Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, or perhaps any masterwork of its scope, like War and Peace, one experiences a sequence of intellectual, emotional, and bodily responses. They are, at least in part:
Wonder at the impossible genius of the author, who can sense, with panopticon vision, the authentic truths of many worlds, and give voice to them, as if a ventriloquist or an interpreter of dreams;
Thirst for more of those worlds and the words to describe them, words swallowed as quickly and desperately as they can be provided;
Laughter at the absurdity of human desire and failure, rendered in deadpan brilliance and sly humor; and
Melancholy that settles in as sweet sickness of mind and body, the very pain of conscious life, the splendor and the terror.
“Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely,” says director Robert Falls, a Tony Award-winner who is artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He read 2666 in Natasha Wimmer’s English translation as soon as FSG put it out in 2008 and, seduced, began working on a stage adaptation.
Eight years later, the play 2666, which Falls adapted and directed with Goodman’s playwright-in-residence, Seth Bockley, is on stage in Goodman’s blackbox, in a five-and-a-half hour production. The play thrills — indeed producing wonder, thirst, laughter, and melancholy — when Falls and Bockley trust themselves as interpreters, like Bolaño, of conflicted and contradictory reality. When they forget, pigeonholing characters into cartoons Bolaño never intended, the show becomes exhausting. By the end, after almost a quarter day, one is merely thrilled to move again and then to consider sleep.
Hans Reiter, a Prussian boy who goes off to fight in World War II, is the figure at the center of the novel 2666. Detached from his unit and hiding out in a house in a Ukrainian village, Reiter discovers the journal of Boris Ansky, a Jewish writer presumably killed during the war. As he lounges around Ansky’s house reading the man’s journal entry on the idea of semblance, Reiter begins to feel he is Ansky. But at the same time, he discovers a powerful sense of his own original rebirth. “He felt free, as he never had in his life, and although malnourished and weak, he also felt the strength to prolong as far as possible this impulse toward freedom, toward sovereignty,” writes Bolaño. At war’s end, feeling that he needs to mask his identity after killing an amoral Nazi official, Leo Sammer, he renames himself Benno von Archimboldi, the initials a semblance of Boris Ansky’s, and seizes a new identity. Archimboldi’s freedom and detachment is a leitmotif for the unhinged 20th century in Bolaño’s eyes, the specter of possibility, but also of danger and evil.
The various dimensions of human existence — the understood, the confused, the real, and the unperceivable — is the landscape of the novel, meted out in five parts, beginning with the search, by four scholars in the late 1990s, for the mysterious Archimboldi, an overlooked literary genius, who they think really ought to be considered for the Nobel Prize. The four come to understand Archimboldi’s been seen in the unruly Mexican city Santa Theresa, in the north along the U.S. border, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez. Santa Theresa, where hundreds of young women have been raped and murdered without resolution, metaphor of human darkness, draws the American journalist Oscar Fate, writer for the Harlem-based magazine Black Dawn; the Chilean-born Oscar Amalfitano, depressed philosophy professor and Archimboldi translator recently appointed to a position at the University of Santa Theresa (presumably the only job he could get); and the troubled journeyman Klaus Haas, who has freed himself from end-of-the-road Prussia.
Falls and Bockley’s play follows the novel’s format: Act One is “The Part About The Academics,” Act Two “The Part About Fate” and “The Part About Amalfitano,” Act Three “The Part About The Crimes,” and Act Four “The Part About Archimboldi.” The playwrights also put Bolaño’s show-by-telling prose style to work — no easy task — dividing narration among various characters to keep up the story’s pace. Imaginative staging and the use of video screens, PowerPoint, and film help untangle the novel’s discursive threads, and bring the characters to life. A frequent critique of Bolaño’s writing is that his emphasis on ideas shades the true life and motivation of characters. Here, the playwrights and actors allow us to see our tragic heroes as real people. This is possible in these early acts because Bolaño’s ruminating centers around discrete events. Even the most ambivalent ticket holder will admit to detecting plot.
The Act One and Act Two script is almost entirely Bolaño’s — or, really, Wimmer’s — words, but for one noticeable moment when Falls and Bockley brilliantly augment dialog to make sense of the academics’ growing madness. Enervated by the desire for one another and their growing embattled influence as a scholar bloc in the hidebound world of German literature and Archimboldi studies, the four — Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Piero Morini, and Liz Norton — want to get inside each other’s pants as much as their heads. Norton takes on both Pelletier and Espinoza as lovers and in a London cab, driven by a conservative Pakistani immigrant, they go at it, with cosmopolitan banter and unambiguous groping. The cab driver becomes defensive — imagining the scholars are making fun of him — and takes offense at the lurid behavior in the backseat. “By what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig,” writes Bolaño, “and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.”
