Have 5 Hours To Spare? See Bolaño's Epic '2666' Onstage
Roberto Bolaño's sprawling, posthumous epic 2666 has been called a masterpiece and a landmark. It addresses the nature of good and evil, art and humanity, love and death — to name just a few themes. It's populated by literary critics, detectives, a philosopher and many more, all on their own interconnected journeys.
2666 is almost impossible to describe — so imagine what it must have been like to try to adapt it for the stage. Yet that's exactly what Chicago's esteemed Goodman Theatre has done, in a marathon 5 1/2 hour production (but don't worry, there are three intermissions).
Hector Garcia is a senior lecturer in Spanish at Chicago's Loyola University. He says when you read 2666 you don't really consume the book. It consumes you. "You become obsessed with the novel, and part of it is that mystique that's been created around this novel of novels."
Garcia needs two semesters to teach the novel; the English translation is almost 900 pages. "In Spanish it's 1,119 and I know that even in my dreams," he jokes.
Part of the book's mystique comes from Bolaño himself. The Chilean-born writer was a kind of wandering poet who worked a series of odd jobs while writing poetry and fiction. He spent the last years of his life racing to finish 2666 before he died of liver failure at the age of 50. The massive work was published posthumously in 2004 to almost universal acclaim — and no small bit of awe.
So when Garcia heard it was being adapted for the stage he wondered, "How in the hell — if I can say that publicly — were they going to do it?"
"I thought, well, this is crazy, and this is audacious, and this may not work," says Robert Falls. "But no, I actually never thought 'this can't be adapted.'"
Falls is the longtime artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, one of the country's most respected stages. A decade ago he picked up the book and couldn't put it down. He's been trying to bring it to the stage ever since. "Bolaño has a universe that is Shakespearean in scope," he says. "You know, he's a master of comedy, he's a master of tragedy. His language is remarkable."
2666 is really five novels in one, each part loosely connected. The book's title is never explained. But much of the action takes place in Santa Teresa, a Mexican border town based on Ciudad Juarez. There, a group of European academics searches for a German soldier-turned-novelist named Benno von Archimboldi. "The only question is what did he come to this city to do?" one of them asks. That question won't be answered until the very end.
Along the way, we meet dozens of other characters, and go down nearly as many rabbit holes. Both the novel and the play jump backward and forward in time from the Holocaust to Bolaño's graphic descriptions of a real-life string of unsolved murders that took place in Juarez in the 1990s.
"After we finish that part I'm always like, oh my God, my legs are so sore because I realize how tense I've been the entire time," says Alejandra Escalante. "Having to recite names often of real women who've been killed feels like a very large responsibility."
Escalante is one of 15 actors who play close to 80 different roles. Seth Bockley, who helped adapt and direct the play, says it requires a special kind of stamina. "It's really profound that, for example, Alejandra has had to memorize, digest — and is prepared to on a dime reproduce the forensic reports of these grisly murders. Because it's inside of her. Those words are all inside of her," he says.
And those words were still being worked out in rehearsal just days before the opening, as artistic director Falls tried to compress Bolaño's vision into 5 1/2 hours. Falls says he's less worried about the length and more concerned about current events: Given what's happening in Syria, Mexico and even Chicago, is Bolaño's exploration of evil what audiences need right now?
"You know I came in incredibly depressed, what was it, like four days ago, five days ago. I was really depressed," he says. "It's like these horrible images that Bolaño portrays about humanity and, particularly, the murders. You know, do you really need to put this image in somebody's head? Ultimately, yes, I think that the artist's responsibility is not to shy away from it or hide from it." Falls says if you stick with it, amid all the darkness 2666 also has real moments of beauty.
"We are surrounded by the past," says one of the characters. "An old book is the past, too. The author is gone. The printer is gone. The people who first read it are gone. But the book is still here."
And now, so is the adaption for the stage.