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Woes of the True Policeman

by Roberto Bolano

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano
© Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2012

Roberto Bolano's unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman follows a tight orbit around his epic masterwork 2666 and further develops characters and ideas that made that book so engaging. Professor Oscar Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa carry one of the central threads of Woes, their story beginning with Amalfitano's last months in Barcelona before moving to the ill-fated city of Santa Teresa in Mexico. The novel opens with some beautifully liberated chapters of Amalfitano not struggling but fully accepting his homosexuality years after the death of his wife. He begins a relationship with a young writer named Padilla, who imbues Amalfitano with a youthful new drive towards carnal and intellectual re-enlightenment. When news of his relationship spreads to the University he teaches at, Amalfitano is forced to resign and relocate; they settle on Santa Teresa, a town which later will become the setting of a series of grizzly murders, detailed with painstaking clarity in 2666.

Aside from the prequel facet, there are further elements of Woes of the True Policeman that connect to 2666. Structurally, Woes also spreads its story in five disparate directions: In addition to Rosa and Amalfitano in Santa Teresa, much of the novel is spent with Padilla in Barcelona, and with a local policeman in Santa Teresa who grows suspicious of Amalfitano's presence. Most excitedly, a small section deals directly with the fictional author J.M.G. Arcimboldi, who also appears in 2666 with a slightly different name. Here, Arcimboldi's novels are summarized in short two-to-five page glosses. Their inclusion is puzzling but it's fascinating to read Bolano's sketches of novels that one of his characters (but not he himself) would write.
The time Bolano spends with Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa are the most resonant and fleshed-out in the novel; although it may be due to the rest of the book being more or less unfinished, Woes of the True Policeman leans heavily towards these characters and resultantly causes the rest of the novel to feel somewhat flat. Bolano writes the relationship between Amalfitano and his daughter in such a successful way that he's able to charge these characters with meaning and develop them further, this time in association their setting. During their last days in Barcelona, we see Amalfitano "[sitting] at his desk for hours, supposedly working but really doing nothing...[thinking] about Padilla, his daughter, his dead wife, random scenes from his youth and childhood." Where Amalfitano is introverted and contemplative, young Rosa "was never at home, as if the moment she had to leave Barcelona she was seized by an irresistible urge to walk its streets, to see and commit to memory every inch of it." She clings to her surroundings like she hangs onto her youth: "...each day that went by was like a sign, the announcement of an impending future full of significant events; Rosa suspected that the trip to Mexico would mark the end of her adolescence..."

When they arrive in Santa Teresa, Rosa is pleasantly surprised with how expansive the city is. Her exploratory life could go in a range of disparate directions:

"[There] were streets shooting outward, urban and at the same time open to the country, a country of great mysterious spaces that crept in during the first hours of dusk....As if the streets were the barrels of multiple telescopes trained on the desert, on the planted fields, on the scrubland and pastures, or on the bare hills that on moonlit nights seemed to be made of breadcrumbs."

It almost feels like Santa Teresa is built like a Bolano novel-kaleidoscopic, pointing outward, but spiraling towards the center.

Unfortuantely, there's little here for a Bolano newcomer, or even one that's not made it through 2666. Most of what's engaging in Woes of the True Policeman trace back to 2666; new sketches of their shared characters and setting will only reignite whatever lasting interest readers had with 2666 and could hardly stand on their own. As a supplemental volume to one of contemporary fiction's great novels, Woes of the True Policeman is an asset, but perhaps its fragments are better suited to be read as a lengthy, book-length appendix.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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