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September 9, 2011 9:54 pm
Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño finished his short novel Antwerp in 1980. The book remained unpublished until 2002 – one year before he died of liver disease.
“I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can’t be sure of,” he declares in the prologue. Bolaño never sent the original manuscript to publishers because he was sure they “would’ve slammed the door in my face”. It is difficult to imagine that Antwerp would have made it beyond a slush-pile had it not been by the acclaimed author of The Savage Detectives.
Antwerp is a challenging novel. Indeed, it is worth asking if it can legitimately be described as a novel at all. It consists of a series of loosely connected scenes featuring a nameless girl, a hunchback, a corpse, a police detective, a foreign writer and even a character called Roberto Bolaño.
The vignettes range from the dreamlike to the noirish. Some have the intensity of prose poetry. Others invoke the language of film: “The camera zooms out”; “The brown-and-black opening shot vanishes almost instantly, giving way to a deep panorama”; “The scene breaks up geometrically.”
Bolaño once said he would rather have been a homicide detective than an author. Read in succession, the scenes in his book offer not so much the bones of an experimental detective novel, but its loose skin.
“I was still reading more poetry than prose,” Bolaño says about the time when he wrote Antwerp. “I was drawn to certain science fiction writers and certain pornographers.” This may partly explain the detached brusqueness in its depictions of sex.
The novel seems to hint at some of the pre-occupations that would surface in Bolaño’s later works. Readers acquainted with novels such as Distant Star, or even his mammoth 2666, know that he had a wry distrust of literary elites. His scorn for “so-called official literature”, he explains in the prologue to Antwerp, was great – “though only a little greater than my scorn for marginal literature”.
The sentiment is echoed by his narrators: “I’m alone, all the literary shit gradually falling by the wayside – poetry journals, limited editions, the whole dreary joke behind me now ...” Elsewhere, the foreign writer confesses to being unable to write: “All I can come up with are stray sentences, he said, maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences.” The impossibility of literature, its meaninglessness and its necessity, are Bolaño themes. So is the idea of writing as a disease.
Underpinning Antwerp’s ineffable structure and otherworldly imagery is a bitter plea for the writer’s craft: “Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.”
Antwerp, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, Picador, RRP £12.99, 82 pages
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