A Little Lumpen Novelita
by Roberto Bolaño
translated by Natasha Wimmer
New Directions, 2014;
109 pp; $22.95
“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime.” It’s a deliciously teasing opener—and a characteristic bit of misdirection. Bianca, the narrator of the late Roberto Bolaño’s newly and beautifully translated novella, will never disclose anything more about her road to domestication, while her ostensible crime-life proves more or less stillborn, the anti-climactic crescendo of a protracted fugue state brought on by a catastrophic loss that’s never reckoned with directly. Set in Rome, A Little Lumpen Novelita is Bolaño at his most concise and playful, pulp fiction as prose poem, deftly deploying genre tropes while drifting far astray from any familiar crime fiction trajectories.
Details are sketchy. Bianca’s parents died on a “highway near Naples […] or some other horrible southern highway,” leaving her and her little brother to fend for themselves. Their ages are never specified, but both seem to be teenagers. They quit school, watch a lot of TV, get jobs, loiter in video stores where Bianca becomes an enthusiast for several subgenres of horror while her brother, who I don’t believe is ever named, takes to renting pornos for the sex tips. In Bianca’s narration, words spoken are recalled, then amended, before she confesses that she simply can’t remember. At one point someone becomes her first lover, but at first she’s not sure who it is. One Multiplicities abound. So it’s almost comical when at this Novelita’s midway point Bianca announces that from “here on my story gets even fuzzier.” Or later: “What happened next is hard to describe.”
One day the orphans’ shuttered existence is infiltrated by two men who, despite the hugely significant role they will play in Bianca’s story, are only ever referred to as “the Bolognan” and “the Libyan.” They are scrupulous house guests who clean everything in sight—which of course makes them suspicious types in the Bolaño cosmology. Bianca’s transgressions all start with them: she enters into a peculiar arrangement with a blind, corpulent, eccentric ex-movie star as part of a devious scheme devised by the brother, the Bolognan and the Libyan, a scheme that would not be out of place in a Jim Thompson novel.
Orphans are weird, right? Bereft of authorities, guiding lights, sources of approval or castigation, set adrift and made acutely aware of mortality’s mercilessness preternaturally early. Bolaño seems animated by his heroine’s particular existential dilemma, her orphanhood rendering her vulnerable to corruption while simultaneously offering her unusual opportunities for self-determination. Trauma ripples through Bianca’s consciousness, manifesting as a breed of dread that’s never far from awe. “I was waiting for something. A catastrophe. A visit from the police or a social worker. The approach of a meteorite, darkening the sky.” She claims that since her parents’ death she’s been able to see in the dark. She registers the distance she feels growing between her and her brother as “a fog rising from the underground tunnels and swamping the whole of Central Station.” An entire city swells with portent and eerie beauty in this modest but captivating and fun experiment from an author who, more than ten years after his death, continues to fascinate us with his imagination’s labyrinth of detours. »
from subTerrain #70