The Third Bolaño, by Robin Reich

Robin Reich lives in Ulladulla, NSW and is a trained primary school teacher. His first published work was ‘The Trout’, which can be found in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal.


In homage to Roberto.

The Part About a Death

Joseph Ratu, who was never a chief and possessed no such regal ancestry, dreamt his home island in the Pacific had been abandoned by the human race, a race that long ago genetically engineered humanity and had dispensed with many of the traits he possessed, namely pride, integrity, and humility. During the dream Joseph became aware that he had died more than six centuries ago and he lucidly discerned he was thousands of kilometres away from his homeland-bound twelve-year-old daughter. Then he awoke, pained, to a sound from another universe. In the freezing pre-dawn hour he heard a knock, then many knocks, on the door of the unpowered caravan he shared with his nephew, who stirred above him. The knocking sounds continued, some at the same time, from all around the shell of their abode, from the rows of grape vines in the isolated farming area outside, from the rest of the world that had been so far away.

Joseph’s nephew got down from his bunk and opened the door. Narrow beams of light made their way into the caravan. Joseph fearfully remained in his bed and couldn’t see who had so uncannily interrupted his sleep. Then he heard a woman speak, as if she read from a script. The soft female voice slowly calmed Joseph as he tried in vain to hear exactly what she said. After a few moments Joseph’s nephew implored him to come outside. They both cautiously exited the caravan and were temporarily blinded by flashlights. Joseph understood, from what seemed a far-away void, that the people who surrounded him were immigration officers who held a warrant to search the area. Joseph was promptly separated from his nephew, then silently escorted away by five officers toward a fleet of vehicles that were parked on the nearest road, a few hundred metres away. Joseph was bewildered as, in turn, he looked at each of his captors. He thought he may have been in another dream, a dream of bad luck. Then they arrived at a grey Volkswagen van and Joseph was instructed by an officer to sit in the side door well. He was advised that a statutory interview would be conducted to determine his present and future immigration status. Joseph spoke his first words of that day when he told the officers he would not talk while he was apart from his nephew. First light appeared, the air became colder, and the officers tried without success to interview Joseph.

Half an hour later an officer walked from the caravan to Joseph and introduced himself as Officer Ryan. Officer Ryan held a passport in his right hand as he advised Joseph that he knew who he was. He told Joseph that he had spoken to head office by phone and that he knew his entire immigration history. As well, Officer Ryan revealed to Joseph that records held by the immigration department showed he was an unlawful non-citizen, with no right to remain in Australia. He offered Joseph a vague deal: if he cooperated and participated in an interview, it would be helpful for him in the future. Joseph found it difficult to envisage a future in which he would have the good luck to be helped, but it seemed to him the only hope he had, and he said that if he was reunited with his nephew, he would be cooperative. Officer Ryan said OK, unclipped a handheld radio from his belt and requested another officer bring Joseph’s nephew to the van.

While in close proximity to each other, Joseph and his nephew were interviewed by separate immigration officers. Joseph was interviewed by Officer Ryan. Joseph answered with ease the simple questions first asked of him, such as his date of birth, nationality, where he lived, how long he had lived in the caravan, what work he did, what money he had, his family composition. But the interview became more difficult for Joseph as Officer Ryan wanted to confirm with him all the applications he had made to the Australian government, applications he was only obscurely familiar with, as his expensive migration agent, with whom he had long ago lost contact, had prepared and lodged the associated, complicated paperwork. Officer Ryan listed the applications Joseph’s agent had made on his behalf in the previous eight years: a Protection Visa subclass 866 application to the Immigration Department; an application for review to the Refugee Review Tribunal; two applications for review to the Federal Court of Australia; and a direct intervention request to the Minister of Immigration.

Joseph didn’t know with certainty if the information presented to him was true, but he sheepishly acknowledged what his migration agent had done for him. He realised that in the eyes of the immigration department, the list of applications represented the life he had lived since his arrival in Australia. Joseph listened to all the unfamiliar words, the dates and details of so much documented action attributed to him, and thought the picture of the life depicted by Officer Ryan was not that of himself, but of an unknown person, a more official person, and he once again felt as if he were in a dream, as if everything around him was unreal. Joseph told Officer Ryan that all he had actually done in Australia was work covertly on various farms, practically every day of the past eight years. All the money he had made he sent home to his family. But that remembered life now seemed illusory to Joseph when compared to his official record. He felt like he hadn’t properly lived in Australia at all.

