by Scott Ehrig-Burgess, Assistant Catapult Operator
It occurs to me that reading a Roberto Bolaño novel is like having a dream that you’re reading a Roberto Bolaño novel, having just nodded off with a Roberto Bolaño novel in your hand. Every word is perfect and familiar, yet slightly askew. You suspect, or at the very least are haunted by the suspicion, that you’ve read this particular Roberto Bolaño novel before, that inside the dream you’re re-reading a Roberto Bolaño novel you’ve already read. But just when you’ve gotten close enough to the text to clearly make out the words, the dream abruptly changes and the novel is something different entirely. A novel you haven’t read. And only by putting it down again will it become familiar.
Reading his latest, Woes of The True Policeman, this impression is even stronger than usual as the novel could very effectively pass as a collection of outtakes from the novel 2666, since its main characters feature prominently in that novel, which, like this one, lay unfinished and scattered at the time of his death, but largely complete and aesthetically intact. In fact, unlike most dead authors, if anything, publishing Bolaño’s incomplete fragments seem more in keeping with the spirit of his work. There is no fear a hired gun will ever be brought in to ‘finish’ any of his remaining manuscripts, if there are any unpublished after this, for none of his ten previously published novels, in various states, are actually ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ in the conventional sense. In a way they are fragments of themselves and some great sprawling work Bolaño was never given the life to complete. In fact, it is more than likely the novels change each time you put them down and pick them up again. And so it can be said that Woes of The True Policeman is a bit like a series of deleted scenes from 2666, except that it isn’t, and you can easily convince yourself that these are the characters you’ve encountered before, except that they aren’t.
Admittedly, I’m only a Bolaño tourist, having read the first 150 pages of The Savage Detectives, twice, stopping at roughly the same passage both times for completely different reasons, and of course 2666, the novel every serious bookseller who thought themselves of impeccable, impenetrably erudite taste, read or claimed to read in the year 2008 and, for good measure, mostly in order to avoid appearing a Bolaño tourist, I quickly read Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is a book length compendium of imaginary writers, their imaginary biographies and imaginary summaries of their imaginary works. Unless, as I imagine the reader is meant to imagine, every imaginary writer is a cleverly disguised real-life writer and their listed works some sort of coded critique of not-so-imaginary-imaginary novels that somewhere, in some time and place actually exist. Or as Borges once said, “The final discovery that two characters in the plot are the same person may be appealing – as long as the instrument of change turns out to be not a false beard or an Italian accent, but different names & circumstances.”
Woes of the True Policeman, then. Reading the thing, I was going to suggest that if you hadn’t read 2666 you were really wasting your time, as this book sort of sprouted out of that book like a third eye or an unwanted tail. Having finished the book, I’m not sure that’s true, for it isn’t so much an extension of 2666 as it is a fragment of a dream of that novel. It is one of several of Bolaño’s universes in which 2666 still exists, but slightly askew. The central narrative of Woes of the Third Policeman is that of a Chilean university professor named Amalfitano, exiled with his teen daughter Rosa in Bolaño’s Santa Teresa, after being forced out of his teaching position in Barcelona when a relationship with a young gay student is exposed. Throughout the novel he and the student exchange letters, Amalfitano’s back story is told, and a police officer clandestinely follows him around, though that thread is never fully explored, whether because the novel is incomplete, which it was a the time of his death, or because the novel is by Roberto Bolaño, which it also is, or was, at the time of his death, I do not know. Oh, and of course there is a thirty page section about the novelist Archimboldi, which, since this is a Bolaño novel, contains detailed plot summaries of many of the imaginary Archimboldi’s imaginary works. I’m confident that Bolaño’s oeuvre of unwritten imaginary novels written by imaginary writers exceeds in number and quantity even the most detailed of Borges’ many labyrinthine libraries full of imaginary books.
Readers of 2666 will recognize at once Amalfitano, Rosa, the city of Santa Teresa, and the novelist Archimboldi. Except of course, like the novel in the dream, the closer one peers, the more displaced things become. Amalfitano is no longer a literature professor who spends a lot of time staring out in the backyard, but is a poetry professor with an inclination for young poets and art forgers (though in both he translates one of Archimboldi’s novels), and the novelist Archimboldi isn’t the Benno Von Archimboldi that the diabolical perpetual motion machine that is 2666 revolves around, but JMG Archimboldi, who is and isn’t the same writer at all. Naturally, if one consults the complete works of both Archimboldis, which Bolaño graciously provides, they are completely different, completely, except for the novel Railroad Perfection (imaginary), which is attributed as being written by both men, depending on which book one is reading and is mentioned, yet again, as being written by JMG Archimboldi in The Savage Detectives. Seems reasonable. Seth and I have talked a lot about the David Mitchell ‘Multiverse’, in which characters appear across the spectrum of his novels, but this, I suppose, is the Roberto Bolaño ‘Quantum Multiverse’ in which all possible universes live together in a frenetic sort of madman’s dissonant harmony. Or maybe that should be harmonic dissonance. And it isn’t just the characters themselves that shift and reshape, but the anecdotes and digressions as well. Several from 2666, particularly the history of several generations of women with the same name who are all victims of the same crime, and a linguistic pun from World War Two that conflates the word ‘Art’ and ‘Cunt’, thus saving a man from execution, appear in Woes of the True Policeman as if they were photographs taken from a different perspective to their original poses and thus jarringly familiar yet alien and new.
|Dead and Loving It|
Why then, if I can’t say anything coherent about Roberto Bolaño, should you read Woes of the True Policeman, or anything else by him? The same reason one reads any iconoclastic genius: The experience is exhilarating, maddening, poetic, and cannot be replicated by reading the work of someone else. To tourists like us many things are lost. I’m sure I miss the intricate connections to his other works, I know that my knowledge of Mexican poets beyond Octavio Paz – don’t let Bolaño get started on Paz – lack of knowledge, I should say, is a significant hurdle to understand much of what goes on in the pages of The Savage Detectives I haven’t gotten past, but, also like tourists, I can certainly appreciate the landmarks and the natural beauty of passages like this from Woes of the True Policeman:
“They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and that the grand highway of selfless acts, of the elegance of eyes and the fate of Macrabru, passes near its abode. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn’t more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember.”
Macrabru, incidentally, according to Wikipedia, “Is one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known” and certainly points to both the iceberg lurking beneath every Bolaño novel and the utility of Google to the modern reader. Only Bolaño can pull off Bolaño, and for that both his admirers and his detractors are eternally grateful. Looks like I’ll have to restart The Savage Detectives yet again.