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Woes of the True Policeman: A Novel

Woes of the True Policeman: A Novel

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Woes of the True Policeman: A Novel

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Nov 13, 2012


Begun in the 1980s and worked on until the author's death in 2003, Woes of the True Policeman is Roberto Bolaño's last, unfinished novel.

The novel follows Óscar Amalfitano—an exiled Chilean university professor and widower—through the maze of his revolutionary past, his relationship with his teenage daughter, Rosa, his passion for a former student, and his retreat from scandal in Barcelona.

Forced to leave Barcelona for Santa Teresa, a Mexican city close to the U.S. border where women are being killed in unprecedented numbers, Amalfitano soon begins an affair with Castillo, a young forger of Larry Rivers paintings. Meanwhile, Rosa, Amalfitano's daughter, engages in her own epistolary romance with a basketball player from Barcelona, while still trying to cope with her mother's early death and her father's secrets. After finding Castillo in bed with her father, Rosa is forced to confront her own crisis. What follows is an intimate police investigation of Amalfitano that involves a series of dark twists, culminating in a finale full of euphoria and heartbreak.
Featuring characters and stories from his other books, Woes of the True Policeman invites the reader more than ever into the world of Roberto Bolaño. It is an exciting, kaleidoscopic novel, lyrical and intense, yet darkly humorous. Exploring the roots of memory and the limits of art, Woes of the True Policeman marks the culmination of one of the great careers of world literature.

Nov 13, 2012

Sobre el autor

Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. He grew up in Chile and Mexico City, where he was a founder of the Infrarealist poetry movement. His first full-length novel, The Savage Detectives, received the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize when it appeared in 1998. Roberto Bolaño died in Blanes, Spain, at the age of fifty.

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Woes of the True Policeman - Roberto Bolaño



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. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda, a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was a queer. Borges was a philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Rubén Darío was a freak, in fact, the queen freak, the prototypical freak (in Spanish, of course; in the wider world the reigning freak is still Verlaine the Generous). Freaks, according to Padilla, were closer to madhouse flamboyance and naked hallucination, while faggots and queers wandered in stagger-step from ethics to aesthetics and back again. Cernuda, dear Cernuda, was a nymph, and at moments of great bitterness a faggot, whereas Guillén, Aleixandre, and Alberti could be considered a sissy, a butch, and a queer, respectively. As a general rule, poets like Blas de Otero were butches, while poets like Gil de Biedma were—except for Gil de Biedma himself—part nymph and part queer. Recent Spanish poetry, with the tentative exception of the aforementioned Gil de Biedma and probably Carlos Edmundo de Ory, had been lacking in faggot poets until the arrival of the Great Faggot of All Sorrows, Padilla’s favorite poet, Leopoldo María Panero. And yet Panero, it had to be admitted, had fits of bipolar freakishness that made him unstable, inconsistent, and hard to classify. Of Panero’s peers, a curious case was Gimferrer, who was queer by nature but had the imagination of a faggot and the tastes of a nymph. Anyway, the poetry scene was essentially an (underground) battle, the result of the struggle between faggot poets and queer poets to seize control of the word. Sissies, according to Padilla, were faggot poets by birth who, out of weakness or for comfort’s sake, lived within and accepted—most of the time—the aesthetic and personal parameters of the queers. In Spain, France, and Italy, queer poets have always been legion, he said, although a superficial reader might never guess. What happens is that a faggot poet like Leopardi, for example, somehow reconstrues queers like Ungaretti, Montale, and Quasimodo, the trio of death. In the same way, Pasolini redraws contemporary Italian queerdom. Take the case of poor Sanguinetti (I won’t pick on Pavese, who was a sad freak, the only one of his kind). Not to mention France, great country of devouring mouths, where one hundred faggot poets, from Villon to Sophie Podolski, have nurtured, still nurture, and will nurture with the blood of their tits ten thousand queer poets with their entourage of philenes, nymphs, butches, and sissies, lofty editors of literary magazines, great translators, petty bureaucrats, and grand diplomats of the Kingdom of Letters (see, if you must, the shameful and malicious reflections of the Tel Quel poets). And the less said the better about the faggotry of the Russian Revolution, which, if we’re to be honest, gave us just one faggot poet, a single one. Who? you may ask. Mayakovsky? No. Esenin? No. Pasternak? Blok? Mandelstam? Akhmatova? Hardly. There was just one, and I won’t keep you in suspense. He was the real thing, a steppes-and-snow faggot, a faggot through and through: Khlebnikov. And in Latin America, how many true faggots do we find? Vallejo and Martín Adán. Period. New paragraph. Macedonio Fernández, maybe? The rest are queers like Huidobro, fairies like Alfonso Cortés (although some of his poems are authentically fagotty), butches like León de Greiff, butch nymphs like Pablo de Rokha (with bursts of freakishness that would’ve driven Lacan himself crazy), sissies like Lezama Lima, a misguided reader of Góngora, and along with Lezama all the queers and sissies of the Cuban Revolution except for Rogelio Nogueras, who is a nymph with the spirit of a faggot, not to mention, if only in passing, the poets of the Sandinista Revolution: fairies like Coronel Urtecho or queers who wish they were philenes, like Ernesto Cardenal. The Mexican Contemporaries are also queers (no, shouted Amalfitano, not Gilberto Owen!); in fact Death Without End is, along with the poetry of Paz, the Marseillaise of the highly nervous Mexican poets. More names: Gelman, nymph; Benedetti, queer; Nicanor Parra, fairy with a hint of faggot; Westphalen, freak; Pellicer, fairy; Enrique Lihn, sissy; Girondo, fairy. And back to Spain, back to the beginning: Góngora and Quevedo, queers; San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luis de León, faggots. End of story. And now, to satisfy your curiosity, some differences between queers and faggots. Even in their sleep, the former beg for a twelve-inch cock to plow and fertilize them, but at the moment of truth, mountains must be moved to get them into bed with the pretty boys they love. Faggots, on the other hand, seem to live as if a dick were permanently churning their insides, and when they look at themselves in the mirror (something they love and hate with all their heart), they see the Pimp of Death in their own sunken eyes. For faggots and fairies, pimp is the one word that can cross unscathed through the realms of nothingness. But then, too, nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters.

