Deceased Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño is known for experimental fiction like By Night in Chile, which is told without paragraphing, but this work, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is written chronologically, with standard punctuation and paragraphing. It is a story told from the perspective of an older sister (19 years old) named Bianca, about herself and her unnamed younger brother after their parents’ fatal auto accident. As she tells us in the opening sentence, Bianca is now married with children, Deceased Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño is known for experimental fiction like By Night in Chile, which is told without paragraphing, but this work, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is written chronologically, with standard punctuation and paragraphing. It is a story told from the perspective of an older sister (19 years old) named Bianca, about herself and her unnamed younger brother after their parents’ fatal auto accident. As she tells us in the opening sentence, Bianca is now married with children, but these events happened right after their parents’ funeral when the two siblings were living in their parents’ apartment in Rome, after they dropped out of school, she getting a hair washing job at a salon and he working at a gym. As she puts it, this is a tale of how she got into a life of crime. Moving from lots of TV watching, they move on to porn videos, and then the brother brings home two men who move into the parents’ bedroom. Eventually these petty crooks get Bianca to sleep with an ex-bodybuilder whose real name they do not know at first, yet who otherwise is known as Maciste from the names he was given in movies. This is her life of crime since he pays for her services, and further, her brother’s friends want her to find a safe in Maciste’s castle of a house. Ultimately, this novella is the story of Bianca’s transformation from being subservient to asserting herself, getting control of her life.
The steps in this process are accentuated by the novella being broken into sixteen short segments. The prose is lovely as we see her working out her problems in dreams and observations. One of her first dreams is predictive, though at the time it reflects her disgust at pornography and prostitution. The ironic foreshadowing is that she does become a kind of prostitute to a very large, white, mostly silent man—like the parrot in the dream:
I dreamed about the desert, walking in the desert, dying of thirst, and on my shoulder is a white parrot that kept saying “I can’t fly, I’m sorry, please forgive me, but I can’t fly.” He was saying this because at some point I had asked him to fly. He weighed too much (ten pounds at least, he was a big parrot) to be carried for so long but the parrot wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly walk [. . .] it was like having cancer. [. . .] Every so often the white parrot tried to help, saying “Courage, Bianca,” but mostly it kept its beak shut, and I knew that when I dropped on the hot sand and I was dying of thirst it would fly, fly away from this part of the desert, fly away from my expiring flesh in search of other, less expiring flesh, fly away from my dead body, forever, forever.
She sees the first stage as a premonition. Bianca not only supports the two men and her brother at the end, but more importantly, she discovers how empty their lives are:
Now I know there’s no such thing as closeness. One person’s eyes are always shut. The first person sees and the second doesn’t. Or the second person sees but the first doesn’t. Only a mother can be close, but that was unknown territory back then. A blank space. There was only the illusion of closeness. [. . .]I was no one’s slave; I was the arbiter of them all. I was blind, but I was the yardstick by which they measured their freedom.
She is the most aware:
I was someone—I realize now—who liked to face things head on, whereas my brother and his friends wandered real and imaginary places with their heads down. But facing things head on meant being consumed. I was being consumed. . . .Deep down I knew I would never lose my mind. I was waiting for something. A catastrophe.
Finally she finds direction out of her trouble:
That created a space of artificial silence and darkness where I could cry and writhe in pain because I didn’t like what I was doing[. . .] and where I could walk [. . .]without false hope, without illusion, not knowing the meaning of it all but knowing the end result, knowing why things are where they are, with a degree of clarity that I haven’t had since, though sometimes I sense that it’s there, curled up inside of me, shrunken and dismembered—luckily for me—but still there.
This is a simple tale but also profound in tracing how Bianca slowly gathers insight into the problem of inertia. She realizes she is alone in what she must do. Bolaño writes beautifully of a young person who slides into trouble but then finds herself.