Monday, 4 September 2017


A beast of a book

The Pleasure of the Text (Le Plaisir du Texte)

The title of a book by Roland Barthes

Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions.

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Oh, there’s more to life than books, you know.

But not much more.

Morrissey, Handsome Devil

Some of the greatest books I have ever read have been purchased, by chance, from charity shops. That would be thrift stores, for my US readership. Both of them. The readers, not the thrift stores. One of the great scenes of book-buying, for me, is Nietzsche’s purchase of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, found by chance in a bookstore. But there is no such thing as book-buying by chance. Books come to you.

From second-hand stores I bought Flashman, House of Leaves, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Graves’s Greek Myths, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Magic Mountain, The Glass-Bead Game and countless others, all now firmly and happily shelved in the library of the soul. I am never happier, as those who know me well will attest, than sitting in a pub or bar with a beer in one hand and a book in the other. Incidentally, I had that translated into Latin, and it may well one day adorn my gravestone; Sextarium unum cervicias in manus, liber in alium.

In a Cat Protection League store in Purley, Surrey, England, just a few short years ago, I found Roberto Bolaño’s novel, 2666. I believe it cost me 99p. I have just finished reading it for the second time, proving to myself, once again, that the second reading of a loved book is invariably more pleasurable than the first. The economic law of diminishing marginal returns applieth not here.

Bolaño was a Chilean novelist who lived most of his life in Mexico and Spain. He lived to be 50. 2666 is a very South/Central American novel but, fortunately, magic realism waits merely in the wings, trying to get on to take on a speaking role, but never being truly allowed on to the stage.

The novel is a conceit, but so are many great novels. Tristram Shandy, House of Leaves, even Clarissa. The centre of gravity of the book is the strange and tangential relationship between an obscure German novelist and a string of brutal murders in a poor Mexican town. It is divided into five parts and, at 895 pages, is what I term a beast of a book, a term I reserve for any tome which weighs in at over 666 pages. Curiously – and I believe it remains unexplained in the novel – the infamous number 666, as it were, comprises part of the title.

For me, the appeal of 2666 is Bolaño’s sheer ability to tell a story. Not the over-arching plot, which is in any case reliant on its fragmentation for its effect. It is more the small strands of narrative, winding around, overlapping, and hiving off in one direction or another, sometimes together, sometimes alone. The literary effect could be bitty and pieced-together, but instead it is a great example of – and I think I may have coined this phrase – fractalalia, or the repetition of voices which have a tendency to splinter and regroup, splinter and regroup.

2666 is a book of mysteries, like The Magic Mountain or Underworld. The author can operate authoritatively at any level of social description, in any existential mode, and with the keenness of ear that separates the writer from the mere novelist. Bolaño also has the ability to function at any social level with conviction and an uncanny sense of having lived among the various characters which troop through the pages of this majestic book. A group of effete European literary critics, a debauched Countess, an arts journalist covering a boxing match in Mexico, Central American prostitutes; Bolaño voices them and there is no hint of dissonance, no false note.

The book would probably not find a publisher now, the string of gruesome murders of women alone would fall foul of the ‘sensitivity readers’ now being employed at least at US publishing houses to ensure ideological conformity in any new product. But 2666, like its predecessor, Bolaño’s debut, The Savage Detectives, would represent a glaring omission from your curriculum vitae if you consider yourself a serious student of 20th-century literature.

2666 was published posthumously, and Bolaño knew death was approaching. Among his notes are indications that the five sections into which the book is divided could be considered as five independent novels and could be read as such. This is heartening, as it invites re-reading – rapidly becoming one of life’s greatest pleasures for me – without tackling the whole, time-consuming as that is.

French structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy gets, it seems to me, something of a raw deal from the contemporary, dissident and Alt. Right, who seem to hold Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and others responsible for much of the relativist ills that beset the West in these neo-barbarous times. But I always believed in Barthes’s insistence on the pleasure of the text, the sheer pleasure of reading. If it is pleasurable reading you seek, I hope 2666 makes its way to you.


  1. So good, you wrote it twice, Mark?

  2. Yes, I just noticed that. It is a two-for-one deal, for today only. I am, sadly, an IT doofus cum laude. Corrections will be made! Good day to you, sir.