‘Speak what we feel not what we ought to say’ – Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano

wottprbIn the spirit of ‘Speak[ing] what we feel not what we ought to say,’ I’m going to begin by saying that I didn’t make it all of the way through Roberto Bolano’s Woes of the True Policeman. This is, then, the first book in over 10 years of Bookmunch I’m going to review (or at least talk about) without having got from one side to the other. Before we get into that, though, I’m going to give you a little bit of background about what Woes of the True Policeman is. Bear with me.

In a short introduction to Woes… Juan Antonio Masoliver Rodenas acknowledges that, ‘By now, we’ve accepted the rupture of linearity’:

‘Reality as it was understood until the nineteenth century has been replaced as reference point by a visionary, oneiric, fevered, fragmentary and even provisional form of writing. In this provisionality lies the key to Bolano’s contribution.’

We are told that what was important about Woes… wasn’t the completing of the novel but the writing of it. Woes… is not a complete novel, we are told. Bolano worked on it some 2o plus years. He believed in it, certainly, and drew on it (there are echoes of certain fragments in The Return and 2666 casts a long shadow) but whether he ever intended it to be anything more than a repository (of doodles, experiments, fragments, alleyways untaken etc) is debatable. What Woes… is not is the rumoured sixth part of 2666. What Woes… is?

Kevin McFarland describes the book as:

‘…not so much a 2666 sequel as a series of excised B-sides, providing appendices of background information on its characters. As if a 900-page epic wasn’t enough, Woes Of The True Policeman plays like the deleted scenes of that sweeping novel, filling in gaps in an already-expansive narrative.’

Larry Rohter, writing in the New York Times, said:

‘…it would undoubtedly be described as a collection of outtakes, alternate versions and demos. Any assessment, as a consequence, would have to come with an advisory that its primary appeal is to completists only.’

In the spirit of Bolano, I’m tempted to make up a half dozen other commentators at this point and interleave them between real commentators but they would all basically make the same point. What we have here is a sort of mild return of Bolano’s greatest hits. If you’ve read Nazi Literature in the Americas, rejoice because the fourth section of Woes… regales us with a list of Arcimboldi’s made up books. If you’ve read 2666, rejoice – all roads lead to 2666. Herein we find a slightly alternate Amalfitano, a slightly alternate Rosa Amalfitano, a slightly alternate San Teresa.

There are five parts, each – we are told in an afterword from Caroline Lopez, Bolano’s widow – ‘at different levels of completion’. Bolano liked to write by hand, redraft on a typewriter and then finish off on a computer. Only the first and last parts of Woes… made the computer. But he did have two finished versions of the entire manuscript – he did! he did! – and so that, apparently justifies the publication. We are, however, truly in the land of The Pale King.

Even approaching the book knowing all of this does not entirely prepare you for the experience of reading. It truly is a random book. You read one of the chapters, many of which are no more than a page or a couple of pages, in which, say, Amalfitano and his lover Padillo discuss which Latin American poets are fags or queers. You read another in which Amalfitano wonders which poets would make Best deathbed companion after Ernesto Cardinal or who would be Least desirable as a literature professor; who is Most fun (Borges, of course), Best masked man, Best drinking buddy (it goes on for three pages). There is a loose narrative (Amalfitano is forced to relocate with his daughter as the result of a scandal) but this is at best a hook from which to digress.

If you, like  Juan Antonio Masoliver Rodenas, have accepted the rupture of linearity, then this book will be top of your must read list. If, like me, you have read a good few (although not, it should be added, all) of Bolano, and have found as much frustration as enjoyment, then know that Woes of the True Policeman is firmly in the frustration camp. The true policeman of the title is allegedly the reader. Although it may feel like a great joke – and we are, after all, speaking what we feel not what we ought – the title of the book prepares you well for what follows: woes. The introduction set my teeth on edge but the actual Bolano itself irritated me. I found myself coming up with excuses not to read. And when I did read it was reading of the ‘well, I’m never going to get through this if I don’t read a couple more pages’ variety.

Ah, Bolano’s zealous true fans might decry at this point, you didn’t get it, you don’t understand what he’s doing etc before embarking on a long drawn out explanation. My response would be that you zealots are a minority and for us wavering Bolano fans, a book like Woes of the True Policeman does more damage than good. Is this a book Bolano would have wanted publishing? Debatable. Is this a book that helps build on Bolano’s reputation? Also debatable. Finally, and most importantly, is this a book anyone (even the zealots) will come away from feeling as if they had a whale of a time? You know what my answer is going to be. This is a provisional book, as the man says, an unfinished book (in which the very act of finishing is refuted), a book the executors of the Bolano estate have excised some ‘eight additional chapters’ (so yes, you might say I haven’t finished it and dismiss what I’m saying accordingly but even if you did finish what exists between two covers, you didn’t because there is more that hasn’t yet seen the light of day) – and actually in the spirit of provisionality, surely not finishing the book is the greatest tribute I can pay?

Any Cop?:  [This review has been left unfinished. The reviewer thought this was a tremendously funny joke and chuckled to himself as he

Peter Wild


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