Another year, another Bolaño book. What would this blog be without one?
Woes of the True Policeman is supposedly Bolaño’s last unfinished novel, “unfinished” being the key word. Reading this book felt very similar to reading The Pale King: it was hard for me to push the feeling of “oh-what-might-have-been” out of my head. The prose is great, as always, despite odd moments in the text in which information is repeated twice, such as a character’s age (reminding me of similar discrepancies in The Pale King, like when more than one character has a Doberman hand puppet).
Reading this book gave me the feeling that Bolaño was writing to figure out where he was going, as opposed to charging forward, guns a blazing, destination clearly in mind. As a reader I felt more like I was meandering along with him, as opposed to clinging desperately on for dear life. This approach makes sense if you take into account that he’d been working on the book on and off since the 1980’s, as opposed to locking it away in a drawer for years a la Third Reich.
What to make of this book? I definitely wouldn’t give this to a Bolaño novice. It works best if you think of it as a collection of b-sides and outtakes to 2666 (a book that I really need to re-read this year). And hey, there’s nothing wrong with b-sides and outtakes; look at Tori Amos, she’s produced some of the best songs of her career that way (“Honey,” I’m looking at you!). That being said, there is definitely a disjointed, jagged feel to this book. Again, what should we make of the opening passage, a long monologue listing which poets and novelists were faggots vs. queers, sissies vs. fairites? What to make of the section that is basically just summaries of Archimboldi’s novels? (Archimboldi is the mysterious German writer at the center of many characters’ searches in 2666). We examine a Rimbaud poem about being raped by soldiers; we read letter after letter from the main character’s lover; we hear a lot of historical anecdotes about Mexico in the 19th century. Different narrative threads and characters come temptingly close to being linked, only to be dropped in mid-air or disappear for the rest of the book. For the record, my favorite undeveloped random moment was the policeman obsessed with vampire movies.
Because this is Bolaño, there are still killer moments that make this book more than worthwhile. There is one anecdote, for example, that serves as a basic overview for Bolaño’s work. The anecdote tells of the plight of a Spanish soldier from Sevilla who (to cut a long story short) ends up as a prisoner of Russian soliders who mistake him for an SS officer. The Russians begin torturing him with a pair of pliers (Russian soldiers + pliers + tongue = never a fun situation). Then something happens:
The pain made tears spring to his eyes and he said, or rather shouted, the word coño, cunt. With the pliers in his mouth the exclamation was transformed, coming out as the word kunst. The Russian who spoke German stared at him in surprise. The Sevillan shouted Kunst, Kunst, and wept in pain. The word Kunst, in German, means art, and that was how the bilingual soldier heard it and said that the son of bitch was an artist or something. The soldiers who were torturing the Sevillan removed the pliers along with a little piece of tongue and waited, momentarily hypnotized by the discovery. Art. The thing that soothes wild beasts. (62)
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. 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. (102)
At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels. (The Poets, in Amalfitano’s view, were those beings who flashed like lightning bolts, and the Novels were the stories that sprang from Don Quixote). At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful. (86)