A friend of mine, a poet and literary professor who spent his formative years in Latin America, says with a shrug that he's only read one of his novels. Bolaño, before his early death, aged 50 in 2003, reshaped the novel – its purpose, its capabilities, its craft. Fifty or 100 years from now he will be up there with the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector, Mikhail Bulgakov, Kurt Vonnegut and Hubert Selby Jnr, as minds that dynamited writing to reforge modern consciousness on the page. He'll be worshipped and made the subject of PhDs. Bolaño, an old-fashioned master, would probably be pleased and disgusted in equal measure.
The novels 2666 and The Savage Detectives, are, along with his fever-dream phoney academic study, Nazi Literature In The Americas, his greatest works. Begin there, and in that order. Do not read Woes Of The True Policeman just yet.
Since his death, Bolaño's estate has cranked out a number of supposedly finished works unpublished in his lifetime. Some have been bitterly disappointing. The Paris Review serialised his novella, The Third Reich, last year to much fanfare – it was the magazine's first serialised novel for forty years. It should never have been published. It read like the great man's notes for a novel that would sadly never be finished.
And that is the problem with Woes Of The True Policeman. This is a work for acolytes like me. Later down the line, these posthumous books will be fascinating territory for literary scholars to pour over: for what they do is show how Bolaño sculpted his work. We get a glimpse of the creative process: the recurrence of key themes – poetry, murder, threat, escape, food, sex, drink, whores, pimps, rentboys, writers, isolation, travel, nomadism, war, academia; and the way he forged a central stock of characters.
His world overlaps. The title of 2666 is only explained in his novel Amulet, by a character from The Savage Detectives. There is a mythos at the heart of Bolaño, and perhaps it's the mythos of the poète maudit, the cursed poet. In every novel, we are drawn at some stage into the lonely world of the literary outcast and outlaw. Bolaño made no bones about stealing from his own life. He wandered the world like a lost soul. Jailed and tortured by the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, he fled to Mexico, then Barcelona. The drop-out poets, revolutionaries and creatures of the demi-monde whom he met on his way through life populate his novels. Real writers walk on and off the page. Octavio Paz makes more than a few cameos.
The role of literature in culture – the writer's life, the struggle to make sense of the absurdity of the world through the written word – is the engine of all Bolaño's art. 2666, a book inspired by the horrific murders of more than 4000 young women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2003, begins with a group of literary critics searching for a reclusive author in the mould of B Traven. The book explores how these "femicides" were a form of brutal sexualised sport for the gunmen of the narco gangs, while spinning plates with a handful of other story strands ranging across continents and the 20th century. It could be the greatest book of the past 100 years, and it could be the only book to try to explain that great swathe of time and culture too.
Woes Of The True Policeman reads like a brilliant, fluent, notebook of ideas for 2666. But a notebook nonetheless. The same characters and events are explored in both works. The same digressions appear: the rape of the poet Rimbaud by a group of drunken soldiers; the cursed Exposito family from Villaviciso. The mood, like 2666, is hallucinatory, manic, fearful, comic. The story, such as it is when culled from notes and prep work, focuses on one of the main characters from 2666, the sad, confused academic Amalfitano and his languid daughter; and like 2666 the book moves towards its end with the mounting bodies of women lying in the gutters of dusty Sonora towns.
Bolaño must be read by anyone who loves the novel. But read his finished novels. Leave ephemera like this – beautiful though it is – to the academics and acolytes for the time being. I think Bolaño's ghost would be happy with that compromise. After all, he was never driven by money or fame – the thought of a film option would have made him sick – so to plough his grave for ever greater commercial returns is a disservice to the greatest writer of the late 20th century.