Archive for April, 2010

“Antwerp” by Roberto Bolaño

Sunday, April 18th, 2010



Antwerp differs categorically from Bolaño’s mature novelistic output marked by such fully-formed successes as By Night in Chile and The Savage Detectives — books in which the author constructs a story line rich enough to communicate his considered view of the world. Antwerp dates from 1980 when the author was shifting his principal mode of expression from poetry to fiction. It consists of 56 numbered chapters totally a mere 76 pages. The setting is Barcelona. Characters include a Hunchback; a mysterious young woman caught in an abusive relationship with a cop and who appears slated soon to die; and the 27-year-old Bolaño. There is little in the way of plot connecting the 56 vignettes or mini-narratives or prose poems: each segment tends to be provisional, contingent, and relative. Antwerp, with its frustrating fragmentation and hallucinations, gives the impression of being a cobbled assemblage of pages. Not even Bolaño’s celebrated skill as a fabricator can dislodge this impression. There is no journey; instead, there is a seeming lack of intention. Yes, there is textual inventiveness throughout the book, but if the author meant this to be an experiment in meta-fiction, what he has rendered is, in my judgment, not a success.

To avoid disappointment the reader must alter his or her expectations before delving into Antwerp. In fact, it may be best if you take a pass on Antwerp unless you count yourself among the hardy crew of Bolaño aficionados. To those souls I offer these words.

One way to prepare for the book is to adopt the style and practice of a detective. Treat Antwerp as a sheaf of papers found in the drawer of a prospective master. (As explained in the author’s preface — for me the most interesting pages in the book — this is how Bolaño himself viewed the scatter-shot material when he decided to publish it 22 years after its creation.) Abetting this plan are the physical contours of the book — a small, slim object, jacket-less, black in color, looking like an intimate notebook, divorced from any context, apparently casually set aside. In his intentional novels, Bolaño routinely foregrounded detective activities. 2066 is the most rigorous example. And so I think the reader should adopt that mode when beginning carefully to thumb through Antwerp‘s pages. As many Bolaño protagonists soon learn, your work will consist of much drudgery . . . and lead to uncertain revelations. The principal payoffs in this instance are occasional poetic passages (“Someone stands in the shadows preparing for his death and his subsequent transparency” (p. 7)).  Not surprisingly, mordant observations predominate (“Nothing lasts, the purely loving gestures of children tumble into the void” (p. 51)), with only occasional humor (“Some people choose the worst moments to think about their mothers” (p. 71)). Much of the text is cryptic, though parts have a Zen tang: “The word ‘shoes’ will never levitate” (p. 6). Cinematic touches abound. You know not to expect answers, or (in this book) a sustainable melody.

Another way to approach Antwerp is to consider it a derivative of a fully-formed novel that doesn’t exist. If you are one of those readers so in love with an author, or a particular book, that you search for illumination in the author’s notebooks, journals, log-books, flotsam and jetsam, then here is another occasion to indulge your passion. Chapter 41, for example, is a straightforward 300-word diary entry about a night spent in a decrepit train station, as Bolaño and his (sleeping) girlfriend wait for the morning train to Portugal. I had a sense while reading Antwerp that it was not so much a novel as a preparation for a piece of fiction that defies categorization, mixed with a running account of Bolaño’s own emotional crises, blended further with actual dreams and other elusive autobiographical details. The text contains signs Bolaño knew Antwerp was a failure: “No work could justify the slowness of movements and obstacles” (p. 62); “There’s something obscene about this” (p. 64); “Poor Bolaño, writing at a pit stop” (p. 66); and a dangling reference to “undisciplined writing” (p. 51). Yet Bolaño needed to write.

When the day comes that a full-scale biography of Roberto Bolaño is published, I believe Antwerp will be cited at length in a chapter devoted to his residence in Europe, circa 1980. On the evidence of the book’s hallucinatory fragments (there’s a chilling recurrent image of persons without mouths, for example) and references to illness (“nervous collapse in cheap rooms” (p. 32)), this was a difficult period of transition in the author’s young life (“My innocence is mostly gone and I’m not crazy yet” (p. 52); “I no longer ask for all the solitude in the world, but for time” (p. 62); “But you write … and you’ll get through this” (p. 44)). In retrospect, we know greatness awaited.

On final consideration, Antwerp is best viewed as an appurtenance to Bolaño’s legacy — a rickety outbuilding found on a sprawling literary estate, far from the main mansion; an inessential stop for all but the most devoted visitors.

Stray sentences from the notes I recorded as I read the book:

Sophie Podolski is mentioned on pages 4 and 10. Bolaño must have seen her as a true contemporary: both were poets, born in 1953. He recounts news of her suicide (on page 4) and her unfulfilled promise (she “wrote like a star” and “would’ve been twenty-seven now, like me” (p. 10)). She appears in “The Savage Detectives”.

As for Colan Yar, a mysterious figure mentioned throughout, I remain in the dark.

There is recurring mention of voices or, even more frequently, applause, coming from “a dark corner” or off-stage. In a variation, this device becomes the “wizened youth” who oppresses the priest in By Night in Chile.

