Roberto Bolano on Coincidence

I read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and 2666 one immediately after the other, having never read Bolano before, and I knew immediately, from the first few paragraphs, even in translation, that he was the kind of writer who would remain with me.  I wanted to write something about 2666 immediately, but I had made  a promise to a reader that I would wait until he had finished it, and this served as a convenient excuse to avoid the reality that I had no ready way to articulate the book’s effect on me.   My excuse has now been removed, however, and so, with a good deal of trepidation, I will venture to say what I can.

2666 is composed of five mostly independent narratives, five novellas if you like, that could very well stand on their own, to the point where there is some debate among Bolano scholars as to the order in which these narratives should be arranged, a debate that has been further complicated by a sixth section of the novel that appears to have been found among Bolano’s papers after his death.  Though the novel’s five narratives are not dependent on one another,  neither are they entirely unrelated.  Not only do some of the characters and events and locations directly overlap, but the sections also contain seemingly coincidental references both to each other and to some of Bolano’s earlier fiction, including The Savage Detectives.  These references are often strikingly and unavoidably coincidental.  They drew my attention repeatedly as I read, often more strongly than the central narrative, until they seemed to become a figure for the novel itself.

Let me give an example.  In one section of the novel, Professor Amalfitano finds a geometry book among the books that he is unpacking.  He cannot remember ever having purchased it or ever having been given it as a gift.  He cannot even remember packing it.  He is uncertain what to do with it, but then he recalls having read about Marcel Duchamp instructing his newly married sister to buy a book of geometry and hang it by strings from her balcony, so Amalfitano takes the mysterious book and hangs it on his clothesline.  Then, in a later section of the novel, another character is passing by a backyard in the course of investigating the many killings of women in the city.  He notices a book hanging on a clothesline, but he continues on his way, and the book plays no further role in his story, but the two narratives are nevertheless linked by this allusion one to the other.

These kinds of references are never strong enough to provide a metanarrative for the five sections, seeming rather to emphasize how tangentially, how coincidentally, how randomly they intersect one another, even if this insistence on coincidence is certainly also also a metanarrative of sorts.  In fact, Bolano seems to make this point explicitly at one point in the novel, saying, “Coincidence is total freedom, our natural destiny.  Coincidence obeys no laws, and if it does, we don’t know what they are.  Coincidence is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet.  A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures.  In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion, the communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us.”

Here, Bolano seems to be articulating a principle of coincidence that does in fact operate in the place of traditional metanarratives, even in the place of the ultimate metanarrative, in the place of God.  The void that is opened by the end of metanarratives is a void where coincidence becomes the source of freedom and of destiny and of mystery and even, especially, of communion.  Coincidence becomes God, a senseless God to be sure, but a God nevertheless, and if coincidence becomes God, then only coincidence itself provides a metanarrative that might join things together, that might make of us and of our stories a communion.

All this reminds me of a passage from The Savage Detectives, where Bolano says, “The heart of the matter is knowing whether evil is random or purposeful.  If it’s purposeful, we can fight it.  It’s hard to defeat, but we have a chance.  If it’s random, on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ just have to hope that God, if he exists, has mercy on us.  And that’s what it all comes down to.”  Though coincidence is not directly conflated with God here, there is the same sense that the necessity of God is found in randomness, in coincidence.  As long as evil has a purpose, there is no need for God.  We can fight a purposeful evil, even if it is difficult.   What we cannot defeat is a purposeless evil.  We do not know how to begin such a fight.  We do not even know that it is evil, not for certain, not without a purpose, without an intent.  In the face of such a random evil, we are left with nothing but hope in the mercy of a God whose very existence remains in doubt.

If, then, the senseless God of coincidence offers our stories the possibility of communion as the passage from 2666 suggests, it would seem that this possibility, this mercy, is not assured.  In the face of purposeless of evil, and the evil of 2666 often seems purposeless indeed, there can be only a tenuous hope in the mercy of a God who may not even exist and who might appear merely as a book hung on a clothesline or something else even less recognizable.  Yet it is only these appearances, these coincidences, these acts of a senseless God, that bind Bolano’s stories together, and I think that these places are precisely where his work might be read most profitably.

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6 comments
  1. It seems in the nature of your conveyance about these coincidences and about innocuously motivated evil, that if evil is not just a senseless passive force then in reality Evil is God and he is our enemy.

  2. d said:

    I read ‘2666’ as a very cohesive whole… frighteningly so, actually.

    There is a group read and discussion going on here: http://www.bolanobolano.com

  3. Curtis,

    I am not sure what you mean by “conveyance”, and evil is by definition not innocuous, but I will try to clarify what I think Bolano’s discussion of evil is implying:

    Either evil is purposeful, in which case it is not God and can be opposed, albeit with difficulty;

    Or evil is purposeless, in which case it is not God but is as much the work of the senseless God of coincidence as is mercy, and God is neither friend nor enemy, or perhaps God is both, depending on the moment.

  4. d,

    I did not mean to imply that the novel is not cohesive, and I think that the word ‘terrifying’ admirably describes the kind of unity that binds the narratives together, because I think that their interrelation is found most fully in those moments where it seems that there is a “senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures.”

  5. Luke, that’s almost exactly what you wrote in your note, so if there’s discrepancy you find in my thinking, that doesn’t help to clarify.

    The second part makes no sense according to what you said previous, that if evil is senseless then we need God and if we can’t have him we’re fucked. Or something like that. i know it’s above but it’s one in the morning. You’re saying Balano’s intent is to show that if evil is unintential, then the only moments of coherency against it, the only God, is the moments that barely relate, if at all, connecting against it. But exactly what difference does that make of God? that our only hope against the force of nature against evil is the coincidental God are the connections that don’t exist that still ironically poke fun at it fine. But if evil is intelligent and this makes God useless doesn’t that make those coincidences work against us, hence what was once ‘God’ is the very thing that is evil, taunting us.

  6. Curtis,

    This looks like it might be a long conversation. I will continue it by email.

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