"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp

Roberto Bolaño is dead but this reality will not stop a near unending stream of English translation and publication of his work. The latest is Antwerp, a book that Bolaño wrote in 1981 in Barcelona. He admits in the introduction entitled Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later, that it was written when he was "still writing more poetry than prose" and drawn to "certain science fiction writers and certain pornographers." An interesting combination, to be sure.

He notes that "I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would've slammed the door in my face and I'd have lost the copy. I didn't even make what's technically termed a clean copy. The original manuscript has more pages: the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness." This echoes William S. Burroughs' belief that words were a virus and writing merely the expulsion of it. Bolaño, however, writes that his "sickness, back then, was pride, rage and violence."

Antwerp is essentially 56 vignettes or sketches imbued with both poetry and cinema. The narrator is Bolaño himself, though fictionalized. In certain sketches, the narrator Bolaño is observed by another Bolaño, or perhaps by some other omniscient narrator whose name we know not.

Some of the vignettes display dazzling imagery and words (credit must go to translator Natasha Wimmer), often with a surreal tone, while others come across as though Bolaño were bored and didn't know exactly what to write, simply letting instantaneous ideas through words unfurl onto the page. Even those vignettes are interesting.

One of my favorites is 3. GREEN, RED, AND WHITE CHECKS, in which Bolaño the narrator speaks of another (probably the fictional Bolaño) who rises up out of a white tide and is suddenly on a train. Inside the train colorful light shines in through a window, while this persona is smoking and his eyes come to rest on a pale square that begins to disintegrate. The narrator notices the light has gone dark outside as the train goes past the edge of a forest, apparently right where a "little hunchback lives." The story shifts and Bolaño seems to be in the forest with the hunchback carrying on a conversation... A really great vignette.

Definitely a book to own, especially if you want to see a writer engaging in poetic and cinematic surrealism on a micro scale.

And what better endorsement can you get than from the author himself, who said, "The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp."

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