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Roberto Bolaño: Antwerp

Most of Bolaño’s New Directions book covers are similar in style.  I’ve liked them.  However, because Antwerp (Amberes, 2002; tr. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2010) looked so different, I’ve been more excited to read it.  It arrived in a coverless hardback, small-sized and well designed, simple and bold.  It suggests weight.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

Still, despite the cover, I wasn’t sure the content would hold up.  I always have doubts when I approach Bolaño, like I’ll realize what many suspect: that there’s nothing there.  Perhaps this feeling is some vestige from my initial experience with the Chilean when I read 2666.  I loved the book while reading it, but I was so frustrated at the end.  Now I think my feelings would be different.  I’ve come to realize that much of reading Bolaño is the experience of reading itself, the search for meaning, the disturbing images, the powerful prose.  Antwerp exceeded my expectations.

The book is divided into 56 fragments, each a paragraph that spans a page or two.  They begin with a statement many might attribute to Bolaño’s work itself:

1. FACADE

Once photographed, life here is ended.  It is almost symbolic of Hollywood.  Tara has no rooms inside.  It was just a facade.

These fragments, at first, drift from one subject to another with no apparent link, though if you’ve read Bolaño the characters might sound familiar: there’s the corrupt and brutal policeman, the prostitute, the poet.  Part of the enjoyment in reading Antwerp is allowing these lives to just happen in front of you, to just accept that you will not understand everything for a while, but that the experience itself is worth its time.  And what does that initial fragment say about the fragments that follow? 

I’d like to quote in full one of the first passages that really grabbed my attention:

11. AMONG THE HORSES

I dreamed of a woman with no mouth, says the man in bed.  I couldn’t help smiling.  The piston forces the images up again.  Look, he tells her, I know another story that’s just as sad.  He’s a writer who lives on the edge of town.  He makes a living working a riding school.  He’s never asked for much, all he needs is a room and time to read.  But one day he meets a girl who lives in another city and he falls in love.  They decide to get married.  The girl will come to live with him.  The first problem arises: finding a place big enough for the two of them.  The second problem is where to get the money to pay for it.  Then one thing leads to another: a job with a steady income (at the stables he works on commission, plus room, board, and a small monthly stipend), getting his papers in order, registering with social security, etc.  But for now, he needs money to get to the city where his fianceé lives.  A friend suggests the possibility of writing articles for a magazine.  He calculates that the first four would pay for the bus trip there and back and maybe a few days at a cheap hotel.  He writes his girlfriend to tell her he’s coming.  But he can’t finish a single article.  He spends the evenings sitting outdoors at the bar of the riding school where he works, trying to write, but he can’t.  Nothing comes out, as they say in common parlance.  The man realizes that he’s finished.  All he writes are short crime stories.  The trip recedes from his future, is lost, and he remains listless, inert, going automatically about his work among the horses.

I know the basic concept here — a man who cannot escape his circumstances — is not original.  But in Bolaño’s universe, this writer of crime stories comes up again and again, both antic and listless at the same time.  This passage also begins to tie the book together — er, at least, tie it together a bit more.  The riding school comes up several times and we start to see how the various characters fill the space around it.  We find out who is dreaming of women with no mouths and whom he’s talking to here.  We get a sense of the community: ”Nothing shocking, really, people upset because they were out of work, etc.  These are the sad stories I have to tell you.”

While the characterization was fine, I found that I valued other aspects of the book.  I liked the fragmented quality.  I liked that it was at least somewhat self-conscious: “Our stories are sad, sergeant, there’s no point trying to understand them.”  Again, I really didn’t fret this time when I couldn’t put the pieces together.  Perhaps it is because the book is set up in fragments that made me care less about structure.  It reminded me strongly of a poem, lonely and longing and hopeless, which the following passage reinforces:

36.  PEOPLE WALKING AWAY

Nothing lasts, the purely loving gestures of children tumble into the void.  I wrote: “a group of waiters returning to work” and “windswept sand” and “the dirty windowpanes of September.”

8 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: Antwerp

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Great review, Trevor. You encapsulate here – with the excerpts abetting this perfectly – exactly what I particularly like about Bolano. Not the large themes, as you say, the fragments, the maddening snapshots of incomplete evocation. That last excerpt you include would, as well as any other, typify exactly what I think he does pretty much better than anyone else – walks the line between halting regret and inexorable fascination. A potentially horrible dichotomy to endure, but it makes, for Bolano, for exquisitely exact insight.

  2. Stujallen says:

    is this borges in style trevor, the short passages and drifting style strike me as similar to his work ,or maybe its just i got a new borges to read today and he is on my mind ,lovely review sure i ll read this at some point i ve read two bolanos and have three more sat in tbr at mo ,so it ll be a while before i get this one

  3. Trevor says:

    Hi Lee and Stu. Sorry I haven’t responded. Literally no time this past week!

    I didn’t think of Borges when I read this, Stu. Not sure if that’s because I don’t know Borges well or because there really is no real connection. I suspect the latter, though I think both certainly have a way to bring the work down to the viscera.

  4. Chris says:

    Actually, Borges is one of Bolano’s most significant influences. He said something along the lines of “I could live under a table for a year reading Borges.” Nazi Literature in the Americas is very much influenced by Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (both contain false or invented biographies and are both influenced by Marcel Shwob’s prior Imaginary Lives). Bolano’s prose style is much less formal than Borges’, of course.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    Yes, I remember reading the quote. It’d be interesting to read A Universal History Of Infamy to look at how influenced Bolano is by that. Certainly I’m not sure the Borges of Labyrinths exerts much influence.

  6. Trevor says:

    Ah yes, I remember the quote too. I don’t know Borges well enough to say where any similarities lie. What I have read doesn’t particularly sound like Bolano to me, but I’m far from knowledgable on the subject.

  7. Harry says:

    I read the Antwerp with six other friends in my book club. I was the only one who had favuorable comments on the book. I thought it was one of the smartest works I’ve read in a long time. Its format is unconventional, may be that is why I enjoyed it so much. It reminded me of Chris Marker film La Jetée, and other works of postmodern cinema. Memento also came to mind. I thought the narrative ploy of inserting flashbacks and frames was more effective for the subject of the novel than a conventional episodic narrative. If Proust relished in the painstakingly detailed reconstruction of non-events and Flaubert allowed the inanimate objects to have an emotional charge; Bolaño’s has subverted the novel’s conventions once again by stripping the flesh away and leave us with the bare fragments of reality. I am glad I read it. Next I went to buy the Savage Detectives, more conventional but really funny. Not long after I read Antwerp I went to see an Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes; It was Antwerp’s unfolding.

  8. Jamie says:

    I’m a bit late in replying to this, but this review was incredibly well-written. I happened to find it via a random Google search, since I’m working on my own review of Antwerp. Your take on the possibility of Bolano’s works being “empty” is intriguing. To put the best spin on it, I think that in the majority of his novels, he was writing from his poetic inclinations, letting the language flow with little concern about where it ended up. His novels may not have the most tidy conclusions, but I’ve still been enamored with his works for the past two years or so.

    Glad I’ve stumbled upon this site, I plan to be a regular reader.

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