Grown-Up Stories: Bolaño’s True Policeman is Vulnerable, Experimental

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

A discovery sets off the new Roberto Bolaño novel, Woes of the True Policeman: well into middle age, former Chilean revolutionary and University of Barcelona philosophy professor Óscar Amalfitano, the protagonist, realizes that he is gay. Soon after, he is faced with the problem of telling his teenage daughter Rosa:

In a long and chaotic conversation before they left for Mexico, using an allegory that even he didn’t understand and logic that later struck him as weak at best and idiotic at worst, he tried to explain to her that sexual tastes aren’t fixed, at least not necessarily. At the root of his argument was an attempt to console himself—and also, hypothetically, his daughter—by reasoning that if the Eastern Bloc could crumble, so, too, could his thus far unequivocal heterosexuality…  A kind of domino effect on the plane of inclinations, though an odd one, since Amalfitano was always critical of actual socialism. But Rosa literally didn’t hear him, being distractible by nature and used to her father’s long soliloquies.

This is typical Bolaño: engaging, a bit funny, surprising, sympathetic, finally sad. Bolaño hovers over his characters, following even their insignificant thoughts, able to see their comic-pathetic excesses and remain comfortably and closely invested in their well-being. This is quite the feat: after all, how many writers could write of a character “reasoning that if the Eastern Bloc could crumble, so, too, could his thus far unequivocal heterosexuality” and in so doing make us not more distant but in fact closer to him?

This relaxed but remarkably acute treatment of character might stand for the larger, wonderful forces of Bolaño’s fiction. Above all, what defines it is this certain feel: it is the feel of memory. In memory, we encounter past versions of ourselves, past images of others, in this distinct manner. And in memory, we wind around, drawn from moment to seemingly unrelated moment, from person to person, arrested by a vivid detail or an odd parallel, drawn to certain moments and people; and memory has themes—the themes of our lives—and aura: our minds’ distinctive ways of seeing things. All this perfectly describes Bolaño’s fiction: the recurring characters and places and themes—poets, revolutionaries, policemen—the nonlinear plots, told from a number of perspectives, the spiraling stories and sudden moments of arresting pathos.

Roberto Bolaño’s first English translation appeared the same year its author died—of liver failure at age 50—2003. Since then, more than 15 of his books have appeared in English, the vast majority of them translated by Chris Andrews or Natasha Wimmer, and he has been rightfully acclaimed. He is perhaps best known for two novels, The Savage Detectives and the 900-page 2666, which he almost finished in the months before he died.

True Policeman, which was translated with great skill by Wimmer, was similarly never completed; Bolaño worked on it from the 1980’s until his death. But no matter. Bolaño’s skills are on full display here, as are his usual casts of characters, places, and ideas. The novel begins with Amalfitano’s first gay relationship, with a student of his named Padilla, who is full of spirit and who claims that all literature is gay or straight—novels are generally straight, he claims, while poetry is gay (there is a similar line in The Savage Detectives). Padilla is full of wonderful excess: “Amalfitano was 50 and it was the first time he had slept with a man. I’m not a man, said Padilla, I’m your angel.” Soon Amalfitano is fired by the university for this indiscretion and so he moves with Rosa to Santa Teresa, Mexico, where he gets a new job, finds a new lover (Castillo), is investigated by the police, and sends many letters to Padilla, who is diagnosed with AIDS and begins to waste away.

We learn all this slowly—most of the general plot is made clear in brief, direct segments, but the details and connections accrete over time, sometimes seemingly without method, truly like memory. For instance, Amalfitano is first described physically 50 pages into the book, wonderfully, from the perspective of Castillo, who is awoken by Amalfitano from an outdoor nap: “when he opened his eyes he saw a tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken, with a worried expression on his face, and he knew right away he would fall in love.”

And there are many subplots, not all of which really get off the ground—fables told by characters and the narrator in various forms, none of which bear directly on Amalfitano but all of which hang over the book, lending it its sprawling form and its sense of being more interested in places, times, and people than in one overarching story. Bolaño and his characters are interested in the relation of stories to each other, in the way our lives are composed of what we hear, what we tell, what has gone before, and what we do not see. There is much in True Policeman that could be called irrelevant, but I would call it lifelike irrelevance—it is a moving, absorbing irrelevance.

Critics who’ve harped on the book’s disconnectedness (and insisted it is exclusively the product of its being unfinished) have surely missed what is so compelling here: the way this dreamy, looping, sometimes excessive but exceptionally absorbing novel manages to be both so loosely broad and so acutely moving. There is Amalfitano’s sad separation from his daughter, for example, and there is his revolutionary’s disillusionment, and there is Padilla’s AIDS: one night he goes to strangle (though not kill) his homophobic hospital-roommate, “moving stealthily,” “dragging his IV pole.” Padilla tells Amalfitano that he moved “like a ballerina on the moon”—untrue, surely, and terribly sad, for isn’t that precisely how a dying young poet would describe himself? Amalfitano’s letter exchange with Padilla is this novel’s most touching, most true part.

There is also Bolaño’s prose: it is experimental and very much alive without feeling forced. Many leading experimental American and English fiction writers (I mean those who both meet a fairly large audience and experiment with style and voice) seem deeply uncomfortable with their experimentation. They constantly chafe at its limits, irritatingly forcing it to reveal itself as experimentation (Jonathan Safran Foer’s unconvincing voices), or they piously insist on its importance (Zadie Smith’s glib textual devices of late), or they allow it to become, in a way, the real character (David Foster Wallace’s digressive short stories)—in all these cases, they fetishize experimentation.

Bolaño, then, reminds us of how much experimentation can add when it is done right: he loves language, and wants to foreground it, to try new things, but importantly he has found a successful relation between his prose and his fictional world. His characters are comfortably and recognizably his—they speak and think in his voice—but they have life of their own. They are filtered through Bolaño’s distinctive way of seeing things, but not so much that we only see the filter; truly, they are like memories. This may have something to do with Bolaño’s spirited unselfconsciousness. Unlike those other writers, he seems unafraid of coming off as pretentious, sentimental, self-absorbed, naive, or unliterary. Indeed, I cannot imagine any of those writers diving so eagerly into a fictional world of such human excess, a world where a character might say “I’m your angel,” without first a smirk or a thorough distancing of the author from that character. But Bolaño knows the real humanity is in the excess, in the vulnerability; for real people—even ironic experimental writers—are inclined to say such things, and isn’t it interesting, and moving, to hear them?

Woes of the True Policeman is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is listed at $25.

Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/The Daily Gazette.

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