Between the Abyss and Misfortune

Prologue to Woes of the True Policeman

by Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas
Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Woes of the True Policeman is a project that was begun at the end of the 1980s and continued until the writer’s death. What the reader has in his hands is the faithful and definitive version, collated from typescripts and computer documents, and bearing evidence of Roberto Bolaño’s clear intention to include the novel in a body of work in a perpetual state of gestation. There are also a number of epistolary references to the project. In a 1995 letter, Bolaño writes: “Novel: for years I’ve been working on one that’s titled Woes of the True Policeman and which is MY NOVEL. The protagonist is a widower, 50, a university professor, 17-year-old daughter, who goes to live in Santa Teresa, a city near the U.S. border. Eight hundred thousand pages, a crazy tangle beyond anyone’s comprehension.” The unusual thing about this novel, written over the course of fifteen years, is that it incorporates material from other works by the author, from Llamadas telefónicas (Phone Calls) to The Savage Detectives and 2666, with the peculiarity that even though we meet some familiar characters—particularly Amalfitano, Amalfitano’s daughter, Rosa, and Arcimboldi—the differences are notable. These characters belong to Bolaño’s larger fictional world, and at the same time they are the exclusive property of this novel.

This brings us to one of the book’s most striking and unsettling qualities: the fragile, provisional nature of the narrative (desarrollo narrativo). If in the contemporary novel the barrier between fiction and reality, between invention and essay, has been toppled, Bolaño’s contribution takes a different path that perhaps finds its model in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Woes of the True Policeman, like 2666, is an unfinished novel, but not an incomplete one, because what mattered to its author was working on it, not completing it. And this brings us to a series of reconsiderations. By now we’ve accepted the rupture of linearity (digression, counterpoint, the blending of genres). 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 Bolaño’s contribution. We may ask ourselves when a novel begins to be unfinished, or when it hasn’t yet begun to be unfinished. When the author is in the middle of writing it, the end can’t be the most important thing, and many times it hasn’t even been determined. What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death. This consciousness of death, of writing as an act of life, is part of Bolaño’s biography, since the Chilean writer was condemned to write his limitless fiction against the clock. In Woes of the True Policeman there are a number of concrete references to this fractioning and provisionality: “a crucial feature of the French writer’s work: even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this regard Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is a fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.” This is faithful to the itinerancy, to the frequently fruitless searching and the fleeing, that mark Bolaño’s writing. This is why Amalfitano’s students understood “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.” This provisionality gives the writer great freedom, since he permits himself the same risks as his most daring contemporaries with whom he explicitly identifies himself; but at the same time his texts maintain traditional suspense, full as they are of nonstop adventure. That is, his novels never stop being novels as we’ve always understood them. And the fracturing is what obliges the editor of his unpublished works to respect the legacy of a writer for whom all novels are part of one great novel always in progress and always in utopian search of an ending.

So far as the title is concerned, it also lends itself to a series of reflections. Woes of the True Policeman is certainly the least characteristic of Bolaño’s titles, and nevertheless it is clear, from typescripts and computer texts, that it is the definitive title. We are presented with a descriptive phrase, long, lacking the rhythm to which Bolaño has accustomed us, and not provocative or surprising at all (what can savage detectives or killer whores mean?). And yet it hides a clue in a text full of clues, a metaphor that transports us not only to The Savage Detectives but most particularly to another scarcely characteristic title, that of Padilla’s unfinished novel, The God of Homosexuals. Each contains a clue: as previously stated, the true policeman is none other than the reader, relegated from the start to the woe of constantly uncovering false clues, in the same way that the king of homosexuals is none other than AIDS, a metaphor for the fatal disease that prevents Padilla from finishing his novel.

Thus we have here a “detective,” who is Amalfitano, the critic, around whom the whole metaliterary dimension of the novel turns. There’s a policeman, who is the reader. And there’s a true protagonist, who is Padilla. Detective, reader/author, herald of death: these are the protagonists of a search that never ends (that has no ending). This obliges us to focus even more intently on the development of the narrative, which suggests that the suspense lies not in the denouement but in the unfolding of events. This is the same way we read Don Quixote, a novel that remains alive despite its ending, since it isn’t the knight errant who dies but the mediocre squire.

