The suburb in which I live on Sydney’s North Shore is not exactly well-known for its’ cultural scene. Despite this, of late I’ve managed to find assorted literary gems, including a copy of Ulysses, an obscure Flashman work (Flashman’s Lady), and, perhaps not so surprisingly, several of late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s works, including a near-perfect edition of 2666 at the Willoughby Library Book Fair, and both Monsieur Pain and The Skating Rink lying in a $3 bin at a news agency. The best find was a copy of The Third Reich which was 90% off at Dymocks, of all places.
I’ve read my fair share of Bolaño’s work, and have a soft spot for By Night in Chile, partly for the cameo appearance of great Portuguese poet Pablo Neruda. Poetry is perhaps the lifeblood of the author’s work, with his own poetry in the acclaimed The Romantic Dogs, and an obscure, sinister twist in Distant Star, invloving a murderer and a poetry class, and of course the curious obsession of an institutionalised poet in 2666. Yet Bolaño himself noted that of all the works he’d published, his short stories in Antwerp embarrassed him the least (though I’m sure many Bolaño devotees would consider Savage Detectives up there). My favourite excerpt was the sexually charged The Red Head, which was also featured in Granta’s 110th issue, Sex.
Having familiarised myself with much of his work, I recently was pleased to discover a gamut of unpublished works that the author left behind in various stages of completion. The most recent book to be at the mercy of literary dismemberment is Woes of the True Policeman, which has echoes of 2666 and Savage Detectives and was published in English last year. A curious thing about Bolaño is that in 2003, the year of his death, he was only beginning to be globally recognised as the tremendous author that he was. Bolaño’s central ability, I found, was that he was able to navigate through humour and more sinister themes simultaneously, and rarely lost his poetic touch whichever theme he was expressing, be it violence or catastrophic romance. The link between reading and sex was also something that intrigued the writer in a way reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: “Books are finite, sexual encounters are finite, but the desire to read and to fuck is infinite; it surpasses our own deaths, our fears, our hopes for peace.” The author’s writing even has shades of Nabokovian mischief that keeps its darker nature more palatable.
Woes of the True Policeman is a strange choice of work to publish posthumously; it is compiled from various computer files and notes, which makes for a haphazard, scattered piece of work. Following the exiled professor Óscar Amalfitano, whom Bolaño devotees will remember from 2666, the novel attempts to be fresh while borrowing from the past, existing as what Jiménez calls “an intertextual funhouse mirror,” but is really a book about “characters who love books”. This element can be seen in almost all of Bolaño’s works, and is thus a work that is exceptional self-referential. The catastrophic sexual atmosphere is to be readily consumed by the reader, particularly Amalfitano’s passion for an amorous young student before adapting to homosexuality, and one can eagerly flirt with the notion that Amalfitano is in fact a literary form of Bolaño himself, as is often the case in his fiction. But the other narrative I find stimulating in what has otherwise been described as a deeply flawed work is the disillusionement and dissatisfaction with academia, an expression of how the chaotic state of poetry is superior to the rigid temperament of the academic world. For this, I feel the book is both alienating though vaguely relatable.