Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita
Publisher: New Directions
2015, 109 pages, paperback, $13.95
A LITTLE LUMPEN Novelita was the last book Roberto Bolaño published in his lifetime, and with its 2015 release in the US, it marks the end of a Tupac-like frenzy of posthumous releases that began in 2007 with The Savage Detectives. For such a celebrated writer, it is a noticeably quiet culmination after the universal excitement and praise of Best-of-the-Year buzz surrounding The Savage Detectives, the FSG marketing push and “masterpiece”-proclaimed and best-selling 2666, the National Book Critic Circle award, and, basically, his canonization. He is finishing in the U.S. exactly where he started in 2003 with A Night in Chile: a thin book quietly published by the small press New Directions. This, one would gather, is not Bolaño’s Life After Death. It is for completists who have waded through the 1,500 pages of his two major novels and then the dozen books that came afterward, and it’s for certain graduate students who would like to study Bolaño but who do not know Spanish (como yo).
Not that you would know this from the few reviews that A Little Lumpen Novelita did receive. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus starred it, NPR loved it, and Gawker proclaimed it his “greatest gift, ever.” They all exhibit what I’ve found to be the two consistent traits of a Bolaño review: almost unmitigated praise and an elaborate interpretation unique to the reviewer. He is that type of author—I imagine it’s much of how late-period Faulkner was received. To pan is to suggest, unrealistically, that you know better than the master. Easier, then, to grant the benefit of the doubt, guess, and allow the minor works to vanish into obscurity with dignity. I looked up those reviews to try to figure out what I missed. Each told me it was something different.
Here is what there is: Bianca is an orphan living in Rome with her brother as the book sets up in an hard-boiled opening worthy of James M. Cain:
Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime. My brother and I had been orphaned. Somehow that justified everything. We didn’t have anyone. And it all happened overnight.
But then, the life of crime: they each get jobs, Bianca at a salon and the brother at a gym. Eventually, the brother brings home two mysterious men to stay with them, and Bianca begins sleeping with both. They hatch a con on an old and blind bodybuilder/movie star known as Maciste, which is simply that Bianca will sleep with him, and in her down time will search his house for a safe to rob. If you’re familiar with Bolaño’s fiction, you’ll have already guessed that this ends in an enigmatic anticlimax. A small story for a small book—109 pages with a lot of white space.
Except for the most part, the book is devoted to obscuring rather than telling this story. Bolaño has a neat trick of suggesting a mystery while never outright committing to it. In The Savage Detectives, nearly every chapter in the book’s middle (450-page) section begins with the two main characters’ search for Cesárea Tenajero, an obscure, ostensibly significant author, which is then followed with hundreds of anecdotes, written like detective interviews with hundreds of characters, tracking those two guys wandering across the entire world. They must be looking for her, we figure. In 2666, the first part is devoted to another search for another obscure, ostensibly significant author who then makes appearances in each of the remaining four sections. What is his significance? He must be the key to uniting what seem like five completely different stories. A writing adage stipulates that you must mention something three times for a reader to take notice. When you mention something dozens of times without explanation, it seems, you turn the reader into a detective—gathering clues, speculating, following red herrings, and waiting for the aha! moment that will bring everything into relation and solve the case. Except (and if you’d like to avoid spoilers, well, I suggest not reading the sentence above where I mentioned enigmatic anticlimaxes), since Bolaño never commits to these mysteries—never outright saying that his Savage Detectives are crossing the world looking for this author, never directly relating the sections of 2666 to its author figure—he technically never has to resolve them. Rather, his stories simply end—people give up, they grow old, they lose touch, they die—and his mysteries don’t resolve because they never existed to begin with, you were simply lead to believe that they did. It’s the equivalent of the author putting his finger half-an-inch from your face and saying, I’m not touching you. This is what 90% of A Little Lumpen Novelita feels like.
For Bianca, nights do not become dark. This begins soon after her parents die (“Suddenly the night stopped existing and everything was constant sun and light”), and is mentioned again and again in parentheticals (“(the incessant light was unbearable)”), comma-theticals (“my face was pale, as if the moon, which shone as brightly for me as the sun, was affecting me”), and asides (“The nights were still crystal clear, but I was less of an orphan.”) And yet, if you’re hoping to attribute meaning to this character trait/symbol/plot point, you’re on your own—it remains constant from the second page to the second-to-last, when “the night [becomes] really dark, dark and fragile and edged with fears” and Bianca has ended her affair with Maciste, kicked her two lovers out of her house, and, what? Grown up? Ended her life of crime? You would have to indict the entire book, from before the men to after, to interpret that symbol, and here is the interest Bianca shows in helping you—“I don’t know whether it’s psychosomatic or supernatural, and I don’t care either.” It’s the only time she weighs in.
