An Animal of Colossal Proportions

This review first appeared at the new Muslim Institute website (worth watching)..

These days it seems that almost everyone sees the apocalypse bearing down. This is the age of Kali Yag and the oncoming rapture, the arrival of the triumphant Mehdi, of catastrophic climate change and resource shortage. This is the age in which Beduin compete to build the taller towers, in which fog appears above cities as a sign of their evil.

2666’ is a vast apocalypse-in-motion novel set in the 1990s. It was written by a poet who turned to novel writing in his forties only in order to support his young family. He died at 50.

Roberto Bolano wrote ‘2666’ in five books. Before he died he asked that each book be published separately, because he believed that would leave more cash for his loved ones. His publishers decided to ignore this directive, for each book feeds thematically and by plot tangent into the others. The novel has a cumulative, total effect.

The first book – effortlessly cosmopolitan, densely detailed, persistently digressive – centres on a menage a trois between three European academics who also share an obsession with a reclusive German writer called Archimboldi. When a British-Pakistani cab driver expresses his outrage at the academics’ unorthodox relationship, the two men of the trio beat him to a pulp. Afterwards, “they were convinced that it was the Pakistani who was the real reactionary and misogynist, the violent one, the intolerant and offensive one, that the Pakistani had asked for it a thousand times over.” Almost in passing, the episode diagnoses a very contemporary European disease, but also contributes to some of the novel’s central themes, of violence, anonymity, senselessness and the failure of imagination.

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