June 29, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 26°C
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Bios & Memoirs


Fat City

The reissuing of Leonard Gardner's 1969 "Fat City" should be cause for literary cheer.

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick's alternative history of post-World War II, though at times clunky, remains bloodcurdling.


What do goose stepping zombies have for dinner? Why endorphins of course.

Fortune Smiles

Adam Johnson's latest story collection "celebrates" the United States of Death, Dying and the Surreal.

Shyness and Dignity

Dag Solstad's slender novel is a luminously intelligent look at a man's middle age crisis.

Forty Rooms

Olga Grushin's semi-autobiographical novel weighs in on missed opportunities.

Dirty Snow

Georges Simenon's novel of occupied France revels in the squalor that stands for collaboration.

Mothering Sunday

Graham Swift's latest novel is a morally generous remembrance of a housemaid-turned-author.

The Story of My Teeth

The brilliant and ambitious Mexican Valeria Luiselli tries far too hard in her debut novel.

A Cure for Suicide

In Jesse Ball's unsettling novel, suicide has a "cure" of sorts, but the price is profoundly surreal.

A Little Lumpen Novelita
By Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
New Directions, 2002 (2014). 109 pages

Roberto Bolaño won't stay dead. Which can be a godsend at times. Unlike several other posthumously published tidbits, this 2002 novella upholds Bolaño's uncanny legacy as an urban developer charged with building character, mood, and reminiscence. Narrator Bianca is an Italian girl whose parents died in a car crash on a "terrible southern highway." She now lives with her brother in their parents' Trastevere apartment, the two orphans partly surviving on their father's meager pension. Her brother does odd jobs, though he's fascinated with bodybuilding; Bianca works in hair salon.

Soon, the improbable duo is joined by two of his friends, a youth from Bologna and a Libyan. "Poor as rats," they watch TV, porn included, and she placidly makes love to both her brother's keepers. Until the troika pimps her out — she's complicit — to a former champion body builder and B-grade Italian film star nicknamed Maciste. This is what she recalls as her "life of crime," since in addition to being paid for sex she's also charged with finding fat Maciste's safe. The catch, introduced with deadpan aplomb, is that Maciste is blind, hurt in car accident in which two others died, a detail that leaks into Bianca's bereaved life.

But there are two kinds of blindness here. Maciste's is obvious. Bianca's is her inability to fully fathom either her present or her future, infinitely attuned to the details of her surroundings while just as infinitely resigned to going nowhere fast. Bolaño has always given losers (and even humiliation itself) a dignity and moral luster they might otherwise lack, and he does it here with Bianca, his little lumpen girl, as close to a latter day Dickensian character as you'll find. Her reminiscing task is to wake from the torpor of bad circumstances, "to do things and not die," to respond. She does.

This is among Bolaño's most existentially "Christian" works, laden with despair but redeemed through action — Bianca is now a wife and mother. While squalor and compassion are set (appropriately) in Rome, Bolaño's true interest is in the "noiseless, eyeless storm from another world" that surrounds the condition of being. The book was dedicated to his son and daughter, which make the "forge ahead" message all the more poignant.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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