After Joseph and his nephew’s interviews were completed, Officer Ryan told them that a decision on whether they would be detained or allowed to go free on a bridging visa would be made during a phone call to his manager in Canberra. After twenty minutes their fate was remotely sealed. Officer Ryan relayed the decision. They were detained and would be transported to Villawood. Joseph and his nephew were told to pack all their belongings and be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes was all the time Joseph and his nephew needed to pack every material possession they had accrued in Australia. They and their belongings were loaded into the Volkswagen by immigration officers. As they were about to leave, Officer Ryan told them that if they needed to go to the toilet they should do so before they departed, but warned that an officer would need to be present with them while they went. After some consideration, Joseph and his nephew both declined the use of their makeshift toilet in the nearby bush. They remained in the back seat of the van that would transport them to the renowned Villawood, the tacit meaning of the place clearly understood by them both.

Immigration officers that day captured many unlawful non-citizens on and near various farmlands in western New South Wales. The record haul was triumphantly reported by the Public Affairs section of the department hours later. At the time, Joseph and his nephew were unaware of exactly how many other non-citizens they joined in the van convoy that materialised on Burley Griffin Way and snaked its way along the countryside toward Sydney. They didn’t say a word to each other during the journey for fear that the rear of the van was somehow bugged, and Officer Ryan, who drove the van, would have been able to hear them talk, despite the clear, thick Perspex that separated the captors and the captives.

Three hours into the journey the convoy stopped at a large service station. Officer Ryan parked the van at a nearby car park, then opened the side door and asked Joseph and his nephew what food and drink they would like; he would pay for their sustenance. Joseph and his nephew said no, no food, no drink. Officer Ryan suggested they should eat something, maybe a pie or a sausage roll, at a minimum have some water. But Joseph and his nephew again said no. Officer Ryan said OK, it’s up to you guys, but I’ll leave the door open for awhile so you can get some fresh air, at least. The opened door afforded Joseph an unobstructed view of a scene that was repeated at least a dozen times in quick succession: a detainee was held by two immigration officers and marched from their holding van to a nearby public toilet block. Another immigration officer soon joined Officer Ryan. After they quickly conferred they advised Joseph and his nephew that it was their turn to go to the toilet. Joseph said no, no toilet. Officer Ryan was astounded. He said he knew they hadn’t been to the toilet at all that day, and he advised there would be four hours more travelling until they would get to Villawood. You must need to go to the toilet, he said, and he reached into the van to grab Joseph. But Joseph quietly said no, no toilet, and he and his nephew receded as far back into their seats as they could. Officer Ryan said OK, then closed the door and left for the toilet block by himself. Five minutes later the entire convoy was ready to roll on.

Joseph watched the procession of vans leave the service station, a long conga line of wheeled human containers, and he had a sense of déjà vu, or something like it, in which he saw his future and felt its aftermath. In this strange time, he sat alone on the ground of an island the size of a traffic roundabout, miraculously suspended metres above the earth. He knew his family and friends didn’t know where he was and that they would never find him. Then he sensed an unfamiliar young girl, who told him it was dangerous to sit under the invisible, latticed network of wires that were above him; the wires transmitted secret information via gigantic seeds that pulsed irregularly, and sometimes the seeds inexplicably dropped from the sky. Joseph looked up and saw hundreds of seeds traversing through the air at various altitudes and at great speeds. Then Joseph lowered his eyes, at which time the sense of the girl evanesced entirely. Joseph considered the warning and cautiously levitated to a height he considered was higher than the highest wire, to a small, floating, fenceless balcony that overlooked his island. Then a teacher who taught Joseph when he was twelve years old joined him on the balcony and warned him to get down from up high, that it was far too dangerous up there in the sky. The teacher added, again in rhyme, that Joseph would never be a real tree, a useful life was not for he. The teacher reminded Joseph of a promise he had once made and how Joseph had not yet delivered on it. Then Joseph looked down from the perilous balcony, saw a sea of set concrete below, and felt compelled to jump.

