Almost comical? Jeff, it is hilarious! As a matter of fact, I was just laughing with a friend earlier today about this business of the orderly grabbing at empty space where Johns’ hand ought to have been as Johns plummets into this abyss in the Alps just like Sherlock Holmes. That was before I stumbled upon your great post here. From my point of view, this is the absurd taken to the sublime.
Liz Norton is apparently very serious about this all, but I think that she too sees the absurdity in the story. Let me give you my take for what little it is worth. I cannot believe that I have the nerve to try this, but I am gonna.
Let us consider a choice that Natasha Wimmer faced when translating the phrase fábula tramposa, the phrase that troubles you. She chose “false representation.” I believe that she might have translated this as “deceptive fable.” I have checked this out with a native Spanish speaker and former English teacher here. In fact, she said that of those two choices, she prefers “deceptive fable” after reading the thing in context in Spanish.
In that case the fable clearly appears to me to be what you first thought, the story of the circumstances of Johns’ death. It is a comic fable about unforeseen consequences. The damned fool cut off his own hand for art’s sake little knowing that this would ultimately cost him his life. Norton considers the fable deceptive because the absurd (hilarious, I think) circumstances of Johns’ death cast an unfortunate light on his very serious artistry in a former time. . .from her point of view. I myself have no idea whether he was worth a damn as an artist or not.
We shall see what Jeff thinks of this. For my part I detect Bolaño's invitation to laughter even when his characters are not laughing. I believe that occurs many times in this book. When he gives us that invitation, we must accept it, even in the midst of the dreariest of circumstances.
We shall also await the Spanish language expert's appearance on the scene. It will be a woman, and in her comment she will tear my ass up about this post.