Antwerp
by Roberto Bolaño (Amberes, 2002)
translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (2010)
New Direction (2010)
78 pp

Most of Bolaño’s New Directions book covers are similar in style. I’ve liked them. However, because Antwerp 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. FAÇADE

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

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.”

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