No matter how hard Joseph tried to think of anything else as he stared outward from the back seat of the Volkswagen van, all he could see was his future repeated, over and over again. On every occasion, when the teacher provoked him, Joseph tried to will himself to behave differently, to do anything to defy his teacher’s prediction, but every time he jumped to what he knew would be his death.

Officer Ryan thought of Joseph and his nephew’s refusal to use the toilet, on multiple occasions, as intriguingly strange behaviour, and he thought the small token of rebelliousness, or whatever it was, served no purpose whatsoever. It was the only subject Officer Ryan talked about with other officers on the vehicle radios for the rest of the journey. He recounted all he knew about Joseph and his nephew’s bodily functions, from dawn that morning to the last pit stop that afternoon, and asked if any officer had ever before come across such a situation. The dozens of officers he spoke to told him that they had never, in all their years in the department, come across such weird conduct. No officer knew what the actions of Joseph and his nephew meant. But they all knew that Joseph and his nephew, if they hadn’t already soiled their pants, would have to be in pain.

As the convoy breached the outer security fence of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, Officer Ryan gave up trying to understand Joseph and his nephew, and dismissed their behaviour as statistically improbable, like a lottery win. Or, more likely, as he considered all the people he’d detained throughout his career, statistically probable, like a lottery loss.

The Part About the Officers

1. Victor Morales and Maria Contreras are officers of the Department of Immigration in the Australian Public Service.

1.1. They are categorised as Public Affairs Officers.

1.1.1. Public Affairs Officers are copywriters.

1.1.2. Copywriters have existed within the Department of Immigration since its inception.

1.1.3. There are hundreds more copywriters today than there were in 1945, the year of the Department’s inception.

1.1.4. Modern copywriters are required to respond to facts; facts are determined by a small conglomeration of officers of the Department and people from the Minister’s office.

1.2. Victor and Maria, as officers of the Australian Public Service, are nominally required to abide by a Code of Conduct, as set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (the Act).

1.2.1. The Code of Conduct is self-governed by other officers of the Australian Public Service.

1.2.2. The Code of Conduct proclaims what behaviour by officers is considered right and what behaviour is considered wrong. Of course, there is no other way to consider right and wrong within a bureaucracy, so this is correct.

1.2.3. It is enshrined in the Act that the Australian Public Service, regardless of its actions, shall always be of good reputation. As such, the good reputation of the Australian Public Service is not dependent on analysis by any person who might consider its repute. This must also be correct.

1.3. Australian Public Service Officers correctly believe they are doing the Act’s work.

2. Victor and Maria are lovers.

2.1. They are both married, but not to each other.

2.2. The government-certified marriage partners of Victor and Maria are not aware their partners are lovers of another.

2.3. Victor and Maria are both twenty-four years old.

3. On Monday, Victor and Maria did not go to work. They both called in sick.

3.1. Instead, they visited the National Art Gallery and enjoyed a touring Inca art exhibition.

3.2. Then they had lunch at a Spanish Tapas restaurant, specialising in fashionably exotic Latin American dishes.

3.3. After lunch they drove to their secret spot: around the perimeter of HMAS Harman, past the Woods Lane Closed sign to the end of Woods Lane, to the border of the imagined lands of the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales.

3.4. They made love for an hour in the back seat of Victor’s tinted-glass four-wheel drive, under the shade of transplanted Guadalupe Pines.

3.5. Afterwards Victor drove Maria back to her car, which she had parked at the international airport earlier that day. They then drove their vehicles to their respective homes.

4. Tuesday came next. Victor and Maria continued in their roles as Public Affairs Officers.

4.1. They produced approved versions of recounts that, most importantly, would engage with consumers of the represented facts.

4.2. Secretly, Victor and Maria found their work contemptible and hilarious.

4.2.1. They joked they stood on the shoulders of midgets, but only on the occasions they allowed themselves to believe their internet-era jobs had any history at all.

4.2.2. Mostly, they considered themselves as new.

4.3. They completed their assigned daily tasks within a few hours. For all the other hours they spent at the workplace, they engaged in a contrivance to while away their time.

4.4. Victor and Maria’s favourite contrivance was to play a post-psychological game they called Love Literature in Australia.

4.5. The precept of the game was for Victor, then Maria, to write love notes to the other while assuming the identity of an unknown client of the department. The notes were written on Post-it notes and hand delivered.

