2666 by Roberto Bolano (Shane's book 23, 2009)

I felt a lot of pressure to consider this a masterpiece. After all, that's how almost every critic has described it and James agreed. I can see why it is so highly regarded. It's unusual, for example, for a novel of more than 900 pages to get better the longer it goes on.

2666 is very good indeed but I'd stop short of calling it a masterpiece. In fact it's not even clear that it's a novel. It could easily be viewed as five interlinked novellas.

A brief word about editions: though 2666 is now available in paperback, I recommend the three-volume paperback set linked below. It's a lot easier to read on the move and has some great artwork.

[amtap book:isbn=0374531552]

The first of 2666's five books follows a quartet of academics as they search for a writer, Benno von Archimboldi, who has written a series of incredible books but about whom little is known. A love triangle develops between three of the academics and they travel to the Mexican city of Santa Teresa where, rumour has it, Archimboldi has been sighted.

The second book focuses on a Spanish academic in Santa Teresa who lives with his daughter and appears to be having some kind of breakdown. He appeared briefly in the first book and his daughter will play a part in the third, which is about an American journalist who travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but finds himself more concerned about the large number of women being murdered in the city.

Bolano turns his attention to the murders in the fourth book. The killings, based on the real murders in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 400 women have been killed over the last 15 years, are detailed in cold, relentless detail. There are a couple of stories threaded through this book - about a police inspector having an affair with a psychologist and another about a young policeman learning the basics of detection - but really this is about the murders.

While hack thriller writers (and more of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in a later post) use serial murders as a prop with almost fetishistic glee, Bolano achieves the nearly impossible: he makes each death matter. The weight of sadness accumulates as the story goes on. But there are few solutions, just as there aren't in Ciudad Juarez. Bolano can do nothing other than observe and report.

While the first three sections are good, with frequent passages of writing that are quite dazzling, it wasn't until book four that things clicked into place for me. However, the fifth section, in which we finally meet Archimboldi, is the highlight of the novel. The character Bolano gives us is fully realised and fascinating. He takes us through the writer's life in Germany, his time in the war, his attempts to build a career as a novelist and, eventually, his journey to Santa Teresa.

It's a wonderful piece of writing and I didn't want it to end. It even goes some way to resolving some of the stories from the previous sections. There aren't many resolutions to be found here, just hints at them, but that's not a problem. Bolano isn't concerned with stories particularly; throughout the five books here he throws away more good ideas than the average novelist has in a lifetime.

Instead Bolano is interested in authorship and the way stories pass through society. It's fundamentally a book about writing but it doesn't have to be read that way. There are love stories, war stories, detective stories and more to be found here. All beautifully written.

So why don't I think it's a masterpiece? It has too many extraneous parts. It lacks the clarity of purpose and vision that I would expect from a masterpiece. It's a matter of taste, admittedly. It's possible that the novel would be stronger if the various parts were merged into one narrative. Even then the first three parts are not essential to the whole.

Quibbling aside, this is a great work of fiction. It's challenging, rewarding and passionate. Read it.