When one of Roberto Bolaño’s characters praises “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” he’s describing Moby-Dick and Kafka’s Trial, but also 2666 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). The final completed work by the extraordinary Chilean writer, this book has five parts, each of which could stand alone as a satisfying novel. Together, they resolve specific mysteries, deepen larger ones, and form a brilliant panorama of humanity’s follies, quirks, and outrages, ranging from the genteel pursuits of European literary critics to the depravities of World War II, to the harrowing unsolved murders of women in Juárez, Mexico. Above all, Bolaño is a compulsive storyteller, and his narratives continually spin off in surprising directions, often told by the characters themselves, as Bolaño’s amazingly dexterous, manic, and fully crafted prose lends itself by turns to the voices of cynical cops, tough thugs, the working poor of Mexico’s maquiladoras, sorrowing mothers, an earnest Brooklyn journalist, and unintentionally humorous elderly soldiers. This is a huge, stunning novel, without a wasted word.
Death With Interruptions (Harcourt, $24) is José Saramago’s “true yet untrue story of death and her vagaries.” It begins with the fantastic premise that the people of a small country stop dying. Good news? But the hiatus, which lasts seven months, wreaks havoc with life insurance policies, causes doubts among the faithful who need physical death to reach everlasting spiritual life, and leads to overcrowding in hospitals and nursing homes. As he examines the ramifications of life without death, the Portuguese Nobel laureate offers sharp social commentary and philosophical meditations on mortality, as well as introducing a death who, though cold, can learn to care for those she comes for.
Set in post-9/11 Afghanistan, The Wasted Vigil (Knopf, $25) is a powerful novel of the loss of and search for loved ones. A Russian woman comes to Usha to look for her brother, a Soviet soldier. She stays with Marcus, a British doctor, convert to Islam, and lifelong resident of Afghanistan. His Muslim wife and daughter dead, he hunts for his missing grandson, as does David, a former CIA operative who was briefly involved with Marcus’s daughter. What these characters find is Afghanistan’s brutal recent history and its rich ancient culture. In often stunningly beautiful language, Nadeem Aslam tells the stories of these survivors, the pain they’ve experienced, witnessed, and sometimes inflicted, and the ongoing bloodshed in a land torn between rival warlords, the Taliban, and Western armies. As he did for the complex British Pakistani community in Maps for Lost Lovers, Aslam brings to life a wide range of characters, dramatizing conflicting views of religion, nationalism, and devotion.