4.5.1. It was essential to the spirit of the game that the notes be written in such a fashion as to somehow denote anonymity.

4.5.2. The object of the game was amusement.

4.5.3. The more earnest the notes, the more amusing the game.

5. That afternoon, Maria and Victor commenced a new round of the game:

After we lost contact, I despaired. I could not give you the blessings of my heart.

We suffer together the deep pain of missing.

We are interlinked hearts.

I feel I have you in my heart, even dream you at night.

I hope the separating time will not last long.

Such sweet scenarios haunt my mind.

Comfortable and warm relationships are of the utmost importance.

Gradually, I felt it is very warm to have your support.

Love is not a game, you have my sincerity.

Sincerely yours is how I end my life if I cannot be with you.

6. In most instances, words are only words.

6.1. Except when power is predicated on words.

The Part About the Contracted Guard

Bruce Wayne watched the soft collisions that occurred during his twelve-year-old son’s Rugby League game and thought they were somehow orchestrated, as if young boys were designed to crash into each other, fall down, and bounce right back up again. During lulls in play he conferred with other fathers on the sideline when they loudly complained about the seemingly never-ending changes to the rules of the game that were handed down each week by administrators. Judging by the confusion on and off the field, it was apparent to all observers that the young players and referee could not adhere to, nor enforce, the current rules. In fact, the plot seemed lost entirely.

After the game, Bruce gathered all the kids’ playing jerseys, loaded them into a large duffel bag, threw the bag into the back of his people-mover van, and ordered his son to put on his seatbelt for the short journey home. On arrival at their house, Bruce’s son immediately made his way to the computer and within moments displayed real joy as he witnessed moving images of the recorded misfortune of others. Bruce went to the laundry and shoved the jerseys into the washing machine. While he waited for the washing cycle to finish he told his wife that the boy’s team had lost, then sat down to watch sport highlights. When he heard the bird-like sing-song that indicated the wash was finished, he put the jerseys into a basket and walked out to the rusting Hills Hoist in the backyard. As Bruce hung the jerseys on the clothes line he recalled in amazement how, one-hundred kilograms ago, his body was also once clothed by such small strips of fabric. When the last jersey was fixed by pegs, he stood back and cherished the meaning of his son’s team, and the silver-coloured government-sponsored badges on the jerseys that proclaimed the benefits of exercise flashed in the sunlight. He went back inside, kissed his wife on the cheek, then left for work.

Bruce cheerily announced his arrival to the ladies at the front security desk by stating that Vice Captain Wayne of Squadron B was reporting for duty. Again. They laughed politely and took his backpack for screening as he made his way through the full-body scanner to get inside the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. He made his way to the men’s change room, got into his uniform, then walked to the guard’s recreation room. He looked at the whiteboard near the entrance to the room, which officially recorded the number of detainees within Villawood. In large letters it read 266, six more than when he last looked on his way out the previous evening. In brackets next to that number, unchanged, was the humorous note that four detainees were still on holiday. The detainees who had escaped the previous week were still on the run.

Bruce filled a Styrofoam cup with instant coffee and sugar. He added water from a Zip Hydroboil that hung on the wall above the mini-kitchen sink. He sat down at the near room-length line of tables and grabbed one of the newspapers that was within arm’s reach. Pradeep sat down next to him and asked if he’d heard what had happened last night.

What this time? Bruce asked.

Smitty nearly killed Macca at changeover last night, Pradeep said. Macca was hanging shit on Smitty, telling him how duds only died or escaped during A Squad’s shift, and he told Smitty that they shouldn’t be called ‘A Squad’, more like they should be called Death Squad.

Bullshit! said Bruce.

No bullshit.

That’s fucked.

It’s fuckin over the top, ey.

Bruce went back to his coffee and newspaper. Pradeep flicked a few pages of his own paper, then asked Bruce if he’d heard anything about his transfer request.

Not yet, said Bruce.

Fuck, you must be hanging for it. How much you get paid for working on that fuckin island? You get full guvvie employee rates, dontcha, and allowances? Twelve months there and you’d be set for life. You’ll get it for sure, mate. Why wouldn’t they want The Batman? Me? They’ll never pick me. The only way I’m getting out of this fuckin place is in a body bag sent home to Temora. And I know who’s gunna kill me too, it’ll be one of the crazy duds locked up in C Block for sure.

