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Malcolm Forbes

Further Adventures of Amalfitano

Woes of the True Policeman
By Roberto Bolaño (Translated by Natasha Wimmer) (Picador 256pp 18.99)
Bolaño: wanted to be a detective

The well is now dry. Woes of the True Policeman is the latest and, supposedly, last unpublished novel by Roberto Bolaño finally to see the light of day. Bolaño - the world's most prolific dead author - began work on it in the 1980s and tinkered with it until his death in 2003. It remains unfinished and, to a large extent, unformed. Unlike The Mystery of Edwin Drood or The Last Tycoon it doesn't so much peter out as refuse to crystallise, its five sections very much discrete entities that seldom coalesce. That said, it bears all the hallmarks of the best of Bolaño's oeuvre - thrumming with rambunctious energy, brimming with inventive ideas, caustic wit and meandering, often digressive yarns - rendering it more than just another posthumous cash-in and a cut above a mere literary curio.

Our main protagonist is Amalfitano, a widower and professor of literature, who is first tortured then exiled from his native Chile for his leftist activities. After joining the Sandinista revolution he washes up in Europe with his daughter, Rosa (named in tribute to Rosa Luxemburg). In Paris he is glad to be 'a dissident in a civilised country'; after taking a position at the University of Barcelona he is surprised to discover his homosexuality ('at the same time that the Russians discovered their passion for capitalism'). When the rector of the university catches wind of his sexual liaisons with a student, the louche Padilla, Amalfitano is sent on his way again, this time ending up at the (fictional) University of Santa Teresa, northern Mexico. In this desolate border town of corrupt cops, murdered women and palpable desperation he and Rosa feel marooned, like 'two gypsies without a tribe'; however, in time, and with help from the riotous, ragbag cast their creator assembles around them, both attempt to locate reason in the engulfing madness.

The novel, such as it is, has the most threadbare of plots, but those who have immersed themselves in Bolaño's world before know that we come to him primarily for his characters and his ideas. Woes is no exception. We mingle with art forgers and numerologists, discover the warts-and-all biography (and bibliography) of writer and magician J M G Arcimboldi, learn about a sect known as the barbaric writers (not to be confused with the Savage Detectives), and hear of five generations of raped women who all have the same name. As ever, the violence is almost flippantly conveyed, emphasising the blithe disregard for justice in northern Mexico and reinforcing Bolaño's claim that he would have preferred to become a detective than a writer. Pimps and pickpockets eye the audience of a flea-pit strip club for punters and victims; everyone loses themselves in whisky - except one man who favours a toxic mescal called Los Suicidas.

Of course Bolaño has taken us to Santa Teresa before. It provides the setting for his magnum opus, 2666, a novel with a 'murder epidemic' at its dark heart, and which exhaustively, even nonchalantly, chronicles the grisly killings of hundreds of women throughout Mexico's Chihuahua state. Woes dovetails into 2666, particularly its last section, 'Killers of Sonora', which focuses on a similar wave of unsolved murders. Characters are also reused, reappearing in various permutations. J M G Arcimboldi here was the elusive Benno von Archimboldi there; most obviously, Amalfitano makes a welcome return, no longer the bare-bones version we saw in 2666, but fleshed out and adorned with a wealth of foibles, tics and desires.

In an unfinished work that spanned Bolaño's career it is inevitable we should find the nuclei for other, completed books. The snippets of military battles and manoeuvres of which we are informed here received fuller treatment in The Third Reich; Bolaño's much-loved potted histories of invented writers were used to greater effect in the more cohesive Nazi Literature in the Americas. Elsewhere in Woes, we can tick off a whole host of Bolaño's trademark tropes: haphazard and premeditated violence, unabashed sex, and weird dreams. Long paragraphs, freighted with purpose, alternate with short, tangential vignettes and seemingly meaningless riffs. 'What is the story and what are its outgrowths, elaborations, offshoots?' we are asked. At its weakest Woes resembles Antwerp, that other early novel which, despite good intentions, was essentially a mass of unhatched ideas and dangling loose ends, and consequently felt like apprentice work.

But then all of a sudden Bolaño is back on track, dazzling us with flashes of unexpected brilliance, interlarding his narrative with descriptions that are as bizarre ('words were like electrocardiograms') as they are quirkily poetic (compared with Barcelona's neat, grid-like structure, Santa Teresa is made up of 'streets with their hair down'). We are taken along the 'lonely latitudes' of Amalfitano's nightmares and follow Rosa 'advancing by forced marches into adulthood'. The result is a fragmented, hallucinatory novel which reads like a warped amalgam of a reimagining of the campus novel, a madcap update of Maurice, and a series of pulque-induced exploits - and which yet, somehow, inexplicably, manages to work.

At one point in 2666 Amalfitano asks someone what books he likes and is aghast when the answer is 'stories, not books'. 'He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet., and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities.' Amalfitano thinks the man is 'afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown'. Woes of the True Policeman is definitely one of those lesser works, a companion piece to, even a scion of, 2666, but it still possesses the ability to blaze a path into the unknown.


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Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer.


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray