Book review: Woes Of The True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño

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A DEAD novelist is sending cryptic messages from beyond the grave.

Woes Of The True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño

Picador, 250pp, £13.99

That’s the kind of conceit one could imagine in the work of Robert Bolaño, and yet it increasingly describes his entire oeuvre for me. Bolaño died in 2003, and most of his subsequent fame in the English-speaking world was posthumous. A steady stream of his work has been being published for nearly a decade now, ranging from undisputed masterpieces – 2666 and The Savage Detectives – to deranged and brilliant squibs – Nazi Literature Of The Americas – to early, unpublished work which points the way towards his more mature novels, such as The Third Reich. How does one classify Woes Of The True Policeman? It seems, in a way, a bit of all three.

Bolaño told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera in 1999 that he was working on a novel called Woes Of The True Policeman, and a letter from 1995 quoted by Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas in the foreword says: “Novel: for years I’ve been working on one that’s titled Woes Of The True Policeman and which is MY NOVEL. The protagonist is a widower, 50, a university professor, 17-year-old daughter, who goes to live in Santa Teresa, a city near the US border. Eight hundred thousand pages, a crazy tangle beyond anyone’s comprehension.” Readers familiar with 2666 will recognise that the sketch conforms to the second part of that book, “The Part About Amalfitano”, and indeed, the literature professor Amalfitano is a major character here. Other figures from 2666 appear as well: there are reading notes about the work of JMG Arcimboldi, the mysterious author at the centre of 2666 (where he is called Benno von Arcimboldi). There is a family resemblance between the satirised literary movement, The Visceral Realists, in The Savage Detectives and the opening cadenza, where the young poet Padilla categorises all literature as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, then further subdivides all poetry into “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs and philenes”.

But is the Amalfitano of 2666 the same character as the Amalfitano in Woes Of The True Policeman? There are major differences: here, Amalfitano, after being widowed, embarks on a homosexual affair with his student Padilla, which means losing his job in Spain and relocating to Santa Teresa. This backstory is strikingly absent from 2666. Likewise, although both books refer to The Endless Rose by Arcimboldi, the other works here (The Enigma Of The Cyclists Of The Tour De France for example) are different. So is this book “notes toward”, supplementary material, discarded drafts, a work in its own right – or another puzzle for the reader? Just as 2666 never mentioned the number 2666 in its 900 pages (though it does appear in the novel Amulet and in The Savage Detectives), so the connections between this book and the rest of Bolaño’s oeuvre remain frustratingly opaque.

Nevertheless, there is a power in these pages that very few writers ever achieve. Perhaps the best part relates most directly to the title: twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo Negrete, who are respectively a policeman and a philosophy professor. Pablo asks Pedro to investigate Amalfinto, whom he has had a dream about as a herald of the apocalypse (in all the discussions of the meaning of 2666, its relation to the Number of the Beast is hurried over). He hires a detective, Pancho Monje, the product of six generations of rapes and foundlings. The descriptions of Padilla succumbing to Aids and forming an almost Platonic relationship with a female heroin dealer to whom he reads poems are heartbreaking: half naive, half cynical, suffused with the gloom of curtailed ambitions and lives. There are some genuinely shocking descriptions of murders in Santa Teresa, which have the same accumulative horror as the fourth section of 2666, “The Part About The Murders”.

The descriptions of the Arcimboldi novels are as intriguing and sly as the encyclopaedia entries on Nazi authors, and hint at ways of reading Bolaño. A propos of Railroad Perfection – “a novel consisting of ninety-nine apparently unrelated two page dialogues” – Amalfinto notes, “but the truly important story, the one that somehow encompasses and obliterates and supplants all the others is the story of the chase. From the beginning, the reader is presented with a number of questions: is the pursuer motivated by love or hatred? Is the pursued motivated by love or fear?… is the pursuer a man and the pursued a woman, or is the other way around? What is the story and what are its outgrowths, elaboration, offshoots?” This, to me, describes the experience of reading Bolaño’s related works.

In the prologue, Ródenas quotes Bolaño’s “key” to the inter-related works of which Woes Of The True Policeman is a part: “the policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel”. There is an important corollary to this insight: if the reader is the true policeman, then the crime is literature itself. Literature in Bolaño’s work is always complicit with political oppression. It is not just that literature often ignores the political abuses of the regimes in which it is produced; it is that literature, by suggesting that there might be a coherent meaning to be found actually imposes one by force on an inchoate and contradictory reality. For Bolaño, Literature is a lie that there is meaning in the world.

That he made Literature out of this profoundly anti-literary stance is what makes Bolaño’s evasive, paradoxical work so thrilling to read. What he does is infect the reader with a kind of apophenia, the psychological conditions where sufferers see patterns in random data. Certainly, whenever I have read Bolaño, I have had very bad dreams, the kind where something intangible remains just out of reach. That a writer can affect you so profoundly as a reader is something very close to miraculous.