Woes of the True Policeman
by Roberto Bolaño
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
256 pages / $25.00 buy from Amazon
1. I don’t want to believe this is a draft of works that were to come later.
2. And yet its opening section appears word-for-word in The Savage Detectives.
3. I’ve read over and over that Bolaño worked on this book from the 1980s up to his death in 2003. The endnote (which comes abruptly) suggests he was serious enough about it to have revised a couple of times by hand, on an electric typewriter, and on a computer. There were also two physical manuscript versions. Parts of all of these were pieced together to create this book. This corresponds with other accounts of trying to bring his posthumous work into order. I remember reading somewhere that he first wrote the name “Arcimboldi” in the late 1980s.
4. Reading that distressed me. All I could think about on the way to work later, looking at the sidewalk, was whether whoever wrote that had meant “Arcimboldi” or “Archimboldi.”
5. In 2666, we get the life story of Benno von Archimboldi, whom no one in the literary world has ever seen, and to the search for whom the entire first section is devoted. The Critics read his books constantly, sometimes over and over again as if they’re becoming ill or desperate, but with the exception of the book that makes Lotte Reiter realize that Archimboldi is her brother, we don’t get much of an idea of the novels’ content. He is a giant pacing around in the desert, upsetting animals and stones and cacti with his footfalls’ vibrations.
6. A whole section of Woes is devoted to the works and certain biographical details (friendships, hobbies, epistolary relationships, feuds) of J.M.G. Arcimboldi. One oblique reference to his disappearance is made in the book. But he is still overwhelmingly the man who’s not there.
7. I’ve drawn out the same triangle over and over again: Benno von Archimboldi–J.M.G. Arcimboldi–J.M.G. Arcimboldi (Savage Detectives). Then I stare at it, scratch my chin or suck at coffee, and wonder: what does “J.M.G” stand for? why drop the “h” (or add the “h”?)? are the two Arcimboldis the same?–only The Endless Rose appears in both of their bibliographies–is this a play on the fact that Italian artist seems to have gone by Arcimboldo and Arcimboldi? and, for that matter, is there any real connection to the painter? the fragmented man? the man made of whatever can be gleaned from the world around him? Why are the Arcimboldis French, and Archimboldi is a Prussian who writes novels that are distinctly French, Polish, and American?
8. Then there’s Lalo Cura, to whom I had been imagining the title referred to since I first saw it. He has a “prefiguration” in a short story: the child of a porn actress who later sees his mother’s work and imagines himself in the womb, cocks pressed up against his sealed-shut eyes. He grew up in Los Empalados (The Impaled). Seems like his father might have been Lacroix from By Night in Chile. He isn’t a policeman. The other two Lalo Curas are.
9. But they’re not even both Lalo Cura; one is Pancho Monje. The Madness and the Monk. Both are the product of five generations of Maria Expósitos of Villaviciosa, who are raped and then give birth to another Maria Expósito, until a son, whose father “was the devil,” kills his sister’s rapist. Then the next Maria Expósito learns to read and write, and is seduced by two (or three) students out in the desert. They are French in this book. They might be Belano and Lima in 2666. Regardless; rape in Villaviciosa creates a continuum; murder writes history.
10. I was in the labyrinthine aisle of beverage refrigerators in Mardi Gras Zone late the other night. It was maybe two in the morning, I don’t remember; I was pretty fried from work. But I see a big dark bottle on a low shelf that says “Villaviciosa” on the label, and my heart slips out of gear. It’s some kind of apple cider. But it’s from Spain. There is no Villaviciosa in Sonora. There’s a fleck on the map called Villaviciosa in Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. I learned from a website in Spanish that it has an altitude of 780 (meters? feet?) and 5 inhabitants. I don’t speak Spanish. But the meaning of “Villaviciosa” is pretty clear.
11. Bely: “In a pyramid there is something that exceeds all the notions of man; the pyramid is a delirium of geometry, that is, a delirium of geometry that cannot be measured by anything; the pyramid is a satellite of the planet, created by man; it is both yellow and dead, like the moon. The pyramid is a delirium that is measured by figures.”
12. Bolaño: “But now comes the part that will really surprise you. The stone bed where the victims were laid was transparent! It was a sacrificial stone chosen and polished in such a way that it was transparent. And the Aztecs inside the pyramid watched the sacrifice as if from within, because as you’ll have guessed, the light from above that illuminated the bowels of the pyramids came from an opening just beneath the sacrificial stone, so that at first the light was black or gray, a dim light in which only the inscrutable silhouettes of the Aztecs inside the pyramids could be seen, but then, as the blood of the new victim spread across the skylight of of transparent obsidian, the light turned red and black, a very bright red and a very bright black, and then not only were the silhouettes of the Aztecs visible but also their features, features transfigured by the red and black light, as if the light had the power to personalize each man or woman, and that is essentially all, but that can last a long time, that exists outside time, or in some other time, ruled by other laws. When the Aztecs came out of the pyramids, the sunlight didn’t hurt them.”
