Roberto Bolaño: A Little Lumpen Novelita

There’s going to be a lot of Bolaño this week. Lee and I are working on a piece on By Night in Chile and, of course, this Friday is the first substantive piece on 2666. Those are two of Bolaño’s masterpieces, the first published in 2000, the second posthumously in 2004. In between, though, Bolaño published a novella that I’m shocked we’re only getting in English at this late date: A Little Lumpen Novelita (Una novelita lumpen, 2002; tr. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2014) (yes, Antwerp was also published in 2002, but it was actually written in 1980 (and I liked it — see here), so what we have is By Night in Chile, followed by this novel, which was followed by 2666). After a series of books that have been culled from Bolaño’s early unfinished and unpublished work (which are still fantastic) have been appearing in English over the past few years, some might be tempted to give A Little Lumpen Novelita a pass.

That is the wrong perspective. Though on this first reading I do not consider it as brilliant as those other two works I have mentioned, this novelita is not slight, underdeveloped, or greedy but rather is a legitimate, powerful, penetrating late work by the dying Bolaño. This was the last of his books Bolaño saw published.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Our narrator is Bianca, and much of the story is her account of her late teenage years when she and her brother, orphaned when their parents died in a car wreck, try to get on, try to get a leg-up on their new life with its bleak future. Right at the beginning, Bianca is quick to secure herself, to gain our respect before showing us just how close she came to losing any respect she could hope to have even for herself:

Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime.

When their parents die, Bianca and her brother stay in the family home in Rome, and they collect their father’s meager pension, but in their hazy present — whether out of grief or genuine lack of opportunity — they are restless and unable to do anything other than work. School is the goal, but it’s always the next priority. They may or may not be the cause of their lumpen lifestyle, their inability to do more than make ends meet pushing them to care less and less about the indignities they may suffer for their next bite, but nothing is coming along to help them out of their slump.

Bianca in particular is worried all the time about her future. It’s fuzzy, and the haze advances closer and closer until it overtakes her present. Haze and uncertainty cover almost every page, making the whole account slightly suspect. At one point she says this:

All of this is hard to describe, as I’ve said. What happened, what I felt, what I saw. What might have happened, what I might have seen, and what I might have felt.

She attributes this haze to her descent into crime, though again she pops in to reassure the reader: she never became a prostitute. Of course, this is also a bit fuzzy, a bit of a reason to suspect her recollection. After all, when two of her brother’s friends from work, one man maybe from Libya and the other from perhaps Bologna, move in with her and her brother, she sleeps with each of them, never taking the time to get to know which was which. Or maybe they really do look so much alike that no one can tell. With Bolaño such an oddity is common, though usually it reflects the warped perspective of the observer. But it’s not her sexual relationship with these two men that makes you wonder what exactly she means by prostitution — after all, though they are clean and pleasant, they aren’t really providing consideration for her body — it’s the plot her brother and these two friends hatch:

They had a plan. That much I do remember. A hazy plan on which each of them, my brother included, had gambled his future, and to which each had added his bit, his personal touch, his vision of fate and the turns of fate.

This plan, mixed with fate, an important term in Bolaño’s late work, is this: there is an old forgotten movie star named Maciste nearby. Bianca will become close to him, all to get to know his home and customs so that they can steal his safe.

As their plan is finally just starting and they’re standing outside the door of Maciste’s mansion, here’s what Bianca recalls:

The tension on the faces of my brothers’ friends, the tension and at the same time the joy, a primordial joy, pure and unwavering, is one of the things that comes back to me whenever I remember that night, and each time it does I try to brush it away, because it’s a joy that I want neither for myself nor anywhere near me. It’s a joy that comes too close to beggarliness, an explosion of beggarliness, and also to cruelty, indifference.

For me, this is the most explicitly “lumpen” the novelita gets, and it seems such a small moment we might just slip past it, forget that Bianca — as she recalls from her later vantage point — was somewhat sickened by the joy of the moment. She says she sees it on the others’ faces, but I’m skeptical that she herself was innocent of the thrill that came from some kind of feeling that you were doing something. Mix that with the thrill of the illicit — it’s easy to see why this wife and mother wants that brand of joy nowhere near her.

As she dips further into the crime, everything gets hazier. We get Bolaño’s familiar labyrinth as Bianca gets to know the house. We get a sinister gymnasium. We get contradictions all over the place, sometimes in the same series of sentences, like here, where Bianca recalls getting to know Maciste:

We talked about all kinds of things. About my parents’ accident and how the loss affected me (his parents were dead too). About recent movies that I had seen (he’d seen his last movie fifteen years ago). About things that happened next door.

The truth is, I didn’t have much to say to him.

And yet, the labyrinth, the gym, the contradictions, all of these and more, seem to come together better in this novella than in Bolaño’s earlier works such as The Skating Rink and Monsieur Pain. Here, Bianca’s confusion makes more sense than similar confusion characters have felt in Bolaño’s earlier work. Which is not to suggest it’s all clarity. There’s all that haze, made worse by Bianca’s own desire to tell a story that no longer implicates her, as she thinks she’s risen above it all finally.

As the story continues, we find Bianca has a longed for sense of security within the confines of Maciste’s home — she is there to find the safe; she doesn’t want to find the safe — and she’s willing to lower herself substantially to keep that security. Strangely, her ulterior motive, while complicating things, also makes it all easier. Maciste, his labyrinth, the elusive safe: “a promise and a disease.”

If her reassurances at the start of the novel — and those that recur throughout — seem a bit defensive, a bit premature, that is because they are. I hope she’s found some stability and security in her adulthood, but I’m not sure. That she wants me to think so, while offering me nothing more than this story, concerns me a great deal. Her future, which was always so blank to her, still feels blank to me. And, thus, Bolaño continues to haunt from out of time.

2 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: A Little Lumpen Novelita

Leave a Reply