Woes of the True Policeman

Roberto Bolano, Natasha Wimmer

Woes of the True Policeman
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Woes of the True Policeman

Roberto Bolano, Natasha Wimmer

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

The novel follows Oscar 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 Bolano. 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.


I have little credibility as a reviewer of Roberto Bolaño. Ever since approximately page 200 of The Savage Detectives (the first of his books that I read), I’ve been under his spell. And the immeasurable joy and the terror I took from reading 2666 (the book widely held to be Bolaño’s masterpiece) meant that that spell would probably never be broken. The fact that since his death publishers have seen fit to let new and increasingly insubstantial books (books that weren’t even books to Bolaño, but simply drafts and notes he kept in his office) leak out steadily has done nothing to diminish him in my eyes.

Woes of the True Policeman is one such a book. The best way to précis it, I think, is as a weird collection of ‘deleted scenes’ from 2666. Many of the same characters, such as Oscar Amalfitano, the university professor, and Archimboldi, the writer, reappear. So too do the murdered women of Mexico. The novel is broken into discreet sections much like 2666. Indeed everything that makes a Bolaño novel so wonderful is there: the sense of doom, a palpable love of the history of literature, a not-quite-surreal strangeness, an inescapable atmosphere of beauty and pleasure, and the impression that everything and everyone is connected without ever quite knowing how or why. And yet I’d be hesitant to recommend the book to a first time reader of Bolaño for fear that they might find it too jagged, too flighty (even if in some ways those are inherent qualities of Bolaño’s prose).

Okay, I’ll just say it: this novel isn’t as good as the others. But such a statement misses the point completely. As a friend who recently wrote an honours thesis on Bolaño put it to me: all of his books are one. Having read my way through most of his work, I’m certain that everything he wrote was part of a sort of unfinishable cosmic jigsaw puzzle that he was somehow putting together as made it. Where does that leave Woes of the True Policeman? As a small but indispensable part of a universe that has no limits. In the face of that, how can I be critical?

will-heyward-sm Will Heyward is a bookseller who works for Readings in Carlton and St Kilda. His writing as been published in The Weekend Australian, the Australian Book Review, and on the website of BOMB Magazine. He is a contributing editor of Higher Arc.

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