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Yet another last vexing work from Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano


Woes of the True Policeman
Roberto Bolano
Hamish Hamilton

Chilean author Roberto Bolano, who died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50, has been transformed in the past decade into the most celebrated posthumous literary discovery of our generation. Woes of the True Policeman is the 17th of his works to see translation since 2003, and the third of a trio of never-before-published works to appear in the past 12 months.

The first of these was the early novel The Third Reich, abandoned in a drawer after being rejected by publishers in the late 1980s. Though flawed, it at least offered a cohesive look at the author's early thematic concerns and stylistic experiments. The Secret of Evil, arriving a few months later, was described in its editorial notes as "stories and narrative sketches gleaned from the more than 50 files found on Roberto Bolano's computer after his death." It reads about as compellingly as that statement sounds.

Woes of the True Policeman lands somewhere in between. To call it a complete novel would be a stretch by any imagination, but it also amounts to more than stories and sketches from computer files – even though it arrives with a similar editorial note by the author's widow, Carolina Lopez, explaining how it was assembled. Spanning a period that ranges from the 1980s to 2003, Woes collects three pieces of writing "at different stages of completion," and uses logical deductions from various computer file titles to piece together a Franken-novel.

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The novel revolves around Oscar Amalfitano, a nomadic literature professor who moves to the fictional town of Santa Teresa in northern Mexico with his teenage daughter after a sex scandal with male students forces him to resign his post at a university in Barcelona. Readers of Bolaño will immediately recognize Amalfitano, Santa Teresa, the obscure writer Arcimboldi (here spelled slightly differently and French, not Prussian), the spate of clinically described rapes and murders that grip the Mexican town, and much more as significant contributions to 2666, the sprawling, 900-page masterwork that, incidentally, took the author just as long to concoct as the computer files in this novel.

In a letter to friend and visual artist Carla Rippey, written in the mid-1990s, Bolano described a manuscript titled The Woes of the True Policeman, which had already exceeded 800,000 pages. Where is the rest of that book? Could it be that the manuscript was used over the years to build portions of that other novel, and that what we have here are alternative takes and leftovers?

This line of questioning simultaneously captures the brilliance and maddening incompletion that accounts for Bolano's oeuvre.

After all, part of the author's signature, his readers will note, is revisiting characters, settings and events across various fictions, in effect creating a puzzle to piece together.

But unlike more refined incarnations of this technique, the novel before us feels conceptually inconclusive in a way that none of his other novels do. The author is dead, and we will never know what his true intentions were. All we do know is that even though these pages stayed with him for much of his writing life, he never chose to publish them.

Incompletion, one could argue, is also Roberto Bolano's greatest achievement. Informed by his intellect, the flaw becomes an art form that captures the senselessness of a world that doesn't care one way or another for his character's lifelong pursuits of uncompromised passions.

This is something of the "conclusion" one walks away with in his masterpieces The Savage Detectives and 2666.

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However, the conclusion readers will most likely draw from Woes of the True Policeman is that his grand themes of inconclusiveness, so ripe for posthumous publication and myth-building, have here been manipulated to squeeze a footnote of a novel out of an otherwise spectacular body of work.

Dimitri Nasrallah's novel Niko was recently long-listed for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Awards.

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