And as in Don Quixote—that is, as in the best contemporary fiction—the fragment is as important as the potential unity demanded of the novel, with this addendum: the fragments, the situations, the scenes, are discrete units that nevertheless make up a greater whole that isn’t necessarily visible. It could almost be said that we are returning to the origins of literature, to the story, or rather to a succession of stories that build upon one another. Naturally there is a thread that links Amalfitano, his daughter, Rosa, his lover Padilla, Padilla’s lover Elisa, Arcimboldi, the Carreras, the singular poet Pere Girau; and—elsewhere—Pancho Monje, Pedro and Pablo Negrete, and Gumaro the chauffeur. The same is true of the different geographic spaces we traverse, be they Chile, Mexico— Santa Teresa and Sonora—or Barcelona, all familiar to readers of Bolaño. There is even a very strong link between the beginning and the end of the book, between Padilla’s passion for literature and the final discovery that Elisa is death. But what makes the novel memorable isn’t its unity (facilitated by the growing protagonism of Padilla, a victim, like Don Quixote, of literature and love—in this case the morbid love of our times), but the different situations and what each of them suggests.

We find ourselves, as so frequently in contemporary fiction, in the realm of violence, alienation, estrangement, outrageousness, illness, sublime degradation. The stories follow one after another: about the stewardess and the mango juice, the recruit and the confusion caused by the word kunst, the informal dinner with the Italian patriots, the visit to the numerologist, the communicative striptease, the five generations of María Expósito, the dead man in the servants’ quarters, or the Texan and the Larry Rivers exhibition. There are send-ups of the Potosí school of Maestro Garabito, of Rosa’s teachers, and, prophetically, of frustrated writers like Jean Marchand, who decides to give up his literary ambitions to devote himself to the careers of other writers: “He sees himself as a doctor at a leper colony in India, a monk pledged to a higher cause.” And purported saviors aside, literature has—as it always has had in Bolaño, beginning with Nazi Literature in the Americas—an ambiguous and crucial presence, in which homage mingles with criticism, veiled and therefore doubly harsh as well as hilarious. This is the ambiguous light in which Pablo Neruda appears in By Night in Chile or Octavio Paz in The Savage Detectives, in Mexico City’s Parque Hundido. But certain writers, represented here by the poetas bárbaros—today’s poètes maudits, already present in Distant Star—interest him particularly to the extent that they are poets of impurity, an impurity that closely resembles the kind that interests Ricardo Piglia. In fact, all of Bolaño’s characters are impure, victims and privileged witnesses of violence in all its forms, which here reaches its height in the section “Killers of Sonora,” and also in the god of homosexuals, that is “the god of those who have always lost,” “the god of the Comte de Lautréamont and Rimbaud.” And there are Arcimboldi’s brilliantly summarized novels, of course, as well as Padilla’s unfinished novel, and the letters that Amalfitano and Padilla write to each other. More than metaliterary, we might call these texts intraliterary, since everything is part of the plot.

Woes of the True Policeman is of special interest because of its close links to the best of Bolaño—its wealth of invention, its identification with losers—because of an ethic unhampered by ethical principles, because of its lucid reading of authors close to Bolaño, because of its radical independence, because it offers us a modern novel that doesn’t relinquish the satisfactions of plot, because of its fierce loyalty to the places where Bolaño spent his formative years, its loyalty to a cosmopolitanism that is the expression of a way of life, and its loyalty to a joyful and desperate surrender to creation, far from social imperatives. His writing is always extremely clear, and yet it springs from the darkest places (sex, violence, love, exile, loneliness, breakups): “It’s all so simple and so terrible,” because “true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune.” And it’s no coincidence that he’s especially attracted to poets: it’s they who give his prose the capacity to express tenderness, unhappiness, and rootlessness. How can so much humor exist amid such desolation, so much decency amid such violence? Because in each of Bolaño’s books we ultimately find, as we clearly find here, the best Bolaño. An author horrified by our century’s violence, from the Nazis to the crimes of the north of Mexico; an author who identifies with the losers, and who makes of his work an autobiography, which in large part explains the mythification of his persona—because the great absence represented by his death is made into presence over the course of a series of works that culminate in 2666, where he seems to elaborate upon and condense all his experiences as a human being and as a writer. In Woes of the True Policeman we once again encounter a Bolaño who has become as familiar to us as he is indispensable. It remains bone-chilling to discover in this book an extraordinary vitality constantly threatened not only by the consciousness of physical illness but also by the moral sickness of an era. Vitality and desolation are inseparable.

Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas is a Spanish translator, critic, and professor. He teaches in the Masters of Creative Writing program at the University Pompeu Fabra, has translated Cesare Pavese, Giorgio Saviane, Carson McCullers, Djuna Barnes, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, and is a literary critic for La Vanguardia. Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas lives in Barcelona.

Natasha Wimmer has translated many works of fiction and nonfiction by Spanish-language authors, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Laura Restrepo, and Rodrigo Fresán, as well as Roberto Bolaño.