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Considering Roberto Bolaño and 'Woes of the True Policeman'

I absolutely hated Roberto Bolaño the first time I read him. I’d heard the endless hype surrounding the release of translation after translation, a kind of post-death onslaught in the manner of some literary Tupac who kept pumping books out after...
Blake Butler
Κείμενο Blake Butler

I absolutely hated Roberto Bolaño the first time I read him. I’d heard the endless hype surrounding the release of translation after translation, a kind of post-death onslaught in the manner of some literary Tupac who kept pumping books out after losing his life too young. I tried not to be automatically skeptical, but it's hard, particularly when the man seemed to come from out of nowhere despite legends of being one of the most revered authors in Chilean history. Finally I buckled and bought a copy of The Savage Detectives. I dug in lying face up on my bed, waiting and waiting for the alleged fireworks to come alive. I made it straight through the first 150 pages before getting angry and taking the book back to the store.


It was a long time before I read any Bolaño after that, and I talked a lot of shit during that time. I couldn’t understand what was so regaled and vital about a novel whose first third centered around a bunch of overly-romantic young male writers going on and on about the beauty of poetry, how they wanted to be famous poets, and trying to get laid amidst their self-worship. Everyone kept telling me that the book changed completely and became something else after the opening, but I wasn’t interested in seeing it any other way. Despite not having read any of his nearly 20 other books, I was convinced the Bolaño craze was a sham around a mediocre foreign writer who died young and was being fetishized by profile-worshipping Americans who thought he had done something new when really he was just another boring narrative writer. Sure, the man could turn a sentence, but it was nothing that would carry forward over time. We get sold a lot of shit in this country by jacket babble and stupid awards, and I figured this was just another big dull wash mirage.

Some time later I decided to read 2666, the novel widely considered Bolaño’s masterwork, for the sole purpose of becoming better equipped to shit on everything he’d done. I thought this novel in particular would be a laugh-off, as I’d heard how “brutal” and “intense” it was. Specifically the fourth section, which I knew contained hundreds of pages filled with flat descriptions of murdered women. This section had gathered quite a reputation. I expected it to bore me to death, but when I was finished, I thought, at least then I’d have given him his chance.


I started the 900-page book under the ridiculous premise that I would write a response to every single sentence, explaining why I found it dull and uninspired, and—most importantly—not at all worthy of the hype. Pretty soon I found the fire in me receding; I stopped waiting for the shit, quit looking for holes and bitch-spots in the sentences, and found myself truly interested in how the work of it came to unfold. There was still talk about writers and literary critics, but somehow I discovered the sense of mystery and obscurity I thought was missing in The Savage Detectives, something blacker hidden beneath the text’s veneer. Maybe I was in a more generous mood, but I found myself unable to put the book down, a sense that only grew as I became aware that here was what the legend of this man had been formed around—a window into somewhere else.

After finishing 2666 and accepting that there was something to the shape, I began to read his other works. I read By Night in Chile, Antwerp, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Between Parentheses, The Secret of Evil, and Distant Star. I liked most of them pretty well. Finally I decided to give The Savage Detectives a second shot. I was still put off by its exaggerated sense of self-romance, but I understood it differently now, colored by the context of Bolaño’s massive textual body, his elocution, and his continual sense of shaping space, creating body and contour out of air. Bolaño’s great love for literature (the tradition and body of it more than the language) and the arc of a person and their work now seemed of greater importance to me than a lot of what we think about as an author’s idea of their career. In America, much to our detraction, our literature supports less the body of one’s creation and more who the writer is and what they’ve done. Bolaño seemed to be more concerned with melding the otherworldly with the real, constructing sentences that mean to span the space of life and death at once instead of simply trying to explain or outline the everyday. Even in his most bloated moments, Bolaño seemed to come from an understanding that people are portholes; that a creation can represent singular space that otherwise would go unknown; that what survives of someone is often beyond them, beyond control, though also a thing that can be aimed at and desired, built. This, to me, seemed more refreshing than the aspirations of many of our current American literary figureheads.


I’m saying all of this on the occasion of having just finished the most recently released work in Bolaño’s posthumous array: Woes of the True Policeman. He began working on this novel in the 1980s and was still working on it at the time of his death in 2003. In some ways the book is a great example of the things I’ve come to most enjoy about his work. It contains a clearly presented narrative, but in a fragmented way, where days are chopped up into scenes that stay true to a general timeline but require no needless variations or resolutions. The scenes themselves are sharp and mix understanding of internal logic with beautiful external descriptions, which are mostly centered around a character from 2666: a professor named Amalfitano. After being dismissed from his position at a college in Barcelona for having a homosexual affair with his student, Amalfitano moves with his daughter to Santa Teresa. This move causes emotional rifts in himself and his lover (also a writer), as well as his daughter, Rosa. But where others would spend too much work regaling heartbreak, Bolaño allows the novel to vibrate through its box, collaging weird scenes of war and memories with no direct implication into the mesh of forward motion. He allows the narrative countless little pockets and mazey concepts that feed into consideration of a more mysterious reappearance from 2666: the obscure Arcimboldi, an author Amalfitano had once translated. Woes of the True Policeman provides a mental world for Arcimboldi.

In fact, the whole fourth section of the new novel leaves aside what it has established and concerns itself with outlining the body of Arcimboldi’s work. In fragments, Bolaño describes the structure and content of several of Arcimboldi’s novels, invoking other books inside the book. Lists of rumors and facts and ideas buttress the surrounding narrative with more legend and literary myth. Bolaño loves to blend his characters and their creations with those of the actual world, lacing his own manifestations in the same sentences beside Borges and O’Hara and Perec, thereby establishing a weird line between reality and imagination where some of Bolaño’s moments of greatest power are manifested. The novel comes together as much in how it does not force itself to really come together as it does in how effectively the scenes are considered and arranged, invoking a mode then moving forward, building the body itself in its own wake. Bolaño’s best work refuses to be contained by its own construction, utilizing fact and realism alongside mirages and dreamt trajectories to cage a space that is neither real nor quite unreal. This space, to me, is where the necessary narrative can stretch outside its confines, creating neither recitations of reality nor singular objects that feed only off of their own will, but a purgatory where the two at last can touch, and somehow then combine.

In the end, though, I must say I remain only a quasi-skeptical and moderate admirer of Bolaño, at best. Against the flue of other widely lauded authors now dominating American markets he’s a fine catch, though still one who—in light of how much he speaks about poetry and being a poet—uses language less spectacularly than he does depiction and assembly. His best moments, for me, are only just enough considering how much further they could go in image and sound. Still, those moments are a world above the bloat of post-Updike narrative flatline A-to-B. Somehow, the fact that I can identify and find provocation in something that only seems to begin to touch the edges of the blade seems sort of bleak to me. If nothing else, it presents a better window to be bashed in, and to that aim I say Let’s Go.

Previously by Blake Butler: My Greatest Performances in Binge Eating