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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Woes of the True Policeman

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase Woes of the True Policeman

Title: Woes of the True Policeman
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Novel
Written: (2011) (Eng. 2012)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Woes of the True Policeman - US
Los sinsabores del verdadero policía - US
Woes of the True Policeman - UK
Woes of the True Policeman - Canada
Die Nöte des wahren Polizisten - Deutschland
I dispiaceri del vero poliziotto - Italia
Los sinsabores del verdadero policía - España
  • Spanish title: Los sinsabores del verdadero policía
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer
  • With an Editorial Note by Carolina López
  • Published posthumously; Bolaño apparently worked on this novel from the 1980s until his death

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Our Assessment:

B : not quite a whole novel, but much fine Bolaño material here

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 4/2/2011 Joaquín Marco
The Independent . 2/4/2013 Jonathan Gibbs
Literary Review . 12/2012 Malcolm Forbes
The LA Times . 15/11/2012 Jacob Silverman
The NY Times . 20/12/2012 Larry Rohter
Wall St. Journal . 16/11/2012 Thomas Chatterton Williams

  From the Reviews:
  • "Esta nueva novela de novelas debe entenderse como literatura derivada de su propia literatura y complacerá a los numerosos lectores que lo convirtieron en escritor de culto ya otros que pueden deleitarse ignorando todavía el resto de su producción que ocupa un primer plano en la actual literatura latinoamericana desde poco antes de su fallecimiento. (...) No es una pieza menor y dada su habitual fragmentación, el hecho de que Bolaño no la diera por finalizada en su totalidad no le resta mérito ni interés." - Joaquín Marco, El Cultural

  • "The writing is at times dismayingly below-par, but there are long stretches of characteristic driving narrative, laced with anecdote. There are also engaging riffs and gimmicks. (...) There is, frankly, too much here to grasp at one reading. But the book only confirms Bolaño as a vital force in recent literature." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "(I)t doesn't so much peter out as refuse to crystallise, its five sections very much discrete entities that seldom coalesce. That said, it bears all the hallmarks of the best of Bolaño's oeuvre -- thrumming with rambunctious energy, brimming with inventive ideas, caustic wit and meandering, often digressive yarns -- rendering it more than just another posthumous cash-in and a cut above a mere literary curio. (...) The result is a fragmented, hallucinatory novel which reads like a warped amalgam of a reimagining of the campus novel, a madcap update of Maurice, and a series of pulque-induced exploits -- and which yet, somehow, inexplicably, manages to work." - Malcolm Forbes, Literary Review

  • "What one can say is that Woes of the True Policeman is both indelible Bolaño -- there's vivid sex, phantasmagorical violence, literature as life's highest pursuit, catalogs of fictitious writers and nomadic political exiles -- and pretty undercooked. Bolaño reportedly began working on this novel in the 1980s, but the book reads like a side project that never earned his full attention. (...) (T)he book is largely a bundle of unfinished threads." - Jacob Silverman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "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." - Larry Rohter, The New York Times

  • "The feeling of déjà vu is constant in this work, the latest to be exhumed from the Chilean novelist's desk drawers since his death in 2003. It is a testament to the author's abundant talent that the writing never feels stale but, rather incredibly, shines anew. (...) The publication of a Bolaño novel, complete or not, is never anything less than an event of language and devilish wit. His tossed-away writings outshine most authors' finest work." - Thomas Chatterton Williams, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Woes of the True Policeman is a novel that Roberto Bolaño apparently began in the 1980s and continued to work on until the time of his death. It has five different sections, and while all seem at least somewhat incomplete most of the narrative is far beyond the raw, early stages of writing; the novel -- and its pieces -- are, on the whole, more underdeveloped than fragmentary. There is a coherent story here -- or rather several overlapping ones, although the final overlapping (and weaving together of everything) still needs considerable work.
       Much of the novel centers of Óscar Amalfitano -- familiar from 2666 as a professor at the University of Santa Teresa in the Mexican region of Sonora, and as a translator of a work by J.M.G.Arcimboldi. The Amalfitanos are not identical -- in Woes of the True Policeman he is a widower, and his wife's name was Edith (while in 2666 wife Lola is still very much alive) -- but certainly very similar. Woes of the True Policeman begins with a section on Amalfitano, leading towards how he and his teenage daughter Rosa wind up in Mexico. The peripatetic Chilean exile Amalfitano had a decent university job in Barcelona, but was forced out of it, and the only job he could find was at the university in Santa Teresa.
       Amalfitano was undone because of an affair with a student, Padilla, when, at age fifty, he: "discovered my homosexuality at the same time the Russians discovered their passion for capitalism". Padilla is a poet (and then would-be novelist, at work on a novel titled: The God of Homosexuals); he remains an important figure for Amalfitano, and they continue to stay in contact after Amalfitano is forced to leave for Mexico. Padilla later comes down with AIDS, and the specter of that disease also hovers over much of the story.
       Amalfitano -- who teaches his students that: "a book was a labyrinth and a desert" -- finds in literature at least something to hold onto, even when he has lost so much:

At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.
       Typically, when Rosa discovers that her father has suddenly taken to sleeping with men:
From that day on, as if under an evil spell, Rosa stopped reading books and began to go through two or even three movies a day.
       As in 2666, young women -- around Rosa's age -- are being brutally murdered in the vicinity of Santa Teresa. The final section, 'Killers of Sonora', introduces actual policemen, including Pedro Negrete. His twin brother, Peblo, is rector at the university -- and asks Pedro to look into new hire Amalfitano. Pedro in turn assigns one of his underlings, Pancho, to tail Amalfitano and prepare a dossier on him, and Pancho dutifully looks into Amalfitano (and Rosa's) lives.
       The novel develops these various storylines, but Bolaño only follows through so far; there is still a way to go beyond what is here. But even as is, Woes of the True Policeman offers many of the rewards readers have come to expect from Bolaño. Where narratives unfold at greater length -- Amalfitano's life and background, his relationship with Padilla, Pancho's investigations -- Bolaño offers quite gripping and appealing stories. There are also a number of chapters in which material is presented in more unusual style, from a bibliography of Arcimboldi's work to a chapter of 'Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet' to one in which each paragraph is a response to the question how specific people were affected by Amalfitano's departure from Barcelona -- all the sorts of games that Bolaño does particularly well (if you like that sort of thing ...).
       Bolaño plays with a number of themes here. It's hard, for one, not to see Amalfitano as an alter-version of the author -- and various fixations on mortality coming to the fore suggest Bolaño's own coming to grips with his own premature decline (and he died, of course, at age fifty -- the age his protagonist has just reached). Certainly it's poignant when Amalfitano observes:
We Chileans, he said to himself, don't know how to grow old and as a general rule we make the most terrific fools of ourselves; ridiculous as we are, though, there's something courageous about our old age, as if when we grown wrinkled and fall ill we recover the courage of our rugged childhoods in the land of earthquakes and tsunamis.
       Bolaño also brings sexuality into practically everything, beginning with the provocative thesis of the novel's opening:
     According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual. Poetry, on the other hand, was completely homosexual.
       (Padilla does turn to novel-writing -- but titles his work: The God of Homosexuals.)
       Woes of the True Policeman may be unfinished, but it is still a substantial work. There's enough meat to it, and enough plot, that even without fully fleshed-out resolutions it is surprisingly satisfying. Certainly, one can only imagine what it might have eventually become, and it falls far short of being anything complete, but it should be of interest to anyone interested in Bolaño's work (and who isn't ?).

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 November 2012

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Woes of the True Policeman: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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