Mexico has been living with murder, disappearance and state violence for so long it has all but dissolved the social covenant between the government and its people. When a person disappears, it’s commonplace for the people of Mexico to suspect state involvement, whether by arrest, abduction or collusive action by cartels. These horrors have become so routine that they’ve been coded into Mexico’s legal infrastructure as “enforced disappearances.”
This January, Amnesty International published a report decrying the surge in disappearances in Mexico and detailing the history of inaction on the part of authorities. According to the report, there are over 27,000 Mexican citizens whose whereabouts are unknown. Not all are enforced disappearances, but the report suggests that most involve an organized criminal element, sometimes with conspicuous connections to the state. The number of disappeared noted in Amnesty’s report is likely infinitesimal compared to the total; Mexico’s “black figure”—the number of unreported crimes—is said to be around 90 percent in recent years.
Prior to the timeline covered in the report, the most infamous case of enforced disappearances within the last half-century happened at the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, where between 1993 and 2003 over three hundred women and girls were found murdered. Many had been raped. No coherent narrative has been furnished to account for the incidents, but many have placed blame on police and government officials for failing to prevent the crimes or bring the perpetrators to justice.
Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous masterwork, 2666, published in 2004 and translated into English four years later, brought the crimes in Ciudad Juárez to the attention of a new audience. At around nine hundred pages, 2666 is the culmination of Bolaño’s lifelong obsession with literature and his conflicted romance with the world in its global, post-national epoch. The book is separated into five parts, whose respective narratives are brought together by their proximity to the Mexican desert town of Santa Teresa—2666’s semi-fictional counterpart to Ciudad Juárez—and its rash of mysterious crimes and disappearances.
Considering all this, Goodman Theatre’s 2666 adaptation, which ran in Chicago from February 6th through March 20th, was beset with a great deal of difficulty: it had to compellingly translate the endless narrative of one of the best Latin American novels in the last half-century, depict the political and societal reality of state-sponsored violence, and reckon, as Bolaño does, with its moral implications.
The first part of 2666 follows four trysting academics in their pursuit of an elusive German writer across the European continent and then on to Santa Teresa. Part two concerns a professor slowly losing his mind while living in Santa Teresa as he worries for his sanity, his runaway wife and the welfare of his daughter. In part three, an American sports journalist, initially in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, gets sucked into the intriguing, dangerous and deranging environs surrounding the crimes. The most memorable and straightforward part of the novel is the fourth, which is almost exclusively a catalog of the crimes in Santa Teresa. Finally, part five returns to Europe with a story of a German writer.
Above all 2666 is a baroque detective story, whose structure and storytelling lead the characters and reader to the dark mystery at the heart of the book without promising a solution. This is its moral power: each character approaches, by one road or another, a horrifying and shrouded injustice unfolding in the Sonoran desert in Mexico. Then, one by one, they are consumed by it.
Robert Falls and Seth Bockley, the play’s directors and adaptors for Goodman, execute each of 2666’s five parts as a series of vignettes. Characters narrate each other’s lives, reproducing Bolaño’s comic and menacing deadpan, occasionally excerpting poetic or impactful lines straight from the novel. There are portions told entirely through video, and other clever techniques to condense the story’s sprawl—an extended period of languish and revelry by two of the academics in Santa Teresa is shortened into minutes of a confetti-drenched bacchanal, for example—but even so 2666’s theatrical adaptation is a daunting five hours. Where the novel has winding digressions and standalone asides that give it the feel of a fleshed-out world, the play dispenses with most of these to focus on the violence in Santa Teresa. The mysterious crimes are only by indirection the prime mover of the novel, whereas the play hangs everything on its penultimate act, based on part four of 2666: “The Part about the Crimes.”
The audience arrives to Santa Teresa, where dead women and girls are turning up mutilated across the city’s sprawl. Their bodies are concentrated around cartel-owned nighttime haunts and maquiladoras where workers make televisions for U.S. consumers. Earlier in the story, we get intimations of the monstrousness of this place. A woman—regarded either ironically or seriously as the mother of Mexican poetry—speaks vaguely of it: “Mexico has many treasures and that city isn’t one of them.”
In the novel, this part runs around three hundred pages and catalogs hundreds of the Santa Teresan murders. They are registered in the forensic, factual style of a police report:
That same month of November 1994, the partially burned body of Silvana Pérez Ajona was found in a vacant lot. She was fifteen and thin, dark-skinned, five foot three. Her black hair fell below her shoulders, although when she was found half her hair was scorched off. The body was discovered by some women from Colonia Las Flores who had hung their washing on the edge of the lot, and it was they who called the Red Cross.
As it appears in the book, the list feels interminable and taxes the deepest reserves of the reader’s empathy. Further into the catalog—into the insanity of the crisis—the repetition borders on overwhelming. The play does a commendable job dramatizing these crimes and tantalizing the audience with whodunit machinations: every so often a lead is pursued, arrests are made (sometimes via forced confession), or a pattern emerges. But clarity of understanding is always brief and recedes back into the desert.
As is the case in the novel, there are other storylines dispersed throughout the play: a love blossoms between an exhausted detective and the warden of an insane asylum, a manhunt ensues for a deranged individual compulsively profaning holy sites, higher-ups—out of exasperation or guilt—cut investigations short, or cut them off entirely, and a young detective whose name literally translates to “the madness” meets his end when he gets too close. At the end of the play’s third act a German named Klaus Hass, who may or may not be wrongfully jailed for the murders, declares: “No one is paying attention to these crimes, but look closely and the secret of the world is in them.”
