Only five years after his early death, Roberto Bolaño’s life already reads like a legend. He spent most of it as an obscure, heroically impoverished radical poet drifting across the world (Chile, Mexico, Spain) in search of menial jobs and revolutions. He was imprisoned in his native Chile during Pinochet’s 1973 coup, only to be released eight days later by guards who happened to be his ex-schoolmates. In his late thirties, finding himself suddenly in need of money to support a family, Bolaño turned, improbably, to writing fiction. Even less probably, it worked. Within ten years, he had become one of the most celebrated Spanish-language writers in the world.
Last year, his long novel The Savage Detectives—a menacingly funny chronicle of a gang of avant-garde poets scouring the Mexican desert for another avant-garde poet—became an unlikely English-language best seller. This November, the crescendo of recent Bolaño translations will culminate in what is apparently the fortissimo climax of his entire career: the mammoth, mysteriously entitled 2666, which revolves around the unsolved murders of hundreds of real-life women in Northern Mexico. (He was working on it when he died, at age 50, of liver failure.)
For a certain demographic of high-lit dorks, 2666 is like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: We’ve been shivering for it for months. Given the current climate of critical love, it might even have a shot at becoming the Infinite Jest–style Strangely Popular Giant Novel of the Year. It promises all the Bolaño signatures: sex, violence, nightmares, stories within stories, obsessed obsessives, an intercontinental hunt for a literary recluse, radical art (one painter finishes a self-portrait by affixing his mummified severed hand to the canvas), and the occasional five-page-long sentence. The big question will be, can a former poet whose mind seems to work most powerfully in short dashes, and whose long novels tend to feel like rapid successions of short fevers, sustain our attention for almost 900 pages? Either way, its publication is bittersweet: Although it marks the end, finally, of the English-speaking world’s Bolaño lag, it’s also the end, forever, of our new Bolaño.