If you’re a already a devotee of the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano, you’ll probably want another chance to experience his voice, but if you’ve not yet read his work, skip Woes of the True Policeman and begin instead with The Savage Detectives.
Widowed literature professor Amalfitano is a Chilean exile, living with his daughter in Barcelona, when scandalous behavior costs him his job: he’s having an affair with one of his students, a young poet named Padilla. Amalfitano has just discovered his own homosexuality, and the novel begins with a startling, hilarious and outrageous description of various (mostly Spanish) poets as particular types of homosexual.
Once in Santa Teresa, close to the Texas border, he of course finds another lover, this time an artist who makes a living selling forged Larry Rivers paintings to wealthy Texans. But his connection to Padilla continues through their correspondaence, and Amalfitano encourages Padilla in his ambition to write a novel.
Other characters include Amalfitano’s colleagues in Barcelona, who remain personally faithful, and various secondary characters in Mexico who begin to take over the narrative on the least chance, spinning us into long digressions that seem to be laying the groundwork for a more panaramic story than this brief book can hold.
And that’s the problem. This is supposedly Bolano’s last novel, and it is unfinished. In fact, as far as the reader is concerned, it’s barely started. We are contiually introduced to new actors in supporting roles, who go on to whole scenes and even chapters of their own, but unfortunately there’s just not enough of the story written down for us to take any pleasure in it. We have no sense of where it’s going, no clues as to how it might play out, and virtually every anecdote and story is left unresolved.
It’s to Bolano’s great credit that despite this, we do feel the reality of these characters and their lives so strongly. The people, the places and the events are fully imagined and deftly realized, even if to no end.
Bolano is one of those writers whose real prominence, in the English speaking world anyway, came only after — maybe because of — his death. He’s had a huge influence on many writers — almost everyone who’s read him, in fact — and his style has been imitated and appropriated everywhere. Of all the writers I know, he’s the one whose work most recalls the late Julio Cortazar, in his remarkable ability to draw a completley realized picture through the character’s eyes, along with a sinuous flow of language and thought. As in Cortazar, these often contrast intentionally with fractured narratives, although that’s quite different from a story which is merely unfinished.
But Bolano is no mere imitator, he was a major novelist in his own right. Posthumus publications are only granted to important authors, but in this case, publication of so slight a fragment is more likely to drive potential readers away than satisfy the thirst of his established fans.