You missed the category of talking apes, said Amalfitano when Padilla at last fell silent.

Ah, those talking apes, said Padilla, the faggot apes of Madagascar who refuse to talk so they don’t have to work.


When Padilla was five his mother died, and when he was twelve his older brother died. When he was thirteen he decided that he would be an artist. First he thought he liked theater and film. Then he read Rimbaud and Leopoldo María Panero and he wanted to be a poet as well as an actor. By the time he was sixteen he’d devoured literally all the poetry that fell into his hands and he’d had two (rather unfortunate) experiences at the local community theater, but that wasn’t enough. He learned English and French, took a trip to San Sebastián, to the Mondragón insane asylum, and tried to visit Leopoldo María Panero, but once the doctors had seen him and listened to him talk for five minutes, they turned him away.

At seventeen he was a tough, well-read, sarcastic kid, prone to bursts of anger that could lead to violence. Twice he resorted to physical aggression. The first time, he was walking through Parque de la Ciudadela with a friend, another poet, when two young skinheads insulted them. They might have called them faggots, something like that. Padilla, who was usually the one to taunt others, stopped, went up to the bigger kid, and punched him in the neck, making him gasp and choke; while the kid was trying to keep his balance and get his breath, he was felled by a swift kick to the groin; his friend tried to help but what he saw in Padilla’s eyes was more powerful than the bonds of friendship and he chose to flee the scene. It was all over very quickly. Before Padilla moved on, he had time to aim a few kicks at the bald head of his fallen opponent. Padilla’s young poet friend was horrified. Days later, when he took Padilla to task for his behavior (especially his final outburst, the gratuitous kicking of his enemy when he was down), Padilla answered that when fighting Nazis, everything was permitted. On Padilla’s adolescent lips, the word everything sounded luscious. But how do you know they were Nazis? asked his friend. They had shaved heads, said Padilla tenderly, what kind of world do you live in? Also, he added, it’s your fault, because that afternoon, remember, we were talking about love, Love with a capital L, and the entire time you just kept arguing with me, calling my ideas naïve, telling me to get my head out of the clouds; every word you said, sabotaging my dreams, was like a punch in the gut. Then the skinheads turned up, and added to all my pain and suffering, of which you were well aware, was the pain of ignorance.