Here, the set, designed by Walt Spangler, flexes perfectly to become the cab, and the script leaps from Bolaño’s thick running paragraph page. When reading the novel, what happens next seems impossible and absurd. Espinoza and Pelletier drag the cabbie out of the car and assault him, nearly to death. On the page, the flash of evil passes by, almost inscrutably. But here on the stage, Laurence Grimm, as Pelletier, and Demetrios Troy, as Espinoza, can’t help but defend the Western values the driver has insulted. As Pelletier lands blows, he cries out, in dialog augmented by Falls and Bockley, “This is for the feminists of Paris!…This one’s for Salman Rushdie!”
In fact, the heightening of plot points and characters is necessary for the play’s audience to grasp the impossibly expansive world. Many of the characters in the novel just play out into the ether — they don’t resolve. This is part of Bolaño’s point of the title 2666, a year so far in the distance the world seems to dissolve. The novelist’s role is to reveal the hidden eternal structure of the world and hint at the secret connections, such as that, for example, between Boris Ansky and Hans Reiter. The sprawl — which is geographic but also layering of time and place, reality and other dimensions, ideas and choices — gets articulated in the multi-media format, in the staging, and in the use of a core group of actors to each play multiple parts, a subtle gesture to the secret connections of 2666.
The playwrights have done some necessary clarifying so you’ll care and, as the play continues, thirst for more, and in this sense, in the first two acts, confining 2666 to the stage opens the work to those uninterested in a 900-page slog. Most obviously, they do so by fully situating the maddening Santa Theresa, meant by Bolaño to be a mirror of our own darkness — a consequence of freedom — at the center. “It’s a crazy city,” says Charly Cruz (played by Juan Francisco Villa), the owner of three Santa Theresa video stores, to Oscar Fate. “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It doesn’t work.”
Had Cruz, a kind of drunk soothsayer in Falls and Bockley’s adaptation, said, instead, “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It’s like a mirage,” the playwrights would have kept their central focus but also reinforced Bolaño’s philosophical intent. Unfortunately, with the afterthought “It doesn’t work,” they take a hard turn to the material — and the city, with its violence and corruption, becomes the firm noir-like subject of Act Three, “The Part About The Crimes.” What’s lost in the exchange is the metaphysical possibility that Bolaño emits of different dimensions of reality. Instead, the here and now.
Because of Bolaño’s matter-of-fact handling of the description of the dozens of young women, many of them prostitutes or maquiladora workers, this is the part of the novel that received the most attention. And rightfully, the text is a clear-eyed exposition of evil and impenetrable injustice that no one seemed to care enough about to resolve. I wondered, going into the theater, how the play would handle the endless recital of victims — “That same month of November 1994, the partially charred body of Silvana Pérez Arjona was found in a vacant lot. She was fifteen and thin, dark-skinned, five foot three. Her black hair fell beneath her shoulders, although when she was found half her hair was scorched off…” — and fields, street corners, and colonias where they are found. Falls and Bockley use them, rather effectively, as incantation of evil, in narration handled by various actors, using the text as Bolaño presented it.
The incantation could have set a kind of otherworldly tone. Instead, the staging becomes claustrophobic — perhaps the point — but at the expense of Bolaño’s expansiveness. That fascinating literary depth also got crowded out by the one-note characterization of Santa Theresa police officials Epifanio Galindo, played by a much less nuanced Grimm; Pedro Negrete, played by Sean Fortunato, who had perfectly handled, in Act One, the academic Morini; and Jaime Contreras, played by Demetrios Troy, otherwise quite convincing as Espinoza and sportswriter Chucho Flores. Contreras, a kind of standard bad man who kills his wife isn’t a cop in the novel. But here he’s further cudgeling evidence of the police force’s evil and corruption. The nuance was lost along with Contreras and various other characters’ conflicted natures, and so was the dramatic tension, which had left this reader, at least, not only disgusted by injustice, but also with a feeling of terrifying melancholy.
Falls perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession.
What all this speaks to is the loss of the novel’s philosopher-king, the writer himself, immersed in the inferno of the world, but separate from it, too. As much as the book is about the writer — the writer’s process, the writer’s role, the writer’s place in the world and his psychology, too — the play is about the madness that underlies Santa Theresa. 2666, I was told by a woman who had just seen the show that I met on the Blue Line “L,” is a gaze at the devil. The word “evil,” she said, is contained in “devil.” I frankly hadn’t ever thought about that, not even after reading Bolaño’s masterpiece over and over again.