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Roberto Bolano's 'Woes of the True Policeman' a sketchy work

AuthorsLiteratureBookArts and CultureMexicoDavid Foster Wallace

Woes of the True Policeman
A Novel

Roberto Bolaño, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 256 pp., $25


An early death isn't the end for a writer. Like a special dispensation from the pope, it can be one path to literary canonization, as well as to bestsellerdom. David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño are the preeminent recent examples of this paradigm, though anyone from John Kennedy Toole to Sylvia Plath may also apply.

But soon the fans want more, the heirs require succor, and so the posthumous editions begin to appear. These are thorny propositions, but they sometimes work out. Wallace's "The Pale King" was incomplete and heavily shaped by an editor's hand (with further revisions for the paperback edition), but it generally left readers satisfied. Here was some last testament from the genius; the manuscript left in rather tidy stacks, it was clearly something he had been working on for a while and intended to have published. Unfinished, sure, but it would do.

Too often, however, these posthumous works are failures — the pecuniary motivation shines too brightly, the hard work of editing and scholarship has been neglected, or the writing just isn't that good. Vladimir Nabokov's "The Original of Laura" was a trifle, a collection of index cards for an unrealized work, and it should have been burned (per the author's request) or packaged in a book of miscellany. Instead, Nabokov's son, Dmitri, engaged in a long, public, histrionic should-I-or-shouldn't-I melodrama, before publishing the cards in an expensive hardcover edition that was widely panned.

"Woes of the True Policeman" is supposed to be the final, unfinished novel by Roberto Bolaño. An impoverished, peripatetic poet for much of his life, Bolaño began churning out fiction in the 1990s and, by the time of his death from liver disease in 2003, was hailed by his Latin American contemporaries as the most important writer of his generation. (The Bolaño myth has been burnished by tales of hard living, but his family disputes the claim that his death was related to heroin use.)

The English translations of his major novels, "The Savage Detectives" and "2666," were published in 2007 and 2008, respectively, cementing his reputation in the United States. Numerous posthumous publications have followed, a steady stream of text that suffers compared to the Amazon of those two monumental works.

The stream may be finally drying up. But when the discovery of "Woes of the True Policeman" was announced in 2009, so too was the presence of another novel, "Diorama," as well as a sixth part of "2666." So who can say that this is the end? Bolaño's death has done nothing to dent his profligacy.

What one can say is that "Woes of the True Policeman" is both indelible Bolaño — there's vivid sex, phantasmagorical violence, literature as life's highest pursuit, catalogs of fictitious writers and nomadic political exiles — and pretty undercooked. Bolaño reportedly began working on this novel in the 1980s, but the book reads like a side project that never earned his full attention.

"Woes of the True Policeman" is the story of Amalfitano, a widowed Chilean university professor, and his teenage daughter Rosa. Early in the novel, Amalfitano discovers his latent homosexuality, and after some affairs with students and other young men, he's quietly forced out of his job at a Barcelona university.

He soon finds a job at a university in Santa Teresa, Mexico, which turns out to be only the latest stop for this wandering academic, who in true Bolaño tradition, has spent the decades cutting a swath across various cultural and revolutionary hot zones: Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, France, Italy.

The novel is most adept at describing Amalfitano's affair with Padilla, a promising but dissolute young writer. For Amalfitano, Padilla is "the embodiment of an impossible trinity: lover, son, and ideal reflection of Amalfitano himself."

Reckless and soulful, Padilla is both in thrall to the 50-year-old Amalfitano and the professor's initiator into a more passionate world. After Amalfitano moves to Mexico, the two carry on an intense correspondence, which represents the closest thing the book has to a narrative arc, as we learn about Padilla's progress on his novel and his deterioration after he contracts HIV.

But the book is largely a bundle of unfinished threads. There's a promising section about Santa Teresa's violence and its policemen — Bolaño said that if he hadn't been a writer, he'd have become a homicide detective — that goes nowhere. Rosa's inchoate romance with a boy in Barcelona is forgotten after a couple of letters. Amalfitano's friendships with a couple of university professors, as well as an affair with a young art forger, are sketched only in outline.

Given Bolaño's rich body of work, this book might be shrugged off without much regret. But there are intimations here of something more, something that may offer insight into the writer's larger project.

In many respects, "Woes of the True Policeman" seems to be, if not the once-missing sixth section of "2666," then some cast-off derivative, a text from which Bolaño harvested material for his massive novel. The parallels are many: Santa Teresa, and its horrific record of femicide, is the centerpiece of "2666"; a Chilean professor named Amalfitano is one of the book's main characters. J.M.G. Arcimboldi, a novelist heavily discussed in "Policemen" and mentioned in passing in "The Savage Detectives," bears some resemblance to the Benno von Archimboldi of "2666."

Most of Bolaño's books are part of one immense mosaic, with minor characters in one work taking center stage in another. But how "Woes of the True Policeman" fits in this greater picture, one can't be sure. The book includes a two-page note from Carolina Lopez — without mentioning that she's Bolaño's widow — that describes the condition in which the book was found (assorted computer files and manuscript pages).

Yet it settles none of the questions surrounding the work: What is its relationship to "2666," whose Amalfitano differs in some key respects? Why did Bolaño, a feverishly productive writer in the last decade of his life, never finish this book?

This is where the publisher's responsibility comes in. Here, at the end of the Bolaño line, we deserve reflection from Lopez, an introduction from one of Bolaño's editors, or an essay by his estimable translator, Natasha Wimmer. It is not enough for Farrar, Straus and Giroux to push another salvaged book out the door every year, sans commentary, and expect readers to gratefully consume each successively smaller volume. (Bolaño's other American publisher, New Directions, has at least done us the service of publishing "Between Parentheses," a collection of Bolaño's cantankerous but revealing essays and speeches.)

Bolaño's legacy ultimately lies with his marvelous oeuvre, but his editors should do more to shepherd the great Chilean into posterity. As of now, he limps down the road, alone.

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