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It takes a singular talent to make a book of 1,000 pages that is as hard to put down as it is to pick up. Despite its size, 2666 retains the agility of a thriller.

A giant reclusive German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, is being traced by a group of European academics who share a reverence for his novels, their own status and each others' beds. All we are told about the novels is that ‘the way the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere... all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely’.

At the centre of the story is a city in a desert: Santa Teresa (a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez) on the Mexican border with the United States. This is, indeed, a cauldron of violence – of the sex-trade 'n drug-wars 'n export-processing zones. Hundreds of women, most of them workers in the maquiladora factories, are being raped and murdered, their mutilated bodies strewn around the city with the trash. They are the only people denied the perceptions, recollections and dreams of the others from whom the story flows in unpredictable directions, generating a unique narrative power and menace as it goes.

Minor editorial slips suggest a rush to market the mystique of Bolaño – a literary vagabond, originally from Chile, who died in 2003 while still working on 2666.

There is nowhere quite like the fractured everywhere the novel explores with such poetic wit. Bolaño reputedly never visited Ciudad Juárez himself. Fifteen years ago, I did. The hellish place has stayed with me ever since. So too, perhaps, will this remarkable book.


New Internationalist issue 425 magazine cover This article is from the September 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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