Unlike most writers, for whom each work of fiction is a realm only unto itself, Roberto Bolaño freely shared characters, settings, storylines, and major themes throughout his novels and short stories. So it is with Woes of the True Policeman
, a novel begun by the late Chilean in the 1980s and left unfinished at the time of his death in 2003. First published in his native Spanish in 2011, Woes of the True Policeman
is a well-polished, if incomplete, effort. Bolaño's widow, Carolina López, penned the brief yet essential editorial note that accompanies the text, explaining the novel's provenance, its posthumous ordering, and the source files from which it was collected.
Woes of the True Policeman
begins, in fine Bolaño fashion, with an exposition on the sexual classifications of literature and their respective practitioners. These pronouncements on the proclivities of a panoply of poets (including Cernuda, Guillén, Montale, Vallejo, Cardenal, Parra, and many others) foreshadow a theme that sets in motion the arc of the novel's first two parts ("The Fall of the Berlin Wall" and "Amalfitano and Padilla"). Óscar Amalfitano, well known to any Bolaño reader from his role in the epic 2666
, figures prominently into Woes
's plot. A literature (and sometimes philosophy) professor at the University of Barcelona, Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa (detailed in the third section of Woes
) are well adapted to their life in the Spanish metropolis, but a scandalous revelation soon forces him from his post and them from the European continent. Santa Teresa, 2666
's fictionalized approximation of the imperiled and bloody Ciudad Juárez, becomes their new home, with Amalfitano taking on a teaching post at the city's university.
Small details of Amalfitano's life differ from his earlier appearance in 2666
(his late wife's name is different, the obsession with geometry seems absent, etc.), but his fascination with the enigmatic French/German novelist Benno von Archimboldi remains. Other minor characters, including Amalfitano's dean (Horacio Guerra), make a reappearance, setting portions of Woes
within the narrative context more fully explored in 2666
. Nearly all of Woes
seems like it could well have been composed of chapters excised from the larger tome (as they were both actively worked on during the years preceding Bolaño's passing), yet the indications are clear that this was to be a separate, if obviously not unrelated, novel.
As Bolaño reimagined and reused his characters, they sometimes took slightly different forms depending on the work in which they appear. Whereas J.M.G. Arcimboldi appears briefly in The Savage Detectives
as a Frenchman, throughout 2666
he is referred to as Benno von Archimboldi, a Prussian writer. Much like the quest in The Savage Detectives
to discover the seemingly undiscoverable poetry of Cesárea Tinajero, Arcimboldi's own mysterious life and literary output becomes the focus for Amalfitano. Woes
's fourth section, "J.M.G. Arcimboldi," is a Nazi Literature in the Americas
-style foray into the works of Arcimboldi (differing from those listed in 2666
), wherein Amalfitano explores not only his novels, poetry, and other writings but also his friendships (Queneau, Perec, etc.), enemies, hobbies (magic!), and epistolary correspondences.
The novel's final part, "Killers of Sonora," seems to presage the thousands of heinous murders (or feminicidios
) that play such a crucial role in 2666
. This portion of the book seems to be the section Bolaño was likely reworking before he succumbed to liver failure, and follows a group of policemen and Mexican elites who come to suspect that Amalfitano may have some nefarious involvement in a disappearance and murder.
Woes of the True Policeman
features all of the usual elements that have made Bolaño's works so distinctive: ominous prose, obscure poets, dark forebodings, ribald humor, perfidious characters, and the ever-blurry line between fiction and reality (Vila-Matas, Marías, Marsé, Goytisolo, Vargas Llosa, and others are all cast in a proposed biopic about Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi). The intertextuality of Bolaño's fiction makes this novel a requisite read for anyone compelled to delve into the ancillary worlds established by his two masterworks, The Savage Detectives
. Only a number of thorough, immersive readings of Bolaño's many books would allow for a full conception of the shared and sometimes contrasting details and characters he developed so well. One excerpt in Woes
, for example, appeared previously, almost verbatim, as the short story "Another Russian Tale" (from The Return
) and another borrows portions from Distant Star
With scant material remaining that has yet to be translated, the veritable wealth of Bolaño's oeuvre has been all but exhausted. The past decade has seen the Chilean author go from relatively obscure, unknown novelist, poet, and short story writer (amongst English-speaking audiences, that is) to perhaps one of the most celebrated figures in literary translation. While Woes of the True Policeman
may have assumed a slightly different form had its completion been seen through, it will remain a single yet luminous star in the constellation Bolaño.
They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and that the grand highway of selfless acts, of the elegance of eyes and the fate of Marcabrú, passes near its abode. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn't more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember. That memory was love. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com