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August 15th, 2016

Book Report: A Little Lumpen Novelita

I just finished this book and I really liked it a lot. Roberto Bolaño is one of my favorite authors. This was his last novel published in English. He died in 2003 but almost all of his books were not translated to English until after his death. He was from Chile but had lived all over Latin America and Europe.

A Little Lumpen Novelita is quite short (hence the “ita” in the title), not much more than a hundred pages. Despite it’s brevity, the story is incredibly engrossing. The characters sort of wiggle their way into your consciousness as you go on. It is told from the perspective of a woman named Bianca, looking back on a brief period in her youth. It takes place in Rome. Bianca lives in a small apartment with her brother. Their parents have recently died in a car accident and their lives start to lose a sense of purpose.

Soon two of her brother’s friends come to live with them. The men stay in her parent’s bedroom. She describes the men as looking like brothers. She has long forgotten their names and refers to them as the Bolognan and the Libyan. Their lives continue to lose lose shape and the four fall into a bland and repetitive pattern. They are poor and continue to struggle as none of the men find any substantial work to do. Bianca supports the group working at a salon.

The brother and his friends eventually hatch a plan to rob and old movie star. Bianca is introduced to him and starts working for him. The work consists mostly of menial chores and sleeping with the old movie star. She visits him in his big mansion and looks around for a safe whenever he is sleeping or distracted. The old man is blind but still has a keen sense of where Bianca goes around the house. She never tries particularly hard to find the safe.

While the narrative itself is quite engaging, the book’s main attraction is writing itself. Bolaño’s prose is sharp and poetic. This is Bianca discussing life with her brother after their parents have died and before the introduction of his strange friends: “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.” His writing captures this deep and disorienting sense of despair overcoming Bianca. These lyrical sentences coax us into a feeling of empathy for Bianca. Simultaneously he pushes us away from the protagonist, as she betrays any conventional sense of narrative in her storytelling. She meanders through several somewhat ambiguous memories and refuses to provide any basis for sharing this history with us. Yet, she is the only character Bolaño enables us to align with.

I think the story is an allegory for how we sometimes can get in our own way. Sometimes in life we get caught up in our own issues and fail to move forward but we must, lest we fall behind in society.

Lumpen (adj.):

  • (in Marxist contexts) uninterested in revolutionary advancement: the lumpen public is enveloped in a culture of dependency.
  • boorish and stupid: growing ranks of lumpen, uninhibited, denim-clad youth.
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