house move! I really hope everything goes well with that.

    It is really interesting to hear your thoughts on it, but it is so hard to know which parts are important and which aren’t, as we are really only a tiny way into the book. It will be interesting to see which bits were pivotal plot points in the future.

    I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, and look forward to reading your post on it.

  9. claire says:

    I know what you mean about not knowing which parts we should focus on and which are trivial. But that’s the fun of it, not knowing where this mystery will lead us. I loved the first part so much that I’m too afraid it will disappoint in the end.

  10. Richard says:

    Hi Jackie,

    I’m in this read-along with you, so I thought I’d drop by and say hi. Although I enjoyed reading your review, I didn’t find it strange that the characters were referred to by last names nor did I think that the taxi cab incident was farfetched at all; Claire mentions one good explanation for it in terms of the plot, but I think a lot of violent incidents in life are probably random seeming to outsiders anyway–which I think is Bolaño’s point (note that the critics witness more cab driver violence in Mexico as well, and this time it’s their turn to see the ugliness up close from a different perspective). Anyway, I look forward to checking out everybody’s reactions to part two of “2666,” so I’ll check back in here again later. Cheers!

  11. Jackie says:

    Richard – Thank you for your comments – it is great to meet other people attempting this long book.
    I think referring to characters by their last name only comes across as strange because I am English. I know this is normal in a lot of other countries.
    Claire’s explanation fits very well with the plot, and I am sure it will all make much more sense as we read on.
    I’ll go and have a look at your comments now!

  12. Derek says:

    I haven’t begun reading this yet, but had a couple of thoughts reading your review.

    As for the passage you cite for giving too much detail, is it possible, given the book’s title, that this is a numerology sort of thing? Look at the two sets of room numbers. The first set adds up to 616, the second to 1111. Add the digits of each together: for the first you get 13, and then 4, and the second adds up to 4. Is this significant? I don’t know, but I doubt this sort of numerical symmetry is coincidental.

    As for the last name thing, it’s common in Latino countries to use the surname, sans title, instead of the first name.

    1. Jackie says:

      Derek, You could well be right. I’ve never really noticed numerical symmetry in books before – it isn’t something that appeals to me. I look forward to your thoughts – if you decide to read it.

  13. Hilary says:

    I realise I’m very late with this post since you have long since finished the whole book let alone part 1. However, as I just finshed part 1 a mere 5 minutes ago and looked up your blog 4 minutes ago I thought this was the most obvious place to write a comment.

    I wonder if Bolano is trying to distance himself – or us – from the characters by using their surnames. They are not on the whole sympathetic and this is only reinforced by not using their first names. I also agree with Derek that surnames are quite often used in Spanish, and other European languages such as German, to refer to people. It also occurs frequently in journalistic reporting and crime as well as other genres. (And note, without thinking, I referred to the author of 2666 by his last name…)

    Glad to have found your site!

    1. Jackie says:

      Hi Hilary, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

      What did you think of part 1?

      I’m not sure that Bolano was trying to distance us from the characters by using their last names – it is probably just a cultural thing and it just stood out for me, as I’m not used to it in the books I normally read. Then again he does switch to first names in several pages….Bolano does confuse me a lot!

      Good luck with the rest of the book. Please come back and let me know what you think of it.

  14. Mike Johnson says:

    W/r/t your question about whether or not the book could use pruning… I don’t think so. Reading Bolano is like a meditation. My experience of the details that he adds is that they lull me into a place where I am relating to the narrative on the narrative’s terms… I’m no longer cross-referencing everything I’m reading with my own experience, but am allowing my experience to be handled by the narrator. At any rate, that’s kind of hard to explain, but is just way of saying all those extra words that don’t carry “critical intel” are meaningful to me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Steph & Tony Investigate! » Blog Archive » “2666 – The Part About The Critics” Thoughts and Wrap-Up of Part One
  2. 2666 – Roberto Bolaño. Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano – Farm Lane Books Blog
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