The much admired Chilean writer’s final, unfinished novel is a seductive grab bag filled with the mysteries of sexuality and literature.
Bolaño began work on the novel in the 1980s and revisited it until he died in 2003, at the age of 50. It’s presented here in five sections, of which the first is the most tightly structured, introducing the protagonist and the germ of a plot. Amalfitano is a middle-aged professor of literature and philosophy. The Chilean has spent most of his life on the move, a militant leftist too hot for some campuses. (He also appears in Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666.) It’s not politics but a sex scandal that ends his career at the University of Barcelona. The professor had started attending salons honoring Catalan literature. Their organizer, Padilla, is a young, tough, promiscuous gay man and a committed poet; for him, sex and poetry are indivisible. He seduces Amalfitano, who has never slept with a man before; the love of his life was his dead wife, Edith, who gave him a daughter, Rosa. Fired by the university, Amalfitano finds another position in Santa Teresa, Mexico. The next three sections are much more diffuse. One of them is devoted to the French novelist Arcimboldi. (Vonnegut had Kilgore Trout; Bolaño has the Frenchman.) Amalfitano seeks literary validation for his newfound homosexuality (Mann, Rimbaud) and explains stumblingly to his beautiful teenage daughter that if communism can collapse, so can his heterosexual regime. Rosa, unconvinced, abandons books for videos, an equally shocking volte-face by this lifelong book lover. The final section suggests new problems for Amalfitano in Mexico. The chief of police arranges with his twin, the university president, to have his new professor tailed. A young cop (the titular policeman?) goes to work, but this storyline must compete with Mexican history and a lively exchange of letters between Amalfitano and Padilla.
Nevermind the lack of a resolution. The robust affirmation that the pursuit of literature is ennobling is sufficient recompense.