Details of the Dead

In the current issue of Book World, Steven Moore reviews Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666, which he called "a fascinating meditation on violence and literature." The source of the violence that permeates the 898-page novel, which Bolaño finished on his death bed in 2003, is the 400-plus "femicides" that remain unsolved in Ciudad Juarez, which Bolaño fictionalizes as Santa Teresa. The source of the literature is an elusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi, whom several literary critics believe may have turned up in Santa Teresa.

Roberto Bolaño. (Mathieu Bourgois/FSG via Bloomberg News)

In 2666, "Archimboldi never meets his critics, the reporters never solve the crimes, and nothing is resolved at the novel's end," writes Moore. But in the Dec. 8 issue of the Nation, Marcela Valdes (who contributes often to Book World) has nailed the story behind the story. How did Bolaño -- a Chilean who once lived in Mexico but finished his life in Spain and had never been to Juarez -- manage to convey the "strangling, shooting, stabbing, burning, rape, whipping, mutilation, bribery and treachery" rampant in his fictional city and the all-to-real Juarez with prose that, as Valdes describes it, is "equally precise and uncanny"? "To pull off this kind of hyperrealism," she writes, "he must have had the help of someone on the inside, someone whose interest in autopsy was as relentless as his own."

I'll leave it to Valdes to reveal who fed the novelist's hunger for detail; her article about Bolaño -- whom his source called "crazier than a goat" -- is truly compelling.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  November 25, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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