As a call to the ancient Grecian Furies, three women onstage memorialize those murdered in Bolaño’s case-file manner, even pulling files off the detective’s desk and reading directly to the audience. Toward the middle of the act, they resort to simply naming those killed or disappeared. The tactic echoes the Black Lives Matter practice of naming the victims of police violence, with one divergence: every so often they must include Name Unknown.
The stage production transforms the novel’s distress and madness into furious declamation; this affords the adaptation its most inventive sequence. In Santa Teresa there is a televised psychic or seer, whose followers call her La Santa. In the play she is projected on a screen, interjecting antic omens and frantic worries. She is a kind of oracle who may also be a hack, but her obsession with the murders is somehow purer than that of the others involved. Clearly irretrievably mad—which in the world of Bolaño may be a blessing—she calls upon some supernatural authority to divine the truth of the crimes but arrives, finally, at a loss. “Sometimes she didn’t see anything,” Bolano writes, “the picture was fuzzy, the sound faulty, as if the antenna that had sprung up in her brain wasn’t installed right.”
The loosing of lunacy in Santa Teresa stretches its inhabitants into hopeless lassitude. But only then, in their withdrawal, can they appreciate the riddle offered by La Santa, which is the play’s most meditative moment: “In some dreams things fit together; in other dreams things don’t fit together.”
The Goodman Theatre’s program includes a solemn interview between Bolaño and Mónica Maristain for Playboy Mexico. He knew at the time that it would be his final interview:
Maristain: What’s paradise like?
Bolaño: Like Venice, I hope … Somewhere that’s used well and used up and that knows that nothing lasts, not even paradise.
Maristain: And hell?
Bolaño: Like Ciudad Juárez, which is our curse and our mirror, the unquiet mirror of our frustrations and of our vile interpretation of freedom and of our desires.
Heaven, however imagined, has its negative limit, as do the characters in 2666. The difficult situations in 2666 often back its characters against existential ropes, and it is at these limits that they offer testimony of their conscience—often fragile and searching in its own right. The professor worried for his daughter’s safety in Santa Teresa hangs his hat on the “love of children.” A corrupt detective defends his honor with “all lives end in pain.” Each justify their individual actions by universalizing their moral feelings, but an unpalatable truth Bolaño offers in 2666 is that personal conscience can—wittingly or not—serve evil as well as good.
This idea is hardly new; in fact, it is one of the axiomatic criticisms of institutionalized misdeed and violence, with Nazism serving as its primary subject and historical precedent. In its final movement, 2666 lights upon this subject as the play follows a German soldier in World War II named Hans Reiter, who is the writer the academics seek. He is depicted as rather doltish, one who marches into battle with naïve eagerness.
After the war, at a POW camp in Poland, Reiter meets a mid-level Nazi bureaucrat by the name of Leo Sammer who breaks his long-held silence to tell Reiter his story. While managing a captured town somewhere in Poland, Sammer was ordered to dispose of two hundred Jews, but the emotional toll was too great for him and he could only finish half the job. Sammer’s monologue is a solicitation of Reiter’s pity—after all, Sammer himself didn’t personally commit any murders, and he had struggled to execute the order. Without saying a word, Reiter responds by strangling Sammer, but it’s hard to say whether it was done out of pity or as punishment. By this action Reiter joins the ranks of other beautiful souls in literature, like Melville’s Billy Budd, who, acting on the impulse of their goodness, confront evil by succumbing to evil’s means. Bolaño’s trick is to have this archetype also be a Nazi.
On a broader scale, Sammer’s fate calls to mind the murders in Santa Teresa. With the help of a sprawling bureaucracy Sammer was responsible for around one hundred murders, but at this point in the story it is known that over two hundred women and girls have been murdered, abetted by the Mexican government. It would seem Reiter’s personal conscience could not allow Sammer’s life to continue. But, despite the conscientious objection of almost every character in 2666, including those in power, the murders in Santa Teresa remain unsolved.
Bolaño here turns the screw on the previous truth concerning personal conscience and government complicity: we cannot project our private morals neatly onto society. However our conscience might reconcile our lives to hard realities, form its precepts or inform our judgment, our morals rarely pass over into politics without some concessions. Conversely, one’s politics do not transparently reflect one’s personal conscience. The story of Hans Reiter is an acute allegory for the difficulty of reconciling conscience with politics and political action.
When confronted with incomprehensible violence on the scale of Santa Teresa in 2666 or Ciudad Juárez in modern-day Mexico, neither citizens nor politicians are exempt from this moral dilemma. Though inspired by the horrific femicides in Ciudad Juárez, Bolaño’s tale offers an indelible depiction of the consequences of human rights abuses, no matter where they happen.
In the U.S. we have our own variants of violence—most notably, the all-too-common police abuse and killings of African Americans. A hell of our own exists in Chicago, a fact that was not lost on the directors of Goodman Theatre’s adaptation. “We live in a world where people are constantly being murdered,” Falls was quoted as saying in the New York Times, drawing a comparison between the events in Bolaño’s novel and the violence that plagues Chicago. “How many until we notice?”
The state has a unique ability to create the conditions for evil, and 2666 shows that human rights crises—whether enforced disappearance in Mexico or police brutality in the U.S.—pull us and all our moral contrivances, our “vile interpretation of freedom and of our desires,” into their madness.