When I read Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives some years ago, I didn’t spend much time wondering who the so-called detectives of the title were. It seemed obvious. They were the book’s off-kilter heroes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two poetry-drunk youths who venture off in a white Impala into the Sonoran desert to solve the mystery of what happened to the mythical, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their quest, which also involves them fleeing a gun-wielding pimp, opens and closes the novel. It sandwiches a hefty middle section that patchily reconstructs Belano and Lima’s peregrinations across the globe later in life through interviews with some 40 people who knew them. It was only after I unexpectedly embarked on my own Bolaño-esque odyssey into war, dictatorship, and the world of Spanish-language poetry, years later, that I started to suspect that his two protagonists weren’t the only savage detectives in the book. I began to wonder: Who interviewed all of those people in the middle section? What unseen person(s) had tracked them all down to talk? Now that took savage detective work. Little did I know I would find myself doing something eerily similar and even ask myself, half in jest, if Bolaño was somehow toying me with from beyond the grave. Quite fittingly, my own savage detective story began in the very country where he died—Spain.
In the summer of 2012, I was living in Madrid with my wife. One night my friend Javi invited us over to his apartment to watch a cult Spanish documentary from the 1970s called El Desencanto (The Disenchantment). He didn’t say much else—he didn’t want to ruin it for us—only that the film was about a dead poet and his eccentric family.
El Desencanto is, indeed, about a dead poet and his eccentric family: Leopoldo Panero, his wife, Felicidad Blanc, and their three sons, Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. But it is also about so, so much more. Leopoldo Panero was a communist before the Spanish Civil War but joined Francisco Franco’s army in order to survive, and by the end of the conflict he was writing fascist-tinged poetry and would later be celebrated by the dictatorship for his verses. In 1962 he died, leaving behind elegant, resentful, and literature-obsessed Felicidad, along with their three sons, all with rebellious leftist beliefs and high-flown literary aspirations. Ten-plus years later, mom and the boys got together on camera to make the film that left me in state of awe as I sat on Javi’s couch. Not only did they attack their deceased paterfamilias by pulling the family’s dirty laundry out of the closet and into the light, but they did it by speaking in a kind of incendiary poetry while lacing their story with literary allusions that added a dramatic mystique. The Paneros treated their family history as if it were a novel they could collectively rewrite, and certainly they were characters worthy of a novelist’s imagination. Juan Luis, the oldest, was both macho and dandified, modeling himself on his idols Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Leopoldo María, the middle son, was an unstable poetic genius who was constantly in and out of jails and mental institutions. And Michi, the youngest, was a playboy whose literary medium was the overblown stories he told. El Desencanto was about history and myth, family and inheritance, and politics and poetry. I would soon learn that the film had scandalized Spain when it came out in 1976, a year after Franco’s death, launching the Paneros into the realm of legend.
Prisons and asylums, fascism and rebellion, dictatorships and poetic movements—the Panero family’s story read like an unwritten Spanish chapter from Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. I walked home that night from Javi’s apartment feeling like my eyebrows had been by singed the Paneros’ singular strangeness. I also felt like a literary wormhole had somehow opened up between Bolaño’s fictional universe and my own real one.
Wondering if this was a case of art imitating life—even as life for me would soon start imitating art—I turned to Google to see what I might dig up on the Paneros and Bolaño. Sure enough, the Chilean had fictionalized Leopoldo María as a character in two books I had already read: as a magnetic, nameless poet-genius living in an insane asylum in 2666, and as arguably the same character in The Savage Detectives, but named Pelayo Barrendoáin, surrounded by fans at the Madrid Book Fair “who feed on my madness to nourish their madness.” He also appeared without a mask in another Bolaño book. In the posthumous novel Woes of the True Policeman, a gay poet who idolizes Leopoldo María refers to him admiringly as “the Great Faggot of All Sorrows,” and his brother Juan Luis appears in a list under the category of “Worst houseguest.” These intertextual discoveries only made the story of the Paneros that I had seen in El Desencanto pulse with a stronger glow, leading me to feel like I had stumbled upon a non-fiction Bolaño book written by real life instead of him.