Padilla’s friend never knew whether he was serious or not, but from then on, in certain circles, going out late at night with him became a guarantee of safety.

The second time, he hit his lover, a kid of eighteen, good-looking but not too bright, who one night transferred his affections to a rich architect, thirty and not too bright, either, with whom he was indiscreet enough to make the rounds of the places he used to hang out with Padilla, flaunting his happiness plus a weekend jaunt to Thailand and summer in Italy and a duplex complete with Jacuzzi, which was more than Padilla—who was only seventeen at the time and lived with his father in a dark three-bedroom apartment in the Eixample—could take. This time, however, Padilla acted with premeditation: he waited until five in the morning, hiding in a doorway, for his ex-lover to come home. Once the taxi had gone he was on him, and the attack was swift and brutal. He didn’t touch his face. He hit him in the belly and the genitals and, once his ex-lover was on the ground, aimed kicks at his legs and rear. If you turn me in I’ll kill you, baby, he warned before he vanished down the dark streets, gnawing his lip.

His relationship with his father was good, though somewhat distant and perhaps a little sad. The abrupt and enigmatic messages they flung at each other with seeming carelessness tended to be misinterpreted on both sides. Padilla’s father believed that his son was very intelligent, of higher-than-average intelligence, but at the same time deeply unhappy. And he blamed himself and fate. Padilla believed that his father might long ago have been an interesting person or might have had the chance to become one, but the deaths in the family had turned him into a spiritless, resigned man, sometimes mysteriously happy (when a soccer match was on TV), but usually quiet and hardworking, a man who demanded nothing of Padilla beyond perhaps the occasional bit of trivial conversation. Nothing more. They weren’t rich, but since his father owned the apartment and hardly spent a thing, Padilla always had a decent amount of money at his disposal. With it he bought movie and theater tickets; went out to dinner; bought books, jeans, a leather jacket with metal studs, boots, sunglasses, a small weekly supply of hash, very occasionally some cocaine, albums by Satie; paid for his college tuition, his metro passes, his black and purple blazers, the rooms in Distrito V where he brought his lovers. He never went on vacation.

Padilla’s father never went on vacation, either. When summer came, Padilla and his father slept until late, with the blinds down and the apartment plunged into a gentle dusk, redolent of the previous night’s dinner. Then Padilla would go out to roam the streets of Barcelona, and his father, after washing the dishes and giving the kitchen a once-over, would spend the rest of the day watching television.

At eighteen Padilla completed his first book of poetry. He sent a copy to Leopoldo María Panero at the Mondragón asylum, put the original in a drawer in his desk—the only one with a lock and key—and forgot all about it. Three years later, when he met Amalfitano, he retrieved the poems from the drawer and begged him to read them. Amalfitano thought they were interesting, maybe too faithful to certain conventions, but elegant and polished. Their subjects were the city of Barcelona, sex, illness, crime. In one of them, for example, the poet described in perfect alexandrines some fifty ways of masturbating, each more painful and terrible than the last, as a nuclear twilight settled slowly over the city’s suburbs. In another he minutely chronicled the death of his father, alone in his room, as the poet cleans the house, cooks, rations out the provisions (ever dwindling) in the pantry, searches for good music on the radio, reads curled up on the sofa in the living room, and tries in vain to reorder his memories. His father takes his time dying, of course, and stretching between his sleep and the poet’s wakefulness, lost in the mist, is a ruined bridge. Vladimir Holan is my model in the art of survival, he told Amalfitano. Wonderful, thought Amalfitano, one of my favorite poets.

