BOOKS DECEMBER 17, 2012
by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 250 pp., $25
ALTHOUGH IT HAS been nearly a decade since Roberto Bolaño’s death, he has been publishing at an enviable clip. His latest book, Woes of the True Policeman, is not even his first this year: last spring there appeared The Secret of Evil, a collection of nineteen largely unfinished stories. His publishers’ enthusiasm for his posthumous work is not difficult to understand: not since García Márquez has the American public fallen so hard and fast for a Latin American writer.
When Bolaño’s breakthrough book, The Savage Detectives, was published in English in 2007, he was heralded as an emissary from the next generation of Latin American literature. His work seemed a welcome break from magical realism, which—through the writings of Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez, and other members of the “Boom” generation—had dominated most North American conceptions of Latin American literature for several decades. But now Bolaño’s prevalence risks another over-simplification: that he is the only Latin American writer of importance to emerge since the original “Boom.”
For each of the past three years, Bolaño has had at least two books published in English. In 2010, he alone accounted for 25 percent of New Directions’s translation output. (Only Dalkey Archive Press put out more works in translation that year.) In 2011, when The Paris Review decided to serialize a novel for the first time in nearly forty years, they chose the underwhelming The Third Reich, making the tenuous claim that, since Bolaño had retyped sixty pages of it in 1995, eight years before his death, he probably “wished to see it published during his lifetime.”
Even if you grant publishers and literary magazines—and who would not?—the right to pad their coffers by any means, it is worth asking if there are hidden costs in this Bolaño worship, not only for other Latin American writers, but for Bolaño himself. It is unclear whether publishing Bolaño’s unfinished works as popular books, instead of, say, scholarly editions, adds anything to the Bolaño legacy. In fact, it may demean it. The continued publication and popular packaging of his incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition.
IN STRUCTURE AND style, Woes resembles Bolaño’s blockbuster 2666, which appeared in 2008. Bolaño, however, left instructions for the publication of 2666—something he did not do for Woes. This is not surprising: Woes, while hardly the weakest of Bolaño’s posthumously published works, most resembles a rough sketch of ideas that were fully realized in 2666.Indeed, Bolaño began Woes in the 1980s and continually revised it until just before his death. By 1995, in a letter to a friend, he was claiming that it exceeded “eight hundred thousand pages” and presented a “demented tangle that surely no one will understand.” The critic Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas, writing in the preface to the Spanish edition, explains that “what mattered to its author wasn’t completing it but developing it.”
So what does Bolaño develop here? Like 2666, this book has five sections. Also like 2666, this novel gradually develops the story of a chase. And both novels show Bolaño using narrative in a way that differs from any of his other works: pushing the temporal and spatial boundaries of what can happen in a single section and knowing where deliberate lacunae will have the greatest effect. (In an act of narrative legerdemain, calculated omissions allow us to entertain the possibility that one character, in a marked departure from his past, now moonlights as a nightclub magician; likewise, one unnamed Texan may be an art dealer who knows the painter Larry Rivers and yet still commissions blatant forgeries of his work.) But this novel does not offer much that is not more effectively executed in 2666. Woes presents a narrative full of suggestions, echoes, and even suggestions of echoes, but too often the result is just noise. It strives to reach the same heights as 2666, but falls short, imitating the methods of the longer novel but failing to produce a similarly enthralling series of structural and thematic resonances.
In more concrete terms, this is the story of Óscar Amalfitano, a professor who also appears in 2666. While teaching at the University of Barcelona, Amalfitano has his first homosexual experience, an affair with a young male poetry student—which he later tries to explain by “reasoning that if the Eastern Bloc could crumble, so, too, could his thus far unequivocal heterosexuality.” Upon hearing of the affair, his university superiors quietly force him out. Together with his daughter Rosa, who has become so accustomed to her father “leaving countries for political reasons and entering them for academic ones” that she now speaks “United Nations Spanish,” he moves across the Atlantic. The university in Santa Teresa, a fictional town loosely based on Ciudad Juárez, ends up being the only place a disgraced Amalfitano can go.
