I admit that my first response to A Little Lumpen Novelita was something like, “huh”.
It’s the kind of oblique slice-of-(an unusual)-life Literature that I don’t read very often (as a lover of sprawling larger-than-life novels). An orphaned teenager, Bianca, in an unnamed city is drawn into a plan concocted by her brother and two men who’ve quietly and inexplicably moved into their apartment. The plan is this: Bianca will do sex work for a famous retired boxer, now blind, who lives nearby, while scouting his house for the stash of money her brother is convinced must be there. She carries out the first part of the plan but not the second.
I called it slice-of-life, but that implies realism, which it isn’t, quite. The whole novel feels ever so slightly – dreamlike, a function perhaps of Bianca and her brother’s isolation from the adult world and its norms. (They have no other family, and have to drop out of school to work to support themselves. It’s never clear exactly how old they are.) Perhaps, also, a function of the novel’s gaze: Bianca as an adult woman, a mother who’s managed to reintegrate into society, looks back on this period of her adolescence, describing how she nearly fell into a life of crime. Her past is another country, only semi-real.
Coincidentally, as I was thinking about writing this post, I read this from John Clute at Strange Horizons, in which he argues the importance of seeing, of imperfect seeing, in Bolano’s work. A Little Lumpen Novelita is odd because things seem to be missing from it – whether that’s connections to the adult world or the reasons why Bianca chooses not to rob the blind old boxer. In this sense it’s almost half a novel: adult-Bianca remembers the reasons so doesn’t see the need to articulate them; the novel we have is one that looks forward to a future state we never get to experience ourselves. It’s a meditation on the strangeness of memory and the incompleteness of experience: we all move in different worlds, and connection with others and even our past selves is tenuous and fragile.