Up until this point, Amalfitano had hardly seen Padilla, who only very rarely showed up in class. After the reading and the favorable comments, he was never absent again. Soon they became friends. By then Padilla wasn’t living with his father anymore; he had rented a studio near the university, where he hosted parties and gatherings that Amalfitano soon began to attend. Poems were read and later on in the evening the guests put on little plays in Catalan. Amalfitano found it charming, like the tertulias of South American literary circles in the old days, but with more style and taste, more flair, something like what the tertulias of Mexico’s Contemporáneos might have been if the Contemporáneos had written plays, which Amalfitano doubted. Also: there was a lot of drinking and sometimes one of the guests had a breakdown that usually ended—after much screaming and sobbing—with the sufferer shut in the bathroom and two volunteers trying to calm him down. Every so often a woman made an appearance, but usually it was just men, most of them young, students of literature and art history. A painter also came, a strange man, maybe forty-five, who wore only leather and who sat silently in a corner during the tertulias, not drinking, chain-smoking little hash cigarettes that he selected, pre-rolled, from a gold cigarette case. And the owner of a pastry shop in Gracia, a cheerful, animated fat man who talked to everyone and who was, as Amalfitano soon realized, the one bankrolling Padilla and the other boys.

One night, as they were performing one of the Dialogues with Leucò translated into Catalan by a very tall, fair-skinned boy, Padilla surreptitiously took one of Amalfitano’s hands. Amalfitano didn’t let go.

The first time they made love was one Sunday morning, with the dawn light filtering through the lowered blinds, when everyone else had gone and all that was left in the studio were cigarette butts and a jumble of glasses and scattered cushions. Amalfitano was fifty and it was the first time he had slept with a man. I’m not a man, said Padilla, I’m your angel.


At some point, as they were coming out of a movie theater, remembered Amalfitano, Padilla confessed that in the not-too-distant future he planned to make a movie. The movie would be called Leopardi, and according to Padilla it would be a Hollywood-style biopic about the famous and multidisciplinary Italian poet. Like John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec movie. But since Padilla’s movie wouldn’t have a big budget (in fact it had no budget), the main roles would be played not by great actors but by fellow writers, who would work for the love of art in general, love of the gobbo in particular, or simply to be included. The role of Leopardi was reserved for a young poet and heroin addict from La Coruña whose name Amalfitano had forgotten. The role of Antonio Ranieri was reserved for Padilla himself. It’s the most interesting of all, he declared. Count Monaldo Leopardi would be played by Vargas Llosa, who, with a brooding look and some talcum powder, would be perfect for the role. Paolina Leopardi would go to Blanca Andreu, and Carlo Leopardi to Enrique Vila-Matas. The role of Countess Adelaida Antici, mother of the poet, was to be offered to Josefina Aldecoa. Adelaida García Morales and Carmen Martín Gaite would play peasants from Recanati. Giordani, faithful friend and epistolary confidant—a bit of a drip, really—would go to Muñoz Molina. Manzoni: Javier Marías. Two Vatican cardinals, tremulous Latinists, loathsome Hellenists: Cela and Juan Goytisolo. Uncle Carlo Antici was reserved for Juan Marsé. Stella, the publisher, would be offered to Herralde. Fanny Targioni, the fickle and too-human Fanny, to Soledad Puértolas. And then there were some of the poems, which—to make them more comprehensible to the audience–would be played by actors. That is, the poems would be given physical presence instead of being ladders of words. Example: Leopardi is writing The Infinite and from beneath the table springs Martín de Riquer, in a small but effective role, though Padilla doubted that the eminent academic would accept the ephemeral glory of the cinema. The Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia, Padilla’s favorite poem, would be played by Leopoldo María Panero, naked or in a tiny bathing suit. Eduardo Mendicutti would play To Silvia. Enrique Vila-Matas: The Calm After the Storm. To Italy, the poet Pere Girau, Padilla’s best friend. He planned to shoot the interiors in his own Eixample apartment and at the gym of an ex-lover in Gracia. The exteriors: Sitges, Manresa, the Barrio Gótico of Barcelona, Girona, Olot, Palamós. He even had a completely original and revolutionary idea for re-creating Naples in 1839 and the cholera epidemic that ravaged the city, an idea that he could have sold to the big Hollywood studios, but Amalfitano couldn’t remember what it was.


