Jan. 17, 2013 - Issue #900: The ongoing musical evolution of Hannah Georgas
Woes of the True Policeman
Roberto Bolaño died a full decade ago, and we're only just now running out of his novels, essays, and story and poetry collections to translate into English. Not that his honourable publishers haven't given it their best shot: the first translation arrived a matter of months after the Chilean's death from liver failure at age 50, and since then they've come fast and furious, well over a title per year, the biggest among them becoming genuine literary events. The fact that you can still find copies of the colossal 2666 in most mainstream bookstores is a coup in and of itself.
Signalling that the end of the line is nigh is Woes of the True Policeman. Billed as Bolaño's "last, unfinished novel," one that he worked on for decades as well as immediately before his death, it's a choppy, love-ridden work that revisits the setting and even certain characters from 2666. Our hero is Óscar Amalfitano, an academic whose late-breaking homosexuality forces him and his teenage daughter Rosa to flee to a town in northern Mexico. (You may remember him from part two of 2666, "The Part about Amalfitano.")
Because Woes was assembled posthumously, from several different folders and computer files—there's an editorial note about the process that raises more questions than it answers—doubts have been voiced about how this work was meant to be presented, if at all. Is it a lost appendage from 2666? Scraps from the cutting-room floor? Or was Bolaño trying to convert it into something entirely new?
It's easy to see why this material wasn't included in the masterwork. For one thing, it's written in a completely different key: luxurious melancholy to 2666's seething menace. Amalfitano spends most of his section in the big novel panicking about if—and, terrifyingly, when—Rosa will join the ranks of the hundreds of women in Santa Teresa who have been grotesquely murdered. Famously, several hundred pages in 2666 were devoted to clinical descriptions of these crime scenes; here, however, Rosa floats through her days serenely writing letters and watching movies. And Amalfitano's story is devoted almost exclusively to his newfound status as a sexual libertine, and the young male lovers he picks up along the way.
As to whether these pages were ready for publication, that's much less clear. There's no question that Bolaño was one of the flat-out best writers of his generation, and surprisingly large chunks of Woes, thanks in no small part to long-time translator Natasha Wimmer, meet those high standards. The section summarizing the works of a reclusive novelist named Arcimboldi (another 2666 callback) is particularly combustible. Put it this way: if you've never read Bolaño before, you won't be scared off by this one.
But other parts of the book do feel undeveloped, and even aimless. The pages devoted to Rosa in particular feel like they were built from scraps. This is especially frustrating given Bolaño's own penchant for, and delight in, fragmentation. Given what we know about the book's rather haphazard assembly process, it's impossible to say which parts of the novel are fragmented by design, and which are simply incomplete.
That being said, I'll take a scruffy addition to the Bolaño universe over none at all any day. There are also throughlines back to his earliest writings: Bolaño's first novel, the fuzzed-out, impressionistic Antwerp, hinges on the reveal of one character as "the fake policeman."
And Woes of the True Policeman even contains a fitting précis of the author's overall methods. Amidst a paraphrased police report about Amalfitano, near the book's end, we read this: "He realized something that in his heart he had always known: that the Whole is impossible, that knowledge is the classification of fragments."
When I read this passage, I nearly choked on my coffee. Then I marked the page immediately. Hopefully the people in charge of Bolaño's estate did, too—if there's anything left in the vaults, "knowledge is the classification of fragments" is a mantra that needs to be chanted again and again.
By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
256 pp, $30
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