A book I have never read has haunted me. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, to be precise. You have probably never heard of it. Neither had I when I first encountered it in the bathroom of a Cork city student apartment, blearily drunk, as it rested on the back of the toilet. What a beautiful first introduction. I read a few pages- I had heard people talking about it- but I was a little too tipsy to concentrate much.
But when I tottered back to the party I was surprised found people discussing it. “Wait, that book in the bathroom?” What followed was a shout of “Yes!” and a toast to “BOLAÑO!” which became a running joke. I didn’t understand the humor, but I know we toasted to Bolaño a lot that semester.
From then on it followed me, from an airport bookstore to someone reading in a cafe, I would again and again come across that thousand-page tome in discussion, in review. It is the antithesis of the travel books I was reading; not compact, not easy, not uplifting- not English, but in my journeys I was drawn to each cover I found presenting that unexplained number. Is it a year? A future? A mystical note? A count? A plane to catch.
So what makes this book remarkable? On the whole not much, but when I finally scraped the funds to buy myself a copy I noticed with relish that this story is internationally bound. It moves from Germany to Italy to Austria to England to Spain to Argentina to Mexico to America and back. It crosses national and cultural boundaries without a second thought. It leaps continents and comes back. It is world literature.
It is somewhat rare to find a modern American novel that transcends international boundaries. Instead the trend is towards folding in, rooted around what it means to be ‘American.’ Identity is a favorite preoccupation of modern American literature and America in general. The recent spout of television shows and scientific projects oriented on the tracing of genealogical histories only supports this. Our diverse backgrounds and familial roots make definition hard, and the search for American identity is fully understandable given that context.
But at the same time, are we missing something? Are we isolated on our continental island, preoccupied with exploring ourselves? Meanwhile are we unfamiliar with, and unwilling to be familiar with the larger world? Is internal literature only part of a larger trend? I personally think it is, and I think in the realm of literature a foreign language is as much a barrier as national borders.
As an English major I find I’ve been exposed a good deal of translated literature; Homer, Chretien de Troyes, Augustine, Kafka. But I have not read these works for the light they shed on modern international understanding. Rather, I have read them because they are the roots of our own cultural tradition. These pieces appear so old as to defy any linguistic boundary. They are classics, and as such escape the stigma of the foreign by virtue of being the foundation of the contemporary American novel. They both outline our own literary tradition, and are also so far removed from their modern day national and cultural counterparts as to be almost distinct entities. So we read them, and we read them in English, almost unaware that English is not their native format.
The almost all-pervasive use of the English language would make it appear that we are not limited because of our mono-linguistic abilities, but we are. English does not have a monopoly on literature, and even in translation finding books that transcend our American themes exposes us to unforeseen realms of thought that can mirror our own, or draw us to analyze problems we have never thought of before. We are the product of literature that stretches beyond the limited grasp of the American language.
I suppose I never thought of other nations having the same living literary life as the English language, all I have read of them being centuries old and translated into English. But other languages do have vibrant modern literature, and it is worth reading. Even in translation multicultural novels focus on problems outside America’s identity search. Instead they focus on struggles in a larger world, and how we relate to these stories shows how beyond culture and language, our questions in an increasingly homogenized world are so often the same, and 2666 more than any other novel taught me this.
Reading 2666 was like plunging into a diverse culture myself. The immersion into a culture wholly unlike our own- without even the comfort of a native author- is bewildering and sometimes hard to understand, but I would venture to say it is the best teaching experience next to being there. The change in grammar, the untranslated slang, the attitudes of the characters can be as foreign as the place names. Setting can be hard to picture and vocabulary confusing. I confess, Wikipedia has helped more than I would like to admit on this thousand-page journey.
Our background in historical world literature may be better than our experience in modern world literature, but I would implore you now, or while drying out your information-soaked mind this summer, that you pick up a current novel from a different culture. I myself will be continuing my seven-month plunge through 2666, but there are any number of translated and English international literature out there that might spark your interest. From German sci fi to Columbian magical realism, here are some authors and novels to browse:
Haruki Murakami- Japanese (Japan)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez- Spanish (Columbia)
Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind- Spanish (Spain)
Herbert W. Franke- German (Austria)
Frank Schätzing The Swarm- German (Germany)
Narrudin Farah- English (Somalia)
Virkram Seth- English (India)
You can also visit the PEN American Center, which brings together international authors to promote literary freedom. This year the Rose O’Neill Literary House will host a series of talks with PEN writer and Argentinean novelist Rodrego Fresan, April 19th to the 25th.