Woes of the Posthumous Novel: On Roberto Bolaño’s Latest

January 11, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 9 5 min read

covercoverHere are the facts: Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile, but lived throughout his life in Mexico, El Salvador, France, and finally Spain, where he died in 2003 at the age of 50. A poet before all else, Bolaño only began writing fiction in the last decade of his life. At the time of his death, he had published over a dozen books in his native Spanish, but his first work in English translation, By Night in Chile, was still six months from publication. In the last nine years, however, Bolaño’s literary star has ascended as his literary estate has combed through his extensive bibliography, publishing everything possible. Now, the posthumous discovery of previously unpublished writing has led to the publication of Woes of the True Policeman, a book Bolaño spent 30 years writing, but ultimately never finished. Cobbled together from computer files and manuscript drafts, it is marketed as the author’s final book.

coverHere is the real story: Woes of the True Policeman is by turns absorbing, challenging, fascinating — but is ultimately a very flawed, frustrating book. Divided into five fragmented parts, which at times only tenuously connect with one another (should a reader expect any less from Bolaño?), the novel mostly follows Óscar Amalfitano, a literature professor who lives, with his daughter, a purgatorial existence in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa. “A tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken,” Amalfitano is instantly familiar to readers of Bolaño’s novel 2666, in which a character by the same name, living in the same city, and with much the same biography serves as one of the novel’s fulcrum characters. This sense of dreamlike déjà vu hangs over much of Woes of the True Policeman, continually bringing into focus characters and events from Bolaño’s past works, yet changing them in certain key details, as if the events of the novel were being viewed through the warped glass of an intertextual funhouse mirror.

For instance, Woes of the True Policeman distinguishes its Amalfitano from the 2666 incarnation by sexually involving him with a young student named Padilla, one of those borderline-mad, self-contradictory, poetry-consumed characters who burn so brilliantly in Bolaño’s world. Amalfitano is instantly intoxicated by how Padilla “lived in a constant state of amorous self-expression…his feelings were extravagant but didn’t last for more than a day.” So at age 50, Amalfitano serenely accepts a newfound homosexuality, delving into an oddly bookish and belligerent love affair:

According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual. Poetry, on the other hand, was completely homosexual. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers… nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters.

Bolaño is forever referential. Like many of Bolaño’s works, Woes of the True Policeman is really a book about characters who love books. Lives are informed, illuminated, and often crippled by literature. Poetry may bring Amalfitano and Padilla together, but it’s the chair of the literature department, upon discovering the professor’s affair, who forces Amalfitano into exile in Santa Teresa. As is often the case in Bolaño’s books, Amalfitano stands in for the author himself. Both lived as young revolutionaries in the ’70s, were arrested after the fall of Allende in Chile, then suffered political and existential exile through “a succession of countries, a whirl of cities and streets that brightened and darkened arbitrarily in memory…an imaginary country called Chile that drove [them] mad.” Their biographies, however, diverge at the literary crossroads. Bolaño creates. Amalfitano embarks down the empty road of criticism.

Amalfitano’s regret permeates the entire novel:

Why did I translate the Elizabethans and not Isaac Babel or Boris Pilniak? Amalfitano asked himself, disconsolate, unable to escape the nightmare but still holding scraps of the dream…in his empty, frozen, transparent hands. Why didn’t I slip like Mighty Mouse through the bars of the Lenin Prizes and the Stalin Prizes and the Korean Women Collecting Signatures for peace and discover what was there to be discovered, what only the blind couldn’t see? Why didn’t I stand up at one of those oh-so-serious meetings of leftist intellectuals and say the Russians the Chinese the Cubans are making a fucking mess of things? Why didn’t I stand up for the Marxists? Stand up for the pariahs? March in step with history while history was being born?

coverAs previously shown by The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño sees a void at the center of the academy. Amalfitano, “who predicted the fall of Allende and yet did nothing to prepare for it,” searches for sanctuary within the void of academia, respite from the world and the awful choices it has forced Amalfitano to make. It occurs to one, though, if this amounts to bravery:

When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and — the crowing touch — a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor. At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels… At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.

A generous reading of Woes of the True Policeman will see it as a sister work to 2666, a concurrent narrative that illuminates previously unseen angles of the previous work. However, a more critical look shows it to be a pale shade of the epic novel. One can just not get away from 2666 while reading Woes of the True Policeman. Bolaño unwinds almost identical plot threads through each book, changing only often superficial details. His wife dies from disease in each book, although the name of his wife, as well as the disease, is different. In Woes of the True Policeman, Padilla is obsessed with an institutionalized poet in France, while 2666 finds Amalfitano’s wife suffering from the obsession. Then we have the final section of Woes of the True Policeman, an almost blow-by-blow retread of 2666, down to multiple pages that are lifted scissors and paste pot from 2666. Or did the “self-plagiarism” actually occur the other way around? Posthumous manuscripts have the awful tendency to raise these sort of unanswerable questions about composition and authenticity.

Most disappointing about Woes of the True Policeman is its treatment of the city of Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s thinly-fictionalized Ciudad Juárez. The novel barely registers its setting, aside from some brief, cursory observations, such as that its “streets…seemed somehow newborn…with a secret logic and aesthetic, streets with their hair down.” This is a positively underwhelming sentiment compared to the city Bolaño’s conjures in 2666, an ominous metropolis whose spirit has been paralyzed by a series of random female homicides, a reflection of the feminicidio epidemic in Ciudad Juárez, where over 5,000 women have been murdered since 1993. The characters and events of 2666 constellate around a 300-page middle section that graphically catalogues the atrocities, murder by gruesome murder, bludgeoning the reader with rape, torture, mutilation, and death until the prose becomes a kind of incantation that reifies the actuality of evil.

Many of the hallmarks of Bolaño’s virtuosity can be found in Woes of the True Policeman: the synopses of eccentric novels that don’t exist, a mystery concerning an invented French writing school known as the barbaric writers, notes from Amalfitano’s class in contemporary literature (“Happiest: García Lorca…Strangest wrinkles: Auden…Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.”). Yet the fragmentation, self-plagiarism, and lack of narrative development all indicate a manuscript that was very much unfinished, and is only interesting as a completist curiosity, something akin to the financial-driven posthumous discographies of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur.

In the end, one wonders if Bolaño less resembles Amalfitano as he does his elusive novelist Archimboldi, the shaper of small, mysterious fictions “who overnight became a fashionable author in Spain, where they were publishing or about to publish everything he’d written.” After all, in writing about Archimboldi, Bolaño may as well be describing the vitality, the verve, and the flawed yet unceasing brilliance of his own work:

…even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this respect Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.

holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, and is an editor for the literary journal Zero Ducats. He is the author of a fiction collection, It Can Be That Way Still (Bedouin Books), and his stories and reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi, Greensboro Review, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Portland, OR.