2 June 2012

Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp, 2002

Antwerp is a difficult novel to summarise, given that it’s a formative work in Bolaño’s oeuvre and one that possibly bears more relation to his poetry than his later fiction. These are fifty-six vignettes that function in part like snatches of half-remembered films, concerning a possible murder on a campsite in Spain. But just who has been murdered, and is the killer perhaps a reflection of the author himself? This is not the familiar Bolaño of the long, discursive sentences that became a style he settled into and made his own; instead Antwerp possesses a different form of intensity, perhaps showing the uncertainty of a writer in the act of setting things down in order to first find his own voice to make it stand out, or at least aside, from the influences of those he was reading at the time (among them, Norman Spinrad and James Tiptree, Jr.). Having said that, Bolaño once proclaimed this is the only novel he was not embarrassed about, which hints more at the integrity of the prosaic form he chose to use than the lack of clarity given to a reader: in 1980 it was written without any expectation of publication, but today it gives us a compact insight into the set of themes that Bolaño continued to use throughout his life. Disconnected sentences shoot past you like bullets, and the reader has to almost rearrange, Burroughs-like, what he or she is told and make of it what he or she can. Antwerp is still a self-conscious book for all its merits, but in this brief work it’s easy to discern the writer Bolaño would become in the years ahead: still manically driven at the fringes of literature, but also a far more relaxed and eloquent performer in the act of getting his message across.  PY


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