The Unknown University on Roberto Bolano “There is a time for reciting poems,” Roberto Bolaño wrote in The Savage Detectives, “and a time for fists.” And now, with the appearance of his collected poetry, The Unknown University, presented in a bilingual edition translated by Laura Healy and handsomely published by New Directions, we are getting to the end of the Bolaño canon (in fact, we may be at the end), with its short stories, brief novels, and the two long masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666, as well as an enlightening volume of critical pieces, speeches and interviews entitled Between Parentheses. What remains to be written is a comprehensive biography of the man. And I suspect we will be no more the wiser. Though not as shadowy as, say, B. Traven, elusive author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who vanished into a fog of multiple identities, Bolaño’s life is in comparison a gumbo of tall tales, rumor, truth and consequence, some created by him (perhaps because we identify some of his characters—and voices—a little too closely with their creator), others encouraged by a public hungry for a romantic hero. Or, to borrow the title of a smaller collection of his poems, romantic dog.

Despite its predictably wonderful prose, Woes of the True Policeman will appear to those who haven’t read Bolaño’s masterwork 2666, little more than a mandala of elusive meaning, full of tenuous circularity; for those who have, Woes will seem almost an appendage or afterthought, a series of auxiliary meditations for that huge novel, and thus well worth reading. Characters we’ve encountered in the earlier book make an appearance here, including exiled Chilean professor Amalfitano, whom we last encountered in Santa Teresa, hub of the murderous universe, the dead-end of logic and the heart of darkness, scene of a seemingly endless series of murders of young girls, their bodies unearthed on an almost daily basis, living with his daughter Rosa.

The Secret of Evil coverThere’s always something left, isn’t there. Discarded short stories, novels begun and abandoned, shorthanded ideas on dried-up Post-it notes or scribbled in the middle of the night on a Kleenex. For a lot of writers most of this is discovered, in the brittle light of dawn, to be crap, though at the time of writing it always seems like deathless prose of staggering originality. But we hang onto it; or at least some do.