A modest fable, the final work by the Chilean master Bolaño (1953-2003) published in his lifetime, encompassing sex, theft and doing what’s necessary to get by.
Bianca, the narrator of this short but philosophically prickly tale, tells us two things early on: first, that she used to live a life of crime; and second, that she was never a prostitute. What follows, though, complicates both assertions. When Bianca’s parents died in a car wreck when she was a teenager, she and her brother were left to scrape together a living in Rome doing odd jobs. While working at a gym, her brother befriends two men who propose a scheme: Bianca will go to work for an aging, blind and wealthy former bodybuilder, effectively for sex, then case his mansion for a safe to crack. The two men have sex with Bianca as well while she’s in the midst of her weekly assignations, but she deliberately avoids knowing which man has entered her room when. This kind of avoidance, Bolaño suggests, is just part of the emotionally fuzzy atmosphere a young woman needs to create to survive a man’s world; Bianca self-medicates with television and can’t distinguish night and day. For Bolaño, who’s best known for epics like The Savage Detectives (1998) and 2666 (2008), this slim tale related in 16 brief chapters is relatively unambitious. But its watertight prose (via Wimmer’s translation) and themes of criminality and the treatment of women make it of a piece with the writer’s grander works. Bianca’s narrative registers less as a mournful abuse confessional and more as a memoir of hard-won wisdom, about her acquiring the power to keep predatory men at arm’s length. Did she truly commit a crime? Is what she did prostitution or not? Bolaño leaves those questions provocatively open.
A concise but welcome addition to a major writer’s canon.