A Literary Terrain Unlike Any Other


Roberto Bolaño's books are suddenly everywhere, which is a fortuitous development for readers who like adventurous fiction. This literary stroke of luck is thanks in good part to the persistence of the estimable and always forward-thinking New Directions publishers. Farrar Straus and Giroux somehow beat out ND for the rights to two of the late Chilean-born novelist's longest and perhaps flashiest works, The Savage Detectives and 2666, and so received considerable media attention when the volumes were published. But it's been ND that's stood by Bolaño for years now, issuing the bulk of his smaller-scale, though highly representative works; and it's now filling in the spaces in the writer's prolific, if brief, career — he died at age 50 — by releasing some of his lesser-known prose pieces.

When New Directions brought out Bolaño's scathing, funny Nazi Literature in the Americas early last year, I wrote then that the novelist, a tried-and-true postmodernist (generally not my favorite type of writer), had struck me not only as an exciting talent, but perhaps one of the most profound artists of the second half of the 20th century.

I also said that, in my estimation, there's no better place to begin engaging with Bolaño than with Nazi Literature — and that judgment's only been strengthened now that ND has brought out one of his earliest pieces of extended writing, titled Antwerp.

I don't mean to make less of this little book, which amounts to no more than 78 small pages. It's just that for most readers, it might prove to be a fearsome challenge — difficult to get into without some prior exposure to Bolaño's literary landscape.

The author himself acknowledges the work's difficulties in a brief foreword he appended to the manuscript in 2002 (just a year before his death), which he titled "Total Anarchy: 22 Years Later." Here he admits: "I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can't be sure of. For a long time these were just loose pages that I reread and maybe tinkered with, convinced I had no time. But time for what? I couldn't say exactly."

A Text That Multiplied
He also says that he "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. My sickness, back then, was pride, rage, and violence."

That may help give you some idea of what awaits you in the text — and none of this explication is an exaggeration on the writer's part.

Antwerp is a difficult book by a writer who wished to be difficult — aggressively so. And it is being published now because of the artist Roberto Bolaño became in the two decades after this youthful effort was begun.

But again, I do not wish to discourage readers because once the author eases into his task, the work's logic makes itself more apparent and the process of reading grows less strenuous.

The publisher helps matters by explaining that the 54 brief, fractured chapters can be looked at as individual prose poems that deal with "crimes, drifters, poetry, sex, and misfits" — all subjects that Bolaño expounded upon in his later works. In fact, ND points out that this small book has been described as the writer's "Big Bang," since "it is a truly condensed and intensified version of his literary style."

Another helpful insight comes from critic David Flusfeder, who has written in Britain's Daily Telegraph that "Bolaño's work is a roman-fleuve: characters and situations recur throughout his writings, and time is a watery element that the characters drift through."

The critic may have been speaking of the novelist's output as a whole, but his comment is also applicable to the manner in which Antwerp unfolds.

Here is how the text begins. First, there is a quotation from, of all people, David O. Selznick, famed Hollywood producer of "Gone With the Wind": "Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a facade."

Then we read: "The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The Fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a facade — dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta. 1959. Everything looks worn. Not a recent phenomenon. From a long time back, everything wrecked. And the Spaniards imitate the way you talk. The South American lilt. An alley of palms. Everything slow and asthmatic. Bored biologists watch the rain from the windows of their corporations. It's no good singing with feeling. My darling, wherever you are: it's too late, forget the gesture that never came. 'It was just a facade.' The kid walks toward the house."

This fragment is, in appropriate fashion, titled "Facade."

On first reading, it might seem as if these sentences don't belong together, but that's part of the author's purpose. No matter the seeming jumble of words, this paragraph announces certain indisputable Bolaño themes. He was always obsessed with the power of genres, whether they drifted out of Hollywood or came from literature. So it's not surprising that Antwerp soon becomes something of a postmodern police thriller, laced with occasional brutal criminality and sex.

Nothing More Than a Facade?
And then again, it's not that. As is announced in this first fragment, what we hold in our hands may be a facade, a false front, like a movie set, imposing perhaps, but something that can be dismantled on a whim and transported elsewhere.

Here's another characteristic self-contained passage that comes about midway into the manuscript, called "A White Handkerchief":

"I'm walking in the park, it's fall, looks like somebody got killed. Until yesterday I thought my life could be different, I was in love, etc. I stop by the fountain, it's dark, the surface shiny, but when I brush it with the palm of my hand I feel how rough it really is. From here I watch an old cop approach the body with hesitant steps. A cold breeze is blowing, raising goose bumps. The cop kneels by the body: with a dejected gesture, he covers his eyes with his left hand. A flock of starlings rise. They circle over the policeman's head and then disappear. The policeman goes through the dead man's pockets and piles what he finds on a white handkerchief that he's spread out on the grass. Dark green grass that seems to want to swallow up the white square. Maybe it's the dark old papers that the cop sets on the handkerchief that make me think this way. I decide to sit down for a while. The park benches are white with black wrought-iron legs. A police car comes down the street. It stops. Two cops get out. One of them heads toward where the old cop is crouched, the other waits by car and lights a cigarette. A while later an ambulance silently appears and parks behind the police car. "I didn't see anything.' … 'A dead man in the park' … 'An old cop' … "

Early on, readers may not see anything that resembles characters or a plot in this series of fragments, but then the patterns begin to appear — "crimes, drifters, poetry, sex, and misfits." This may, in fact, be "detective fiction," but of an unexpected sort. It is also a work that pays back the effort expended by readers and may indeed be recognized in time as the cornerstone of a most uncommon literary career.


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