Woes Of The True Policeman
- Roberto Bolaño
- Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño left behind a surfeit of unfinished manuscripts after his death, but nothing was more intriguing than a reported sixth part of 2666, his bestselling magnum opus. The posthumous novel Woes Of The True Policeman isn’t that rumored section of Bolaño’s longest novel, but it might as well be. Woes is not so much a 2666 sequel as a series of excised B-sides, providing appendices of background information on its characters. As if a 900-page epic wasn’t enough, Woes Of The True Policeman plays like the deleted scenes of that sweeping novel, filling in gaps in an already-expansive narrative. It’s a somewhat easier-to-digest companion piece that couldn’t exist without its behemoth predecessor, the crowning achievement of Bolaño’s career. Still, picking on Woes for its failings is like harping on Titus Andronicus: At a certain point, even the diminished power in Bolaño’s minor work shines brighter than most.
The novel is divided into five parts taken from various files scattered across Bolaño’s desk and computers, assembled in an emotionally satisfying achronological arc. Amalfitano, a Chilean university professor, is forced to resign his position in Barcelona after his homosexuality is exposed. In order to keep making money, he uproots his daughter Rosa and takes a post in Santa Teresa, Mexico, leaving behind his young lover Padilla. Though Amalfitano takes a new lover, Castillo, who forges Larry Rivers paintings, he constantly exchanges letters with Padilla. Bolaño surrounds that central plot with the swirling lives of his Barcelona friends and Mexican colleagues, and his family history. Many of Woes’ major characters are also significant in 2666, but the main plot sticks with Amalfitano’s academic fall from grace and his relationship with Padilla.
Amalfitano and Padilla’s correspondence is interrupted by two segments—one centered on Rosa, the other on the elusive, fictional German author Archimboldi, whose work Amalfitano translated into Spanish. The section on Rosa, so mysterious and exciting when she’s peeking out from the background at the novel’s beginning, is the most unfinished, cutting off right as her plot gets going. But the Archimboldi section defies explanation. Is it a satirical send-up of wandering, aimless novels, or a subtle critique of Bolaño’s own authorial tendencies? The languid, expansive summary reviews of the fictional bibliography is in essence a version of the Twitter feed devoted to fake Louie plotlines, only far less pithy, espousing many different plots suitable to Bolaño’s style. It’s dense and complex with just the right amount of winking irony. And considering that Bolaño’s own attempts at biography drew criticism for embellished details and mythmaking, Woes feels self-reflexive in its smaller focus, in contrast to the thematically overwhelming, multifaceted 2666.
The narrative style consistently feels piecemeal and kaleidoscopic, covering sprawling geography and a cavalry of characters, methodically weaving them together into a history set in Bolaño’s viciously dangerous looking-glass version of the city of Ciudad Juarez. Junot Díaz possesses this gift in part, but only Bolaño could make something as boring as a bibliography of a fictional author into a fiercely compelling comedic appraisal of philosophical novels.
In an editorial note, Bolaño’s widow writes that Woes is “a novel whose parts are at different stages of completion, though the general level of revision is high.” It’s impossible to know whether that’s true, but editors made that inference because Bolaño worked on the novel for so long that he began writing it longhand, typed up manuscript pages on a typewriter, and eventually transferred a large portion of the novel onto one of his computers. Unlike The Third Reich, an early novel Bolaño left alone and never revisited, Woes stuck around in his work. He revised it over the course of several decades, and made references to the novel in interviews up through the end of his life. Bolaño may have been better off leaving his initial draft alone, since the scattered work here and in Secret Of Evil amplifies the crude strength of Third Reich in comparison. But the link to 2666 justifies its existence, even if completing that gargantuan novel serves as a barrier to entry for Woes.
Bolaño currently and deservedly still holds the title of Most Prolific Dead Author. Even after Woes, the third new translation of his work in a year, there are still two yet to be translated into English: 2002’s A Lumpen Novella and the unpublished Diorama. If Woes is truly the final major translation left, it’s apt that his final work seems to comically reflect his oeuvre with mocking admiration, while supplementing his most audacious artistic statement. It’s difficult to place The Third Reich or The Secret Of Evil in determining an order for approaching Bolaño’s work. 2666, The Savage Detectives, and Bolaño’s other short-story collections remain the first-choice starting points. But perhaps it’s best to place Woes Of The True Policeman at the end, as the final, incomplete work of Bolaño’s life.