Natasha Wimmer on Roberto Bolaño’s “2666”

This essay was originally featured in the brochure for Natasha Wimmer and Francisco Goldman's December 4, 2008 discussion of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, held at the Idlewild bookstore in New York City. Francisco Goldman's essay can be found here—Editors

I'm often asked what challenges I faced in translating 2666. I should say first of all that, despite appearances, 2666 was not impossibly hard to translate. In many ways, it was easier than The Savage Detectives; partly, of course, because The Savage Detectives was my first Bolaño translation and by the time I worked on 2666 I had the benefit of experience, but partly because of certain characteristics of 2666.

From the beginning, I was struck by how different Bolaño's novels are from one another. By Night in Chile, the novel with which he was introduced to English-speaking audiences, is baroque, virtuosic, short, and tightly constructed. The Savage Detectives is much longer, looser, and more freewheeling. 2666 is even longer and wider-ranging, but it isn't loose at all; there is a tension and blankness to it that give it the grandeur and alien quality of a classical frieze. It wasn't until I had finished translating 2666 that I thought I had some clue about what stylistically linked the three novels, and all of Bolaño's fiction. The answer I finally came up with was this: in each novel, Bolaño strives in different ways to avoid rhetoric; or in other words, to avoid entrenched habits of expression, ordinary eloquence, and even sense, from time to time.

He didn't set out to do this just to prove something, to experiment, or to make some nihilistic statement. As he said many times, writing was for him a radical way of living, and thus he had to find a vital and arresting and, in some ways, anti-literary approach to fiction. In The Savage Detectives, which is perhaps his most personal book—personal in the sense of autobiographical, but also in the sense that it is about people—he creates characters who may be eccentric, but who are instantly human, and who, as the critic Benjamin Kunkel writes in a review of TSD in the London Review of Books, are not just "robust character[s] inhabiting well-made [stories]…but something more powerful and certainly, in fiction more unusual:…simply people, who instead of having a story, had a life."

Curiously enough, in 2666 Bolaño essentially sacrifices his uncanny ability to craft characters. Not entirely: there are a few characters in 2666 who would be at home in The Savage Detectives. Amalfitano, for example. But it's as if Bolaño has switched modes. In 2666, his characters are closer to symbolic creations than viscerally real humans (Belano, the most opaque figure in The Savage Detectives, is their precursor). As Mexican novelist and critic Juan Villoro writes, they can be seen as "individuals removed from the vacillations of the inner life who, like Greek heroes, advance toward their destiny with their eyes wide open."The territory through which they advance is a patchwork of pastiche and satire. Despite—or because of—the apocalyptic subject matter, the prevailing tone is deadpan cool.

Both The Savage Detectives and 2666 present obvious challenges for the translator. The Savage Detectives is Bolaño's most colloquial novel, told in the voices of more than fifty characters and full of slang, real and invented and culled from multiple countries. 2666 draws upon hardboiled crime fiction and the police procedural; it displays familiarity with forensic science, the Black Panthers, German army divisions, prison culture, Soviet science fiction, boxing, seaweed, and obscure forms of divination. Its quality of detachment makes it generally a simpler book to translate, but it too demands the kind of fractured fluency that replaces conventional lyricism in Bolaño's fiction. The best description of what is required might still be Bolaño's own prescription for himself at the age of twenty-three, as set down in the famous infrarrealist manifesto: "Tenderness as an exercise of speed. Breath and heat. Breakneck experience, structures that devour themselves, wild contradictions."