November 28, 2012
Despite its predictably wonderful prose, Woes of the True Policeman will appear to those who haven’t read Bolaño’s masterwork 2666, little more than a mandala of elusive meaning, full of tenuous circularity; for those who have, Woes will seem almost an appendage or afterthought, a series of auxiliary meditations for that huge novel, and thus well worth reading. Characters we’ve encountered in the earlier book make an appearance here, including exiled Chilean professor Amalfitano, whom we last encountered in Santa Teresa, hub of the murderous universe, the dead-end of logic and the heart of darkness, scene of a seemingly endless series of murders of young girls, their bodies unearthed on an almost daily basis, living with his daughter Rosa.
Amalfitano returns here in what appears to be the final book written by Bolaño and translated, wonderfully as always, by Natasha Wimmer. Though we get to see a great deal more of him here, some of what we learn overlaps with what we’d gleaned in 2666. This is a curious book, in a way more enigmatic than his others, and like all posthumous, reconstructed works of fiction, it has a kind of stitched-together feel to it, though the author’s widow, Carolina Lopez, explains in the editorial note how the book was constructed. Although she states the level of revision was high, each part of the novel was at a different stage of completion. She describes which parts were typewritten, which were printed from his computer, and has constructed this finished work according to the ordering of the texts her husband had left on his desk at the time of his death in 2003.
Those who have followed Bolaño’s works, as his stories appeared in the New Yorker or as New Directions or Farrar Straus Giroux brought out his collected fictions, interviews, poetry and novels, will realize that Woes is akin to those comprehensive reissues of classic jazz recordings, whether by Miles Davis or Cecil Taylor, which provide you not only with remastered versions of familiar tunes, but also second and third takes, alongside snippets of studio conversation. This is a kind of patchwork volume which, for an understanding of Bolaño and his approach to fiction, sheds little light, but for die-hard fans is well worth reading.
Bolaño is wonderful at creating his own reality—it reeks simultaneously of both familiarity and strangeness: like a haunting, the recognized specters of the dead in the lingering unworldly light of our memory. His world is both real and also slightly skewed; there is no magical realism here, no talking trees or flying horses, but rather the kind of reality we see when living at the very ends of our senses, when the strangeness of others seems somehow normal, and the connections between things grow vivid.
In Woes, we learn a great deal more about Amalfitano: his homosexual affair with the poet Padilla; how his daughter stopped reading novels and started going to the movies when she discovered her father’s homosexuality; and the policeman of the title, Pedro Negrete, assigned by his brother, rector at the University of Santa Teresa, to look into the background of the man he just hired, Professor Amalfitano.
If you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie The Master, a similar effect is in play here. We are plunged into Amalfitano’s world without a true sense of context, and so the story, such as it is, comes at us like a radio broadcast floating in and out of static; an unsurprising effect, considering this was unfinished (I’d rather say unpolished) by Bolaño at the time of his death.
How does Woes of the True Policeman fit into Bolaño’s body of work? If 2666 is the black hole of the Bolañian universe, the anus mundi of Latin America, the pit of abduction and murder, then everything else (including Woes), every poem, story, novel or fragment revolves around it, on the edge of oblivion, both apart from and yet destined to be sucked into the great darkness of 2666. This book tells us little more than we already know (or suspected) of Amalfitano or, for that matter, of the elusive writer the critics are chasing down in part one of 2666, Arcimboldi, whose novel, The Endless Rose, was translated by Amalfitano. And there is a feeling that if this was meant to be a finished book, Bolaño, had he lived to complete it, might have done more with this promising and occasionally frustrating work. But it has another effect altogether: it drives you back to the two great novels Bolaño has left us. And for that we must be grateful.