A Whirlwind and a Mirror: the Anti-Literary Struggle of Bolaño


Roberto Bolaño and I are one in the same in that the sifting through our second, third, and fourth drafts of scratched up manuscripts, mortally wounded by red ink, mismatched combinations of chicken-scratched and robotically processed words would be a quick descent into pure absurdity.

Naturally, I have some notebooks reserved exclusively for poems, for work scribbles, or for story ideas. But largely, I am a shockingly unorganized writer, and every few weeks, I’ll stumble across an orphaned piece of writing that I had entirely forgotten about, hidden in the dark crevices of a notebook shoved hastily under my bed.

The writing and I exchange words and tears; it mournfully wails that it has long been forgotten, and I get down on my knees to beg absolution. Like most things in life, organization is a game I am slowly learning to play.

But what happens when these written, unorganized pieces are left with us but the writer is not? Who is responsible for the organization of unfinished masterpieces, the determination of another’s thoughts and soul, and how can they cope with such a heavy responsibility?


Here in lies the issue for the publishers of one of Roberto Bolaño’s last published pieces, Woes of the True Policeman, a novel he had been drafting since the 1980s but was left unfinished at the time of his death. It was published posthumously into English in 2012 after being found amongst his writings after his death in 2003. Bolaño is considered one of the most influential voices in Latin American literature, but his texts can be labyrinthian and challenging, to say the least. Woes of the True Policeman is no exception.

Woes of the True Policeman picks up plot lines and back stories of characters from one of his most famous novels, 2666 (but, please, whatever you do, if you are new to Bolaño’s work, do NOT start with 2666 unless you want to die a slow, painful death by a 900-page magnum opus).

The novel centers heavily around Óscar Amalfitano, a nomadic Chilean literature professor (not unlike Bolaño himself), who moves his daughter, Rosa, to Mexico from Spain after resigning from a university teaching position for having homosexual relations with male students. However, even relocation does not stop Amalfitano from exploring his long-ignored sexuality, even if it strangles his relationship with Rosa.

The novel is separated into four sections, Amalfitano’s being the most prominent, but it also carries on the stories of other characters from 2666, including a section devoted entirely to Rosa, one to Pancho Monje, a private eye who spends time tailing Amalfitano and tracking his movements, and one to J.M.G. Archimboldi, a writer and main character in 2666.

Even though Woes of the True Policeman is only a little over 250 pages and most of the chapters are 2-3 pages long, I really struggled with this text. It is a dense and uneven novel, although much of that can be attributed to the fact that it remains unfinished. I was familiar with Bolaño’s style, being a fan of The Savage Detectives, but I had forgotten just how anti-literary Bolaño’s writing is.

Bolano, Bowie, et moi

Bolaño, Bowie, et moi

Bolaño falls into that small category of writers who are excellent novelists but not great writers. His prose is flat and tends to be empty, and he has abandoned all refined and polished sentence structures. If you are not extremely well read or have language backgrounds in Spanish or French, you will struggle with his references to obscure writers, artists, and poets. Woes of the True Policeman is melancholic and unfocused, and it is hard to identify with any of the characters, let alone grow attached to any single one.

This is not altogether a bad thing, however. What makes Bolaño so Bolaño is his anti-literary style. He writes hundreds upon hundreds of pages but shows little interest in making his words sound pretty. He is concerned about the story and the characters without being concerned about the sound and the structure of his words.

 Bolaño is definitely like a throwback to Marquez and just as suffocating

Bolaño is definitely like a throwback to Marquez and JUST as suffocating.

His abandonment of concern for things found in the traditional novel like form, structure, characterization, and purpose appear to be lost in this novel, but one can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like had he actually finished it. So, although I cannot say I enjoyed Woes of the True Policeman, I can respect Bolaño’s unique style and how he stands apart from his contemporaries as being a successful, well-known author without all the fluff of language usage.

I cannot imagine the weight of the task at hand for Bolaño’s editors as they attempted to make sense of this novel in order to prepare it for publication. Based on the information in the back of the text, it sounds like it was quite a challenge. But I am glad I attempted this novel, and I am glad that someone attempted to organize this unfinished piece, especially because of the most incredible, most moving passage I have ever read.

“So what did Amalfitano’s students learn? They learned to recite aloud. They memorized the two or three poems they loved the most in order to remember them and recite them at the proper times: funerals, weddings, moments of solitude. They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling. . . that when books are read, writers were released from the souls of stone. . . that all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and the grand highway of selfless acts, 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. That memory was love.” (pg. 102)




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