If “Woes of the True Policeman” were a pop music CD – rather than a posthumous novel from this Chilean writer who has emerged as the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation – it would be described as a collection of outtakes, alternate versions and demos whose primary appeal is to completists only.
The novel offers plotlines and characters that supplement or propose variations on Bolano’s 900-page magnum opus, “2666.” Its protagonist is Oscar Amalfitano, an exiled Chilean philosophy professor who is also the focus of Part 2 of “2666.” The book begins in Spain, but soon shifts to Santa Teresa, the Mexican border city Bolano invented in “2666,” and reintroduces some of the same police detectives who in that novel are trying to solve the serial killings of dozens of young female factory workers.
Reading the new book can be likened to one of those recordings in which you can listen to all 20-plus takes of the Beatles working on “Strawberry Fields Forever” in the studio. You can easily perceive the outlines of a landmark work and observe a great artist struggling to shape it. But you don’t get to enjoy the final product itself.
Still, the book contains some brilliant writing. There are several bravura passages, like one breathless five-page chapter early on that consists of a single sentence in which Amalfitano tells the story of his life. Yes, it’s showing off, which may explain why this segment was withheld from “2666,” but there’s also an argument to be made for “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
As was his habit, Bolano also mixes real novelists, poets and historical figures with those he has invented. To use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, Bolano is a hedgehog masquerading as a fox: though his interests seem to range all over the map and throughout time, dark subterranean currents unite them in a single overarching concept.
To Bolano history is a sinister conspiracy, and we, its objects, are often not even aware of the malign forces acting on us. In “2666” World War II events on the Romanian front play out in Santa Teresa in some unspecified future, while in “True Policeman” he looks to the Emperor Maximilian’s failed 19th-century conquest of Mexico as the hidden trigger of the ominous atmosphere Amalfitano feels there but cannot quite articulate.
In a note appended to the book, Bolano’s widow, Carolina Lopez, describes “True Policeman” as “a project that was begun in the 1980s and continued to be a work in progress up until the year 2003,” when Bolano died at 50. Its five component parts “are at different stages of completion,” she acknowledges, but “this edition was undertaken with the unwavering intent to respect Bolano’s work and the firm pledge to offer the reader the novel as it had been found in his files.”
This is questionable. Lopez, who now controls Bolano’s work, had been separated from the writer for several years by the time he died; he had appointed the Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarria as his literary executor. In an essay published last year, Echevarria maintained that the book could not even be described as “an unfinished novel,” but was instead a collection of “material destined for a novelistic project that was shelved” and eventually cannibalized for Bolano’s other works.
That is precisely what makes “Woes of the True Policeman” interesting for readers who know Bolano’s novels and stories. But its publication also suggests that Bolano the literary rock star may be condemned to suffer the fate of Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, in which every last scrap and fragment of the deceased’s creativity is marketed to his most ardent fans.