During the months after seeing El Desencanto, I developed an obsession with the Paneros, and to make a long story very short, three years later I began writing a collective biography of the family. The project required me to track down and interview all the people I could who had known them in order to trace the arcs of their lives. In other words, adopting the methodology of the middle section of The Savage Detectives as I chased stories of the Paneros, I became a savage detective.
By the time I started work on my book, I was living in Los Angeles, so I went back to Spain as much as was feasible. My research visits were very intense. Most of the people I sought out to interview were in Madrid, where the Paneros had spent the bulk of their lives. Although I had already lived there and thought I knew the city moderately well, it became a different, seemingly infinite place when infused with the rich history of the family. Every door I knocked on, every bar I sat in, every new phone number I called, unboxed a hidden world of stories. I interviewed friends and relatives and ex-lovers, editors and critics, gallerists and a ghostwriter, celebrated writers and film directors, historians and journalists, a Borges biographer, Federico García Lorca’s niece, a best-selling cookbook author, two former mayors of small cities, and the Spanish ambassador to Honduras. And, of course, I interviewed the literary kin of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima: poets—lots and lots of poets.
Over cafés con leche and condensation-beaded cañas (small glasses of beers), I probed everyone I interviewed delicately but insistently, trying to understand the thoughts and actions of five individuals who, like Bolaño characters, seemed to think literature was more real than life itself. The memories poured out, like a choral narrative for me to parse into one unified, cohesive tale. I learned the squalid details of one of the Panero sons’ alcoholic decline; I learned things about the sexual predilections of the other two. Combining several testimonies, I was able to recreate the 1976 premiere of El Desencanto. I listened to recollections about the Spanish Civil War, the Franco Dictatorship, and Spain’s precarious transition to democracy. The literary world in Spain is small and familial, so nearly everyone I interviewed knew everyone else I interviewed. Often, they insulted each other. During the long conversations I frequently ended up getting drunk when I didn’t mean to and went to sleep very late when I had to get up early the next day. Sometimes I even inadvertently got drunk early, like when a retired lawyer who had played a role in crafting Spain’s 1978 constitution welcomed me into his apartment on a scorching July morning with a bottle of champagne that he popped open for us to share.
People’s trust in me during this process was shocking. I was a blank page and the interviews filled me with the words of others, sometimes very sad ones. The novelistic richness of the experience outweighed the physical and emotional fatigue, especially the moments that felt not stranger than fiction but the stuff of fiction: the psychiatrist who only vaguely understood why we were meeting yet treated me to an enormous meal of fried fish, then invited me up to his apartment and seemed intent on keeping me there for the rest of the day; or the famous writer and former communist secret agent in Spain during the Franco dictatorship, now in his 80s, who has his own brand of anti-aging elixir.
I sometimes regaled my editor with these stories, which she called “the book behind the book.” My experiences also felt like the book inside of books. When I visited Juan Luis Panero’s widow in a town on the Costa Brava, an hour from Blanes, where Bolaño lived in his final years, I felt like I had entered the end of his novel Distant Star. Likewise, my research into Leopoldo Panero’s bitter public feud with Pablo Neruda put me in mind of the legendary poet’s appearance in By Night in Chile. But the proliferation of literary wormholes went beyond the work of Bolaño. The Panero family’s trip to Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950s simmered with the romance of Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine, which they modeled their trip after. When I visited the family’s ancestral home in the small town of Astorga, the courtyard echoed Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, also a Panero family favorite. This was the magic of the Paneros—their literary obsessions seemed to deconstruct the fabric of reality and stitch it back together with literature as its seams. Bolaño and the Paneros were similar that way: Books became the raw material for crafting a life rather than the other way around.
And maybe I was that way too, since at a certain point during the writing of my book things seemed to turn very meta, as though I had entered a novel and become an unwitting character.
