The title is the first clue, I guess. The sequence of four numbers has absolutely no referent in the novel, and for the novel’s readers, its most obvious referent–that of a year–is so far in the future that imagination is rendered sterile. Hungrily, one’s eyes roam to the next obvious referent, the triad “666” or the number of the beast, that familiar apocalyptic creature of the Christian book of Revelations. Future apocalypse? The year of the end of the world? Nothing in the novel portends such a momentous, cosmic reckoning, and yet it’s hard to shed the rather creepy feeling that this text is centrally about time and judgment.
The epigraph is the second clue. It’s from Charles Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” The line is from the first stanza of the seventh section of the poem, “The Voyage” (Le Voyage) of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du mal). The entire stanza reads:
Bitter is the knowledge one gains from voyaging!
The world, monotonous and small, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!
(Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!)
Perhaps the context matters; perhaps not. Perhaps readers can infer from the context that the epigraph of 2666 refers to an image of humanity (“our image”), as opposed to an image of history or nature, or that the novel marks time as human time when(ever) lush, life-giving horror interrupts the dry severity of boredom. Is horror life-giving? Well, does not horror sell–is it not what is sought and imbibed greedily? I prefer the coercion embedded in a literal transcription of the French: “The world…makes us see our image.” That which is not human (or at least not self) presses on the human/self willfully, and the effect is like being forced to look in a mirror. What looks back is horror surrounded by boredom–and thus is judged the so-called pinnacle of creation.
But can this judgment really apply to the artless, bumbling, grieving, ordinary, sex-obsessed, and often rather grotesque characters of 2666?
One last clue. The editors of this posthumously published masterpiece have included a postscript that references Boleaño’s 1999 novel, Amulet (the year 1999 standing in a tempting aesthetic inversion, it seems to me, to the year 2666):
“I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city’s imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more [sic], and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” [bold added]
Taking these three ‘clues’ together, I suggest 2666 is a book of the future anterior. Not a book written in the future anterior but a kind of Gedankenexperiment that posits in its characters and its readers a dual temporal receivership. In the present, we are flooded with the boredom of quotidian banality, and yet we know–we know from the way the academics of Book 1 struggle desperately to link the shards of Archimboldi’s life–that most of this banality will drop into oceanic oblivion, leaving for the future mainly the stark, interruptive horrors and, perhaps, the occasional footstep in the sand that marks the paths between these repulsive oases.
In other words, the novel enacts a reflection on history and memory and shows how these archives of human being work against each other. It also is a savage rejection of the image or ideology of human nobility. The narrative works on its readers slowly and steadily, patiently building a pit of unease for us with every page.
Boleaño’s novel is truly a materpiece. To me, it unspools in almost perfect opposition to Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s novel pulls us into the sparkling, pulsing grace of the infinitesimal and pushes us lovingly into the task of remembrance. The world, the cosmos, the multitudinous textures and times of life itself open up for us in reading La Recherche. 2666 pulls us into an equally textured and infinitesimally recounted world, into the gritty, gruesome phenomenology of torture, rape, war, isolation, mental illness, misconstruals, and missed opportunities. It is a necessary counterpart to Proust, and a fitting judgment on the twentieth century (history as horror) and its human denizens (as (un)remembered boredom).