This approach holds true for every element to which a reader would try to attach meaning: the two mysterious men who move into Bianca’s house, become her lovers, and lead her to a life of crime are made mysterious simply through selective memory:
I don’t remember their names anymore, and I’d rather not make an effort to remember them.
My brother had met them at a gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me.
She does not take notice of who is who when she’s sleeping with them, either. And here is how they enlist her in the plan:
All of a sudden there they were, talking. I listened. What else could I do? Though I’ve forgotten what they said they had a plan. That much I do remember…I mulled over what they had explained. So this is the life of crime, I thought without fear.
So of course, a reader wonders. And yet, we find that the characters are not mysterious but simply blank. They come and go from her bed whenever she pleases, they almost never speak, they spend most of the book watching television, as soon as they put their “plan” into action (which is also allowed to remain mysterious for 30 pages, until we find out it is simply dumb) they run away:
[M]y brother’s friends,…the cowards, were saying that their business here was done, they hoped everything would go well, and then they left, wishing us goodnight…as they were backing away almost at a run.
In the end, they leave at Bianca’s request, and without a word. And, just briefly, two representative examples of Bianca’s time with Maciste:
“These days, bodybuilding is considered a sport but when I practiced it, it was an art… Like Magic… There was a time when it was an art and magicians were artists… Now it’s just a part of the show.”
And after a long silence during which I thought about other things, I said:
“I know what you mean.”
Maciste made sandwiches for both of us—his speciality—American sandwiches which, according to him, he had been taught to make by an actress named Dolly Plimpton, from Oregon; she had been in the cast of one of his movies, and her recipe consisted of sandwich bread, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, sliced ham, sliced cheese, and various spreads that he could tell apart by the size and shape of the jars and that, mixed, often made the sandwiches taste strange—strong and strange like the sandwiches you get in airports, he said, but good.
And here’s Bianca on that safe she’s looking for, the big plan and her “life of crime”:
Instead of imagining money, for some reason I imagined gold coins. A safe like Maciste’s intestines, black and fathomless, with the gold coins that he had amassed making gladiator movies shining in their depths. It was an exhausting vision. And a pointless one.
Every element in the novel is divested of meaning, mocked, stalled. In a book that would maybe fill 50 pages in Microsoft Word, there are pages of inexplicable dreams, mundane discussions, and in once instance, a chapter devoted to a magazine questionnaire that Bianca fills out with answers like this:
“If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?”
A Fiat of flesh. (Not a good answer. What I’d really like to be is a vintage car, a Lamborghini. And I’d only leave the garage two or three times a year. I’d also like to be a Los Angeles taxi, the seats stained with semen and blood. Actually, I don’t know how to drive and I couldn’t care less about cars.)
It’s funny, but the joke’s on you—for thinking symbols have meaning, mysteries have answers, characters have traits, that a little novelita wouldn’t waste your time. I’m not touching you!
When a canonized artist does something abrasive, however, they are usually given the benefit of the doubt. It’s why a shark pickled in formaldehyde can sell for millions of dollars. Indeed, the book greets you, on the very first line of the epigraph, with “All writing is garbage.” And nihilism is a consistent stance for Bolaño—as I mentioned, his mysteries don’t end, and his heroes search in vain. And yet, in The Savage Detectives and 2666, they care. They care deeply about their own lives, and speak about them at passionate length. They also care, above all, about writing—they write, they strive, they search, they fail, and they care all the more. A Little Lumpen Novelita has only one voice, who is not a writer, and she does not care. This is, I believe, why the novel is “lumpen,” a Marxist term for the proletariats who will not join the revolution. Bolaño’s writers are his revolutionaries, and for them, the lack of meaning in the world is a tragedy. For Bianca, it’s a farce, and of no interest to her. Why should it be to us?
It is a shame that, entirely by accident, this has become Bolaño’s final word in English. In the Spanish world, the year before its publication saw By Night in Chile, his passionate excoriation of Chile under Pinochet, and the year after saw 2666. For them, A Little Lumpen Novelita was just a little shadow-boxing before the big fight.
Roberto Bolaño was a twentieth-century Chilean poet and novelist. Born in Santiago, Chile, Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003) moved to Mexico City with his family in 1968. He went back to Chile in 1973 to “help build socialism” (as he wrote in his story “Dance Card”), but less than a month after his return Pinochet seized power. Bolaño was arrested and imprisoned in Concepción. After his release, he returned to Mexico before moving to Paris and then on to Barcelona. Bolaño has been acclaimed as “the real thing and the rarest” (Susan Sontag), “a spellbinder” (Newsweek), and “never less than mesmerizing” (Los Angeles Times). Winner of many prizes, including the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, Bolaño wrote ten novels, two collections of short stories and five books of poetry before he died at the age of 50, on July 15, 2003.