After an uneventful shift, Bruce had dinner by himself at a KFC store on the way home. It was past his son’s bedtime when he made his way into the house, his wife too was already asleep. He placed his backpack on the kitchen table, went to the fridge, chugged some coke from a three-litre bottle, then headed straight back outside for a walk. It was a hot, humid, cloudy night. He went through a park that led to bushland on the outskirts of the suburb. He traversed a track he had walked many times as a way to clear his mind. His memory of the ground beneath him and the glow from the not-so-faraway street lights were the principle aids that prevented him from stumbling. Then, at the periphery of his vision, Bruce glimpsed a barely visible light that ever-so-slightly radiated from a grove. He evaded thin stems of mallee roots as he moved closer to the light. Bruce discovered that the light emanated from a phone that was held by a young girl, who was maybe twelve years old and sat crossed-legged, engaged with her screen. She wore short shorts, a crop-top, and was bare-footed. She noticed Bruce and smiled at him. Bruce walked closer to her.

How much would you pay for this? the girl said precociously as she straightened her legs, apart.

What … what, Bruce stammered, … there’s no rationale for this.

Well, it’s not actually about the money, the girl said.

Bruce considered the girl and her reply, and how it seemed she hadn’t heard him right, that she had misunderstood him, and walked closer to her. How she smiled made him recall the people he had guarded during his previous contract, when he watched over the silly utter-nutters at the Caritas Inpatient Unit of St Vincent’s Hospital, and how all of them, even the foreign silly utter-nutters who had only been in Australia for a few months, who barely spoke English, who suffered acute bouts of utter-nuttiness far from family and home, believed in the same conspiracy, the one where the Prime Minister, and the Premier, and all the Ministers, and all the other politicians, and the Police Commissioner, and all his staff, and all the clergy and laypeople, they were all pederasts, who were all secretly in cahoots, who all abetted and covered-up for each other, who regularly engaged in paedophilic acts, who shared and exploited young girls and boys. And all the silly utter-nutters were outraged that the public, the people of Australia, hadn’t revolted against such cruel overlords, although the silly utter-nutters never themselves acted on their outrage, but were simply madly content in their utter-nuttiness.

Far away from any official decree, but within an iniquitous regime, Bruce continued to walk slowly toward the young girl.

Notes on The Third Bolaño

  • The story’s title is related to Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich. I’ve wanted for some time to name a story by transposing Roberto’s and my surname from that novel title and by-line, and to pay homage to the works of Bolaño, in some small way, by writing a story incorporating some of his themes and techniques.
  • In Bolaño’s The Third Reich, the main character is an aficionado of a war game called Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. In my story, there are characters who play a game called Love Literature in Australia, a title borrowed from Bolaño’s novel Nazi Literature in the Americas.
  • My story is inspired by the suicide of Josefa Rauluni at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
  • My story is in three sections, which are named similarly to the sections of Bolaño’s 2666.
  • The first section, The Part About a Death, is an imagining of Josefa’s capture by the Immigration department.
  • The Part About The Officers is in a format in honour of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Bolaño called the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (although I regard Wittgenstein as a poet). It attempts to show the internal logic (or otherwise) of the Immigration Department.
    • It is also an attempt to display a story in a format similar to that of legislation.
    • The legislative act mentioned in this part, the Public Service Act 1999, is real.
    • Also real, at s13(11)(b) of that Act, is the enshrinement in law that the Australian Public Service shall always be composed of integrity and good reputation, no matter what actions are conducted in its name:
  • In The Part About The Contracted Guard, the character Bruce Wayne refers to people he once guarded at the Caritas Inpatient Unit of St Vincent’s Hospital (a very real place) as silly utter-nutters. This nomenclature for the mentally ill is based on the name of the Chilean writer Sillie Utternut, which is actually a pseudonym of the Chilean writer Carlos Ruiz-Tagle Gandarillas, who may have been the inspiration for the alias name of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, which is used by the main character in Bolaño’sDistant Star, Carlos Wieder. (Andrews, C 2014,Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Columbia University Press, p.45)
  • I stand by the obvious comparison I make in my story between Australia’s cruel immigration network (on the mainland and various islands) and the female homicides in Cuidad Juarez, the homicides that were so brutally imagined by Bolaño in 2666.

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