Stephenie Young reviews Roberto Bolaño's A Little Lumpen Novelita

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)

"Once a week, sometimes twice, I let them into my room. I didn't say anything" (34). This pared-down, suggestive narrative is typical of Bianca, the young Italian protagonist of A Little Lumpen Novelita. Mysterious, claustrophobic, and haunting, this latest Roberto Bolaño novella to be published in English is an uncomfortable excursion into the somnambulistic existence of an orphaned teenage girl whose limited world seems to be defined by her inability to exist beyond the walls of her dead parents' home. Rife with vague statements and innuendo, it's the fog of Bianca's storytelling that we have to make our way through, rather than the events themselves.

This small book, a novelita, is the last of what seemed an inexhaustible number of the Chilean author's works to be translated into English posthumously. Originally published in Spanish in 2002, a year before Bolaño's death in Barcelona, and now out in English translation by Natasha Wimmer, A Little Lumpen Novelita is a gem of a book. It may be slightly rough cut—a mere wisp in comparison to Bolaño's grander, better-known projects—but it echoes the unique qualities that an avid reader will look for in a Bolaño tale: suspense, dream sequences, foreboding, and enigma. It can be read as a crime novel, as a social critique, or as a self-effacing exercise in nihilism. And Wimmer, who also translated tours de force such as The Savage Detectives (2007) and 2666 (2008), for which she won the PEN Translation Prize in 2009, as well as many of Bolaño's novellas and minor works of poetry, fully understands the subtleties of this brief but not insignificant story. Known for her attentiveness to Bolaño's use of slang, his rhythm, his sentence breaks, Wimmer has also taken on other complex works by writers including the Colombian Laura Restrepo, the Mexican Gabriel Zaid, and the Peruvian and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Set in Rome, Bolaño's novella tells the story of a brother and sister who were orphaned when their parents died in a car accident. Told from the sister's—Bianca's—point of view, it begins with her declaration, "Now I'm a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime. My brother and I had been orphaned. Somehow that justified everything. We didn't have anyone. And it all happened overnight" (3). Like a postmodern version of Jane Eyre, Bolaño's novel is an orphaned girl's coming-of-age story filled with obstacles, social transgression, and perversity. Yet, unlike many characters in that genre, Bolaño's heroine doesn't go out into the world to "find herself"; instead the world literally moves into her house and takes over her life so neatly, so smoothly, that we as readers might just come to accept her fate and slip into the soft cocoon of ambivalence with her.

Like many Bolaño stories, this one sets the reader on a path of discovery. Or at least it leads us to believe that we might be part of a detective story—co-conspirators in a world of crime and intrigue, albeit a teenage world in this case. Bianca is a paradox: sultry and sulky—utterly dispossessed of any desire or agency of her own except in brief instances. As she recounts this time in her life, we enter a dream-like reality where we only see the world through her traumatized lens. She speaks of one thing with surety: there was the time before her parents, and the time after. After the accident, "the days were different. Or the passing of the days. Or the thing that joins one day and the next but at the same time marks the boundary between them" (4). Life after the death of her parents goes on, but it isn't much of a life.

After discovering that their father's pension was not enough to live on, Bianca and her brother have stymied conversations about how little they are willing to eat, spend their time staring at the TV, and eventually drop out of school so that they can earn some money—or perhaps simply from inertia. The brother "dreamed of being Mr. Rome and then Mr. Italy or Master of the Universe" (6). Bianca fantasizes about owning her own "mini-salon" but in the meantime washes hair at a local place and seems content to make spaghetti for her brother and spend the evenings in front of the television. The siblings are alone in the world. Isolated. The setting is simple, like that of a theater stage—interiors where the world outside is off limits to the story. Reminiscent of characters in Julio Cortázar's short story, "House Taken Over," the two exist almost exclusively within the stifling environment of their parents' house. They are also left to learn the lessons of life on their own, seemingly abandoned by family and without any friends.