Woes, however, never abandons Barcelona. Amalfitano maintains an epistolary relationship with Joan Padilla, the young poet, who remains in the Spanish city. For Amalfitano, Padilla seems like “the embodiment of an impossible trinity: lover, son, and ideal reflection of Amalfitano himself. But Padilla is, in many ways, also a male rendering of Lola, the wife who abandons Amalfitano in 2666: he is capricious, obsessed with another poet locked up in an insane asylum, and stricken with AIDS. The arc of this relationship is supposed to sustain the narrative throughout the novel.
The strengths of Woes, however, do not lie in such large-scale plotting, but in scattered episodes. A middle section examines nearly all of the works by the fictional novelist J.M.G. Arcimboldi, who Amalfitano translated early in life. Reminiscent of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, an encyclopedia of invented fascist writers, this section includes one of the novel’s highlights: a description of Arcimboldi’s noir-inspired novel, which reveals traces of Calvino and returns again and again to the Lynchian image of a detective kneeling “at a dwarf-sized sink brushing his teeth and staring at himself in the mirror.”
In the novel’s final section, titled “Killers of Sonora,” Bolaño shows the descriptive gifts for which he has been rightly hailed. A young man characterizes a roomful of cops laughing: “It was a kind of onion laugh. The bad boy inside each of them laughed and the onion burned away little by little. The laughs echoed off the damp walls. The onions were small and fierce.” This synesthetic touch makes the atmosphere all the more sinister. Later, Padilla depicts his own naked, ailing body as “still acceptable, less muscle mass, maybe, but acceptable, more Greco than Caravaggio.” And in a devastating set piece, Bolaño captures the childlike capriciousness of the nouveau riche: “He prospered, like all of them, and his house in Santa Teresa grew like an Erector set, without rhyme or reason, with new wings and stables and staff quarters and even a tennis court.”
Unfortunately, though, details in Woes frequently come in overwhelming lists and taxonomies. The novel opens with a classification of the different kinds of homosexual poets. (“William Blake was definitely a faggot.”) A few chapters later comes a four-page-long sentence of Amalfitano’s thoughts made up entirely of Whitman-esque cascading “I who ...” clauses. The chronicle of Rosa’s globe-trotting education is little more than an account of her teachers and the figures these teachers idolized. One brief chapter consists of a list of answers to questions like “How Was Padilla Affected by Amalfitano’s Departure?” Two later chapters simply list Arcimboldi’s “friendships” and “epistolary relationships.” Even if these are admirably unconventional attempts at characterization, they still show their seams—which is not surprising, given that the final editorial note acknowledges that various portions of the book “are at different stages of completion.”
Amalfitano’s students in Santa Teresa learn that a book is “a labyrinth and a desert”—a Borgesian sentiment that recognizes the pursuit and rejection of narrative ideas. Bolaño’s unfinished novel, however, does not strike the right balance: there are too many narratives and they dry up too quickly. And the one storyline that persists—the story of Amalfitano and Padilla—is the most conventional and therefore the least engaging. Bolaño’s strength is in depicting the uncanny and, as the Baudelairean epigraph to 2666 suggests, finding oases of horror in deserts of boredom.
The general scarcity of translated work makes the shortcomings of this novel more pointed. On the one hand, it is difficult to criticize any publisher for bringing foreign works before an American audience. Just 3 percent of books sold in the U.S. are translated works; for literary fiction and poetry, that number dips to 0.7 percent. But on the other hand, the more Bolaño that is translated, the less room there may be for other writers whose work falls in that 0.7 percent. Of course, this would not be a problem if every Bolaño work shone. But with Woes of the True Policeman, that argument becomes exceedingly difficult to make. We have enough.
Sam Carter is the literary intern at The New Republic.