I first noticed this soon after I interviewed the Spanish novelist Javier Marías about his friendship with Michi Panero. I particularly adore two Marías novels, A Heart So White and Thus Bad Begins, both of which concern molten secrets that inexorably rise to the surface. As if on cue, after my conversation with Marías, several of the subsequent interviews I conducted yielded secrets about him. Nothing shattering, but enough for each person to go off the record. Was I being sucked into a María-esque narrative scenario? No. I was clearly being excessively fanciful imagining that life was imitating art in such a way. One person in Spain I talked to about this said I had a classic case of “Panero Paranoia,” meaning their compulsive literariness was becoming my own. This paranoia only increased, however, when I emailed Enrique Vila-Matas.
Like Javier Marías, Vila-Matas was good friends with Michi Panero. He mentions Michi in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and he dedicated his novel Lejos de Veracruz to him. The book is about the travails of three brothers who are a mashup of sorts of the Paneros and another famous Spanish literary family, the Goytisolos. I corresponded with Vila-Matas about some of his memories of Michi, and I also sent him a passage from Michi’s unpublished partial memoir to ask if what he said about Vila-Matas and his family was accurate. (The answer: kind of. Vila-Matas called it a “sublimation” of the truth.) Soon after, a writer for a magazine in Argentina who knew Vila-Matas wrote me to say he’d told her I was writing a novel about the Panero family, and she wanted to quote me for an article. I corrected her that I was writing a biography and answered her questions. A month or so later, a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote me because Vila-Matas had told her that I was making a movie about the Paneros. Once again, I offered a correction then answered questions. What would be the next inquiry, I wondered, someone saying that Vila-Matas had told them that I was composing a stage musical about the Paneros?
This was when it became clear to me that, yes, I was in an Enrique Vila-Matas novel. The playful absurdity, the maniacal whims of a writer, the blurring of the real and the unreal—it was vintage Vila-Matas. Or wait: Was it pure Bolaño? Was I in a novel by Roberto Bolaño (who was friends with Vila-Matas) in which a stand-in for Vila-Matas messed with the head of an American writer trying to write a book about a Spanish literary family with a fascist past?
Of course, the answer was much simpler than all of that: I was simply deep, deep inside the process of writing my own book, which finally came to a close six years after I first saw El Desencanto. A telling development had occurred. I was no longer the sole detective asking questions. Now new ones were appearing and tracking me down to ask me questions. When at last I turned in my finished manuscript after reading thousands of pages of books and documents and conducting nearly 100 interviews, I felt vastly satisfied but also vastly empty. The literary madness of the Paneros had nourished my literary madness, and I already missed them.
During the fraught, lonely period between finishing my book and its publication—which I imagined being akin to wandering lost in the Sonoran desert—I met my wife one day for lunch. We ate sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After we finished, my wife departed, leaving me to contemplate the sea. Overcome by a sudden sleepiness, I laid down on the bench and dozed off. A half hour later, my own snoring woke me up. A huddle of people standing nearby glanced at me. I thought of something the middle son, Leopoldo María Panero, used to say near the end of his life, when he would leave the mental institution in the Canary Islands where he lived during the day and take naps on public benches: I’m not a bum, I’m a poet! I wanted to yell out the same thing. Instead, I lay back down and stared up at the clear blue sky. I wasn’t a poet; I never had been. I was a detective, and for the time being my savage work was done.
Image credit: Unsplash/João Silas.
Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)
At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.
1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.
3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”
4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”
5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).
6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.
7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.
8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.
9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.
The Merely Excellent
1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”
3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.
4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?
6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.
Necessary For Completists Only
1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.
2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.
3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.
4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.
See The Romantic Dogs.
Here 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.
Here 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?
As 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.
Some heavy hitters out this week: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan; Dear Life, Alice Munro’s latest collection; Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño; The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín; and Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s massive follow-up to The Noonday Demon. Also out are My Ideal Bookshelf, in which figures from Judd Apatow to Jennifer Egan share about which books shaped them; Jon Meacham’s biography of Jefferson; 40 years of poems by Louise Glück; a new issue of McSweeney’s food mag Lucky Peach; debut The Heat of the Sun by David Rain, and She Loves Me Not, a new collection of stories by Ron Hansen.