2666 is indisputably a masterpiece — but the kind of masterpiece, unfortunately, that will probably end up buried and unread under everyone’s old piles of New Yorkers. It’s intimidatingly long, its first section is off-putting, and there are uneven patches throughout (Bolaño was still revising when he died). Giving up on it, however, would be a shame. Since Bolaño’s mind tends to work most powerfully in self-contained bursts (anecdotes, images, monologues) rather than in narrative continuity, skipping around is far less of a ño-ño than it would be in a traditional novel.
As a favor to the impatient, after the jump are five essential passages from 2666. If you’re thinking of quitting, try one of these first. It might inspire you to settle in and read the rest.
1. The Crazy Professor: pp.185–215
The stretch that first made me love the book, instead of just respecting it. Amalfitano, a Chilean professor of literature, starts going crazy with fear that his daughter will be kidnapped. He has conversations with an imaginary voice, obsessively writes out the names of philosophers in strange patterns, and hangs a geometry book from a clothesline, where he watches it flap in the wind for hours.
2. “I learned to combine cooking with history”: pp. 246–256
A virtuoso motivational speech by Barry Seaman, ex-co-founder of the Black Panthers turned inspirational-cookbook writer (“pork chops saved my life”). Includes, handily, a complete recipe for Brussels Sprouts with Lemon, as well as a priceless vignette about starfish.
3. Portrait of the Artist: pp. 637–652
The odd, fairy-tale childhood of Hans Reiter (soon to become the mysterious novelist Benno von Archimboldi): his one-eyed mother and one-legged dad, his obsession with seaweed, and the time he was saved from drowning by a man who espoused the healing powers of masturbation.
4. A Reluctant Holocaust: pp. 748–768
At the end of WWII, Reiter hides in the woods for two months, then surrenders to American troops. He’s placed in a camp, where a fellow German inmate tells him the story of how he reluctantly killed hundreds of Greek Jews in Poland.
5. The Part About the Crimes: pp. 353–523
The most powerful stretch of the book’s best section, and, for my money, the best Bolaño you’re ever going to read — in fact, I’d put it up against any 170 pages of any novel, classic or modern. (About halfway through I just started writing “WOW” on every page.) Corrupt cops, inept bureaucrats, a lovable mystic who sinks into trances on live TV, and some of the most disturbing prison violence ever imagined — all surrounding a heartbreaking, humanizing catalogue of the murdered women of Northern Mexico. It’s amazing what densities of life and drama Bolaño manages to whip up in such tiny spaces, over and over, and how masterfully he balances his art with political anger.