On the Ruin of Amalfitano at the University of Barcelona

The rector and the head of the literature department entrusted Professor Carrera with the mission of informing Amalfitano of his situation at the university. Antoni Carrera was forty-eight, a former anti-Franco militant, someone who at first glance led an enviable life. He seemed reasonably content, a happy man. His salary and that of his wife, a high school French teacher, covered the mortgage on an old house that he had renovated to suit himself and the occasional whims of an architect friend. The house was magnificent, with six bedrooms, a huge, bright living room, a garden, and a little sauna that was Professor Carrera’s greatest domestic pride.

His son, seventeen, was a good student, or so his parents thought. He was six foot two, and every Saturday aftenoon the Carreras went to watch him play basketball at a club in Sant Andreu. All three were in good health. Antoni Carrera and Anna Carrera had gone through some hard times and once, long ago, had even come close to divorcing, but that was in the past and their marriage had gradually stabilized; now they were good friends, they shared some things, but in general each led his or her own life. One of the things they shared was their friendship with Amalfitano. When he arrived at the university he didn’t know anyone, and Carrera, taking pity on him and following the unwritten rules of scholarly hospitality, held a dinner at his house—his welcoming, wonderful house—and invited Amalfitano and three other department colleagues. It was a peculiar affair. The professors didn’t know each other, nor did they have any particular interest in getting to know Amalfitano (Latin American literature no longer roused passions); the professors’ wives looked terminally bored; Carrera’s own wife wasn’t in the best of moods. And Amalfitano didn’t appear at the agreed-upon time. In fact, he was very late, and the hungry professors got impatient. One suggested that they begin without him. Most would have seconded the motion, but Anna Carrera had no interest in starting the same dinner twice. So they ate cheese and Serrano ham and reflected on the impunctuality of South Americans. When Amalfitano arrived at last he was accompanied by a strikingly beautiful adolescent. At first the Carreras assumed, stunned, that it was his wife. Humbert Humbert, thought Antoni in terror, seconds before Amalfitano introduced her as his only daughter. I’m a widower, he remarked later,

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  • (4/5)
    Amalfitano remembered a time when he believed that nothing happened by chance, everything happened for some reason, but when was that time? He couldn't remember, all he could remember was that at some point this was what he believed.

    Calvino notes in his Six Memos that Borges began writing fiction as a particular exercise; he would imagine philosophical novels that had been poorly translated into Spanish and write synopses of such. Bolaño's own inchoate 20 year project most likely gave birth to 2666. I can't state that categorically, but Greg thinks so and I tend to agree. Call it a hunch. Jesus, this project is so evocative and such a mess. I found myself gasping in marvel, which is a rare feat these days. Strike that, over the last decade, I seldom go, "whoa". I did here.

    My friend Harold Maier who owned Louisville's Twice Told Books for over 25 years asked me this last fall about Bolaño. I told him I always felt that I wasn't connecting completely when reading him, there was an aura of mishearing at play. That said, I couldn't stop thinking about him. That presence remains.

    Life, of course, which puts the essential books under our noses only when they are strictly essential, or on some cosmic whim.
  • (3/5)
    A strange volume; it covers ground covered far better in 2666 - in other words, the part about Amalfitano, turning him into a much more homosexual character. Some of this book is heavy going, but I'm glad I read it - it felt like I was suddenly in a parallel universe in which the masterful 2666 did not exist.
  • (5/5)
    The knock on this book is that it was a half-finished work sent to market to exploit Bolanomania and that the work seems to cover ground more thoroughly explored in 2066 and Savage Detectives. I say a half finished Bolano is better than 99 percent of the 100 percent finished books out there. Once again, Armando Duran does a masterful job of giving life to Bolano's wild chases and doomed characters.
  • (3/5)
    Bolano is so many things at once – a fabulist, a man of lists, an author who uses humor and irony so deftly that it all becomes quite poetic. And he is also a man of many nooks and crannies who glories and delights in the many ways he can mine that vein of his own special literature – one he helps the reader create. If only he had been able to finish this book, if only he had lived a bit longer…