Antwerp (Roberto Bolaño)

Antwerp is a difficult book to write about, because it so aggressively pushes out — at times to triumph in its rejection of novelistic convention, at times to announce its own failure as fiction. The book is fragmentary in every sense, a series of 56 one-or-two-page “chapters” that each contain disconnected, fragmentary narration and dialogue. On occasion what little narrative there is (a crime novel plot you can almost piece together, but not quite) gets interrupted by metafictional or autobiographical assertions regarding Bolaño’s in/ability to write this very novel.

Ultimately the book becomes a meditation on writing fiction and a manifesto for a radical approach. As a novel, then, it falters and doesn’t truly satisfy, lacking the deep appreciation for story that characterizes Bolaño’s other, no less radical novels (cf. Nazi Literature in the Americas). I found that to really enjoy the book I had to read it less as a novel and more as a set of prose poems revolving around recurrent motifs.

At times Bolaño achieves a balance between his themes and pulls off some dizzying, fascinating passages. At other times, he can’t quite strike a balance and sentences crash awkwardly into one another. I include a full “chapter” to give you a sense of what the novel is like at its best.

43. Like a Waltz

In the railroad car a girl on her own. She looks out the window. Outside everything splits in two: tilled fields, woods, white houses, towns, suburbs, dumps, factories, dogs, and children waving goodbye. Lola Muriel appears. August 1980. I dream of faces that open their mouths and can’t speak. They try but they can’t. Their blue eyes stare at me but they can’t. Then I walk along the corridor of a hotel. I wake up sweating. Lola has blue eyes and she reads Poe stories by the pool, while the other girls talk about pyramids and jungles. I dream that I’m watching it rain in neighbourhoods which I recognize but have never visited. I walk along an empty passageway. I see faces with eyes that close and mouths the open, though they can’t speak. I wake up sweating. August 1980? A girl, eighteen, from Andalusia? The night watchman, madly in love?

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