13. I was talking with one of my professors, a Faulkner specialist, during my last quarter in college. She had had me note any physical descriptions of Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! He’s thin, wan, and that’s about it, I remember saying. What I noticed was that he was alive when he should have been dead, following the chronology of The Sound and the Fury. She looked at me and said, plenty of people have noticed that, and then been foolish enough to say that Faulkner made a mistake.
14. Amalfitano’s latent homosexuality is too easy to equate with the scenes in 2666 when the voice of the spirit of his father starts talking to him. This one makes me laugh out loud, or at least snort, every time I read it. I think it’s the punctuation: “But the voice returned, and this time it asked him, begged him, not to be a queer. Queer? asked Amalfitano. Yes, queer, faggot, cocksucker, said the voice. Ho-mo-sex-u-al, said the voice. In the next breath it asked whether he happened to be one of those. One of what? asked Amalfitano, terrified. A ho-mo-sex-u-al, said the voice.”
15. The two are not the same Amalfitano. If anything ties them together it’s that they both translated a book called The Endless Rose and have a daughter named Rosa (who resemble each other to a greater degree, but still are not the same). The Amalfitano of 2666 has secrets too, no doubt, but of a far more abysmal nature. And also: I don’t recall getting a physical description of Amalfitano in 2666. In Woes he looks just vaguely like Christopher Walken, so everyone notes he looks like Christopher Walken. I like that.
16. On the subject of physical appearance, the cover of this book is awful. It’s like the cover of the American edition of The Savage Detectives mated with Everything is Illuminated. Or maybe all of Safran Foer’s books got together and had their way with it, like a horde of rejected manuscripts does to an unfinished novel in one of Arcimboldi’s novels. Additionally, this edition contains some pretty sloppy typographical boners.
17. “In addition, the careful reader will soon realize (though a second or third reading is often required) that this isn’t a collection of stories or of ninety-nine fragments connected solely by train travel: as if this were a mystery novel, we learn to recognize at least two travelers through the fragments of dialogue, two ambiguous characters who, despite changes of job, age, and sometimes even sex (but then the young woman who works as a secretary at a chocolate factory in the Jura is no such young woman), are the same person, and both are fleeing, or chasing each other, or one is chasing and the other is hiding. It’s also possible to piece together the clues to solve a crime, though the order in which the dialogues are presented tend to muddy the waters;…it’s possible to spin a comic tale…; a story of devotion…; the story of a trip–to Spain, the Maghreb?–that ends in the death of the traveler…; and the story of a house that burned down.”
18. For all his consideration of missing writers, a friend pointed out, isn’t it fitting that Bolaño died because he couldn’t find an organ donor? his missing visceral double?
19. But doubles are too common. Bolaño works in different denominations. Triplets, at least; cornerstones of pyramids buried in the sand.
20. There’s definitely some clunk in this book. Not The Third Reich kind of clunk, that of a young Bolaño still figuring out what he means to say. This is unfinished, that’s for certain. But it feels more like he’s writing his way around an idea, trying to ensnare it, than writing towards it.
21. That same professor said that no writer worth studying would drop names of writers or artists with whom he or she wasn’t quite familiar. Unless they were made-up.
22. I think only two or three bodies turn up in this book–nothing next to the 109 (that was my count when I read it last; I’ve seen other numbers) in “The Part About the Murders” in 2666. So many of those women are buried in shallow graves, or just thrown somewhere. A huge number of them have also been dressed after death–often in someone else’s clothes. But they’re always presented as objects meant to be found, not hidden.
23. A murdered body begs interpretation (Duchamp, Christ, et al.), inscribed and punctuated like a sheet in what seems to be an endless and self-begetting stack of manuscripts.
24. This is the body Bolaño apparently chose not to bury. Looking down into the cursory grave dug by his widow and editors, we the readers are the homicide detective he claimed he would have been, had he not been a writer.
25. “But the truly important story, the one that somehow encompasses and obliterates and supplants all the others, is the story of the chase. From the beginning, the reader is presented with a number of questions: is the pursuer motivated by love or hatred? is the pursuer motivated by love or fear? how much time elapses from the start of the chase until the present day? at the end of the book is the chase still on or has it imperceptibly ceased at some point between 1899 and 1957? is the pursuer a man and the pursued a woman, or is it the other way around? what is the story and what are its outgrowths, elaborations, offshoots?”