Review

Woes of the True Policeman

by Roberto Bolano

“The Chilean exile poet Roberto Bolaño, born in 1953, lived in Mexico, France and Spain before his death in 2003, at 50. Interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw.”

Bolaño’s WOES OF THE TRUE POLICEMAN is not a police procedural or in any way a thriller, suspense or mystery story. Rather, according to the Editorial Note in the book, it is "a novel whose parts are at different stages of completion, though the general level of revision is high, since all the chapters were first written by hand, then transcribed on an electric typewriter, with many of them --- approximately half --- subsequently polished on a computer, as Roberto Bolaño’s files show.

A number of additional documents deposited in the same files confirm that this is a project that was begun in the 1980s and continued to be a work in progress up until the year 2003: letters, dated notes in which the author describes his projects; an interview from November 1999 in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, in which he states that he is working on WOES OF THE TRUE POLICEMAN, among other books. The title is a constant in all the documentation relating to the work."

"WOES OF THE TRUE POLICEMAN is a challenging read, and fans of the late Roberto Bolaño will find themselves in a netherworld. But the ride is well worth it."

Knowing this, readers should prepare themselves for an unusual ride through a timeless vessel that at points seems to have no beginning or end. A chapter may be only a few sentences or several pages. The thoughts of the main characters, as told by an omniscient narrator, engage and disengage much like the ebb and flow of the ocean. Time is not linear. Memories or nightmares invade the present, and questions arise about how accurate the memories are or what the nightmares mean.

Óscar Amalfitano, the main character, is a teacher who takes his students and readers through a history of literature, philosophy, art, poetry, architecture, and the other creative arts. He has a great interest in all of them and expounds expert theories concerning them. At the beginning of the narrative, he is teaching students in Spain but sadly is fired and must find work elsewhere. He and his daughter Rosa move into the tiny town of St. Teresa in Mexico. Rosa is very happy in her new environment and walks around the town to see new people and things. They eat lunch together every day and in their spare time go apartment hunting. Soon they find a cottage to suit their needs.

Some of the subjects may make readers not familiar with Bolaño’s work uncomfortable. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are written about extensively but not in a way to be shocking. Amalfitano has conversations with a student named Padillo about poets who may or may not be gay. Later on in the story, Padillo leaves Mexico and ends up in Barcelona. The novel becomes semi-epistolary with Amalfitano and Padillo writing to each other in rapid speed.

WOES OF THE TRUE POLICEMAN is a challenging read, and fans of the late Roberto Bolaño will find themselves in a netherworld. But the ride is well worth it.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 7, 2012

Woes of the True Policeman
by Roberto Bolano

  • Publication Date: October 22, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250037824
  • ISBN-13: 9781250037824