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I read the translation by Natasha Wimmer into English of Roberto Bolaño’s final, unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman. I think that I should have started with his most famous book The Savage Detectives instead. I actually started reading that in 2005 when a fellow in my Spanish class recommended it to me but I didn’t finish it. I didn’t love Woes of the true policeman! It was faithfully compiled posthumously by his publisher and maybe if he had completed it himself I would have liked it more or maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to appreciate Bolaño.
The book follows literature professor Amalfitano and his flight from oppressive Latin American regimes with his wife until her death and then their daughter Rosa to Barcelona and from there to Mexico. Central to the book is the unlikable hedonistic character Padilla. It is never clear to me why Amalfitano likes Padilla. Also central is Padilla’s unfinished novel The God of the Homosexuals which is presumably HIV/AIDS and the girl Elisa who is presumably death.
We don’t get a clear picture of any of the characters so if that’s what you seek in a book then this probably isn’t for you. What we get instead is an all-knowing narrator and a series of sometimes fascinating, sometimes boring metanarratives.
…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.
Have you ever felt like me that Haruki Murakami tries a bit too hard with his references to art, literature and cuisine? Bolaño mentioned all sorts of poets that I’ve never heard of but didn’t make those passages interesting enough to be engaging to me as a reader either. I was tempted to put the book down permanently but I kept going and the section on Rosa onwards was much more interesting to me.
The narrator is distant and mysterious and I don’t know why Bolaño includes so much incidental history in his novel about tiny, insignificant matters like the sculpture in Santa Teresa, Mexico? Does he like to divert the narrative, or is he teaching the reader to check historical facts rather than believe modern versions of history or is the narrative just a vehicle to deliver his vignettes on history, obscure poets and politics?
Because of Amalfitano’s political activities in Chile, his family had to move on and keep on moving on until his wife died in Rio and then it was just Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa that was always moving. She doesn’t like her father’s Chilean accent and she thinks she must have a United Nations Spanish accent.
Rosa’s education… was practical and rational, at times progressive and occasionally sublime… (her teacher’s were) apostles, leftists, pacifists, ecologists, anarchists cooped up in small progressive schools that almost no one had heard of – or at least no one hardworking and normal.
My favourite section of the book was the second on the fictional writer J.M.G. Arcimboldi. Bolaño created this fictional writer in his novel 2666 and he reappears in Woes of the True Policeman with an entire section of the novel devoted to summaries of Arcimboldi’s books. Each summary is captivating and could stand alone as a short story. I also enjoyed reading the section on the five generations of María Expósito’s. Of course I was appalled that four of the five women had been raped but the women were strong and lived without men and the section was well-written and had humour and momentum to it!
I admit that I did not enjoy reading about the gay sex that dominates the book, like in Alan Hollinghurst’s In the Line of Beauty. As the very talented writer Damon Galgut said on the BBC World Book Club, I don’t find sexuality interesting. I know that AIDS was a big deal in the 1980s when Bolaño started writing this book and the book centres around the emerging homosexuality of Amalfitano and the blatant homosexuality of Padilla but Bolaño could have written something much more interesting than a lot of talk of erect cocks. Isn’t this cheap thrills?
Obviously Bolaño is extremely talented and created art not just novels. For more sophisticated and educated readers than me, for example this reader and for his fans this book would be more enriching. This extract from the New York Times seems to support my conclusion:
(Bolaño) had appointed the Spanish critic and editor Ignacio Echevarría as his literary executor. In an essay published last year, when “Woes of the True Policeman” appeared in Spanish, Mr. Echevarría maintained that the book could not even be described as “an unfinished novel,” but was instead a collection of “material destined for a novelistic project that was shelved” and eventually cannibalized for Mr. Bolaño’s other works.
That is precisely what makes “Woes of the True Policeman” interesting for readers who know those novels and stories.