“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”
“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.
The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.
My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).
But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:
It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around.
Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life. The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.
Translated by Natasha Wimmer