For Bianca the post-accident period is an existence where one day isn't much different from another, until it is. Tension begins to slowly build by the second chapter when Bianca says that "One day my brother rented an X-rated movie and we watched it together. It was horrible and I said so. He agreed" (11). Although her brother continues to bring home more of these films—under the auspices, he tells her, of learning "how to make love"—little seems to change in their stationary lives until one day two of her brother's male friends suddenly show up with him and then settle in to stay permanently in their house (11). The two, whom she initially calls "the Bolognan" and "the Libyan," say little but they clean the house, prepare dinner for Bianca when she gets home from the salon, and seem content to watch her favorite shows in the evening. They even sleep in the room of the dead parents that the siblings seem to have left untouched since their death. Simple enough, but as their stay lengthens, Bianca's relationship with these men—who we find out are body builders the brother may have met at the gym where he sweeps floors—gets more and more entangled. Eventually, she finds herself supporting all three men on her meager salary, "weeping with rage" about the accident that changed her life, and losing herself in sex with the two foreigners, making love until she "fell asleep and . . . could dream about other things, at least" (47). Bianca doesn't like her life. She worries about the possibility of becoming a prostitute, or maybe a "thief, assassin, drug dealer, black marketer, con artist" (48). As we come to understand that the two house guests are petty criminals, it's not long before Bianca's brother and the "sullen" visitors come up with a dark scheme for Bianca that involves her in a criminal act, arranged conveniently so the blame will fall on her alone if she is caught. She is asked to seduce and then rob a blind man, Maciste, an ex-actor and former body-builder, in his own dark and cavernous house: "Deep down, I think I was afraid something bad would happen. I think I sensed it was coming soon . . . " (35).

Provocatively, Bolaño's book begins with a quote from Antonin Artaud, which comes from The Nerve Meter (1925):

All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
All writers are pigs.
Especially writers today.

This auto-critique of writers and writing is typical of Bolaño's often self-effacing commentary. So many of his books and short stories question the value of art in a world where incendiary politics continues unabated. In By Night in Chile (2000), for example, a macabre critique of the literary world during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, a party goes on upstairs while in the basement there is a torture chamber.

But Bolaño's novella also resonates with the setting and mood of Artaud's "theater of cruelty," and not just because of its claustrophobic, theatrical interiors. For Artaud, that "cruelty" was the splintering of his characters' realities. Bolaño sees to it that Bianca shatters false realities, one by one, as she moves through the dark, labyrinthine world that she has entered with absolute indifference. Bianca's personhood is not established until near the end of the novel, when she finally takes some action about her life; Bolaño doesn't even name her until page 81. This gives us hope that we might gain some insight before the conclusion, but the enigmatic ending leaves little for us to grasp onto. We only know what she told us at the very beginning: her life goes on as a "mother and a married woman."

Is Bianca a thinly veiled female version of Bolaño, as so many of his other characters seem to be? An outsider, existing on the fringes of society, she seems to have settled into the fact that her life has no meaning and that she should not aim for any great goal beyond her daily routine drudgery. Her existence seems futile, forsaken. At the same time, she seems to live in exile from her self; even in her own house the foreigners—the Libyan and the Bolognan—invade and colonialize her territory, leaving her helpless to do anything but accept the world that is closing in on her.

The word "lumpen," which appears in both the English title and the original Spanish, must also be mentioned because it brings us back to the question of reality. Lumpen can refer to the dispossessed, to those who have been severed or displaced from their status in society. It can refer to the disenfranchised, the proletariat, or the plebeian. Is this novella Bolaño's interpretation of the world of the lumpen? It is almost self-consciously devoid of poets and writers. Rather it takes us into a bizarre world of bodybuilding, a world without much conversation, without literature or intellectual culture. And by including the word "little" as well as the Spanish diminutive of "novel" ("novelita") in the title, is Wimmer suggesting not only that the length of the book is short but also that the story itself, the world of the characters, is "a little lumpen"?

Bianca moves through her empty life like a sleepwalker or a traumatized teen (depending on how you want to see it) and Bolaño keeps us curious about her motivations, if indeed she has any. He subtly arouses the reader's curiosity, and encourages us to invest our interest in Bianca's future, but many questions are left unanswered at the end of the book. As the novel nears its end Bianca begins to take action and rebel against everything she is being asked to do. Although her actions don't resolve the conflicts that her character suffers, we do know that she survives—only we are left wondering how that life really is. Does she rise above her lumpen existence? Does she ever overcome her trauma and find a better life? What happens to her brother? This quiet but powerful story demonstrates that we all live on the edge of other kinds of lives. It illuminates the borders of other ways of existing, and shows how easily the neatness of that existence can radically, suddenly, change. So if you are inclined to dismiss this title, asking yourself, "What could I gain from another book by Bolaño?"—think again.