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Review: Woes of the True Policeman, By Roberto Bolaño. Picador, £18.99


Jonathan Gibbs
Tuesday 02 April 2013 07:05 BST

In the decade since his death, the books of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño have been arriving in English translation with staggering regularity.

True, we have had two undoubted masterpieces, in The Savage Detectives and 2666, but the dozen or so other novels, and story, poetry and essay collections have at times seemed like too much of a good thing.

Translated by Chris Andrews, Woes of the True Policeman is one of the most interesting of these additions. An unfinished novel compiled from various versions, it is a companion piece of sorts to Bolaño's most celebrated novels, even when it contradicts them. Like The Savage Detectives and 2666, it is a portmanteau work, coming in five parts, and features the literature professor Óscar Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa, and the author Arcimboldi, from 2666.

Whereas in 2666, Amalfitano is tormented by voices accusing him of homosexuality, here he is definitely gay, and the book opens and closes with his affair with a student, Padilla: the sort of precocious enfant terrible we expect from Bolaño. 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.

The book opens with a farcical taxonomy of dozens of poets into "faggots" and "queers", while Arcimboldi is introduced by a Borgesian bibliography, followed by summaries of his books. I particularly enjoyed "The Librarian", about a reader for the publisher Gallimard who becomes so obsessed with the novels he is sent that he hoards them, preventing publication.

The knowledge of evil that has shadowed Bolaño's work returns in the final part, which threads together the Ciudad Juárez murders (as in 2666) and Padilla's contraction of Aids. There is, frankly, too much here to grasp at one reading. But the book only confirms Bolaño as a vital force in recent literature. He insists on a balance of dark and light in human affairs. He mixes the romantic and the pragmatic – even great novels can be summarised and poets cherished for their actions as much as for their words.

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