Illness will be a major motif of any Bolaño biography, I predict. Not just the liver failure that took his life at age 50, but earlier illnesses, episodes of “blankets pulled up to my ears, motionless in bed, sweating and repeating meaningless words to myself” (p. 7).

Sometimes he is redeemed by love: “Doubly afraid of himself because he couldn’t help falling in love once a year at least” (p. 66). Or not: “One day the person you love will say she doesn’t love you and you won’t understand. It happened to me. I would’ve liked her to tell me how to endure her absence. She didn’t say anything.” (p. 47).

Bolaño’s love 0f film is ever-present, from the makeshift movie screen erected in the woods for villagers’ delight (p. 21 and elsewhere), to some of the vignettes (chapters 18, 25, 40) that take the form of film scenarios, to a final bit of advice: “Don’t stop going to the movies” (p. 53).

In Chapter 49 Bolaño tests out the possibility of a narrative that interleaves a barroom pick-up with a news item about a traffic accident involving an overturned truck carrying pigs. (Hah!)

Chapter  50 is an apparent autobiographical snippet observing how additionally seductive it is when two persons seeking connection don’t understand each other’s language.

This is a book about writing; among the observations is this one: “What poems lack is characters who lie in wait for the reader” (p. 71). By 1980, Bolaño was transitioning from poet to prose writer to novelist. He was in state of  transitioning not only as a writer but as a person; or in his case did this amount to the same thing? There is an air of post-adolescent expectancy in the book, a feeling that “something’s coming,” that the surviving narrator is on the cusp of a new life.

Embossed on the back cover of the jacket-less book is this author statement: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” I think this is a riddle whose decipherment requires, first, rejection of the premise that “Antwerp” is a novel at all. The statement is a smokescreen, a subterfuge, a lie that shields the truth of his feared descent into sentimentality, of his condition post-Antwerp.

Ultimately the reader is left confused. Is this a novel driven by a postmodern, meta-fictional agenda? Is it the developmental record of a potentially fully-formed novel? Is it a denatured autobiography?

[Note: A condensed version of this review is found here.]


Ian McEwan in DC

Thursday, April 8th, 2010



Yesterday Ian McEwan came to Washington, DC, for an evening appearance at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an event sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. This was one of four stops on McEwan’s American tour promoting his new novel, “Solar”.  I was part of an overflow crowd of 400 people that descended on the Folger Theatre. We were rerouted to a larger venue — a church across the street. The inside of The Lutheran Church of the Reformation was warm. I sensed its walls releasing the heat of a day whose temperature had exceeded 90 degrees. Adding to the heat was radiation from the bodies of hundreds of acolytes. In my mind there arose a vain thought:  The heads of intense readers must radiate a heat more intense than that of non-readers.  A moment after I took this photo, McEwan succumbed to the heat and removed his suit jacket.

After introductions, McEwan spoke a bit about the genesis of “Solar” and then read a section from the book. He chose the episode that begins with the protagonist ruminating upon London’s past, present, and future as his plane circles Heathrow, and ends with amatory daydreaming as he is processed through Customs.

A handful of questions from the audience closed out the hour. McEwan and his attending entourage briskly exited by a side door. (McEwan is a hiker; he may be the sort of man who camouflages discomfort and impatience with long-strided walking; healthy and happy is such a man.) The group scooted across the street to the Folger Library where they set themselves up for the reception and book signing.

Earlier, as McEwan stood on high before us, I could not help but wonder whether anyone among us pew dwellers was offended that an atheist had taken control of the pulpit for an hour. I was reminded of a passage in a Nick Hornby novel describing the sad emptiness of British churches nowadays, when no faithful assemble to warm cold stone. But as for my question, the smart comeback is, Do you really think this is the first time a nonbeliever occupied the pulpit? And so there were no rumblings of unrest. The quiet crowd adopted instead “the intimate politeness with which Americans excel.” (I borrow that formulation from among the many charming observations about America and Americans McEwan includes in “Solar”).

It occurred to me that for believer and nonbeliever alike, the pleasure of sitting quietly inside a church (this church or any other church) rests, in large measure, in the power of the setting to take us out of time, to suspend time.

Twice during the Q & A session McEwan compared himself to the late John Updike. If there was a cynic in the audience, he would have been tempted to read this as a would-be successor’s grab at the mantle of writers’ writer, wordsmith without rival. Or as a foreigner’s attempt to curry favor with us Yanks. I read it as a genuine, guileless statement — one not lacking in support.

The final questioner asked McEwan about the inspiration for the framing device in his most loved novel, “Atonement.” There was a moment of awkwardness. Earlier it had been made abundantly clear to attendees that this was a Solar day. We were to bring only that book for signing, thank you very much. But McEwan gave an expansive answer. At one point his voice veered outside its natural baritone placidity. This was when he chided critics of “Atonement” who thought the book’s ending was equivocal. “I am an empiricist!” McEwan said, adding that no reader should doubt the lovers die in the war (he at Dunkirk and she in a London bombing raid). There was in McEwan’s demeanor an air of satisfaction common to the empirical wing of the enlightened.