The eight years since the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s death have seen a steady stream of translations of his work and, although the chronology of publication and translation is often confusing, this new book, Antwerp, is something of a marker. It is, for us English readers, the last of the books that Bolaño published in his lifetime, which means that we now stand – give or take a few short stories – where his Spanish readers stood when he died.
Although Antwerp was first published in 2002, it was originally written in 1980, long before Bolaño’s decisive shift from poetry to prose fiction. This makes it something of a curio, and a curio it undoubtedly is. A slim collection of 56 numbered sections that, if it is a novel, is a defiantly experimental one, eschewing plot and fixed perspective, blurring and muddling characters and generally ignoring the usual rules of literary endeavour. “Tell that stupid Arnold Bennet [sic] that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels,” we are told.
Of course, Bolaño pretty much broke all those rules in his other novels, but never with the bloody-minded intensity that he does here. His literary executor Ignacio Echevarría has called Antwerp the “Big Bang” of the writer’s fictional universe, and that’s an excellent way of putting it. Bolaño’s later themes are all present: the incompatibility of literature as a calling and the demands of normal, healthy life; sex; violence; sexual violence. Here too are his stock characters: heroically failed poets, shifty detectives, attractive young women.
The plot, such as it is, circles around a murder outside a campsite on the Spanish coast, for which the nightwatchman, who may be called Roberto Bolaño, may be a suspect. A synopsis, section 20, helps, though not much: “The hunchback in the woods near the camp ground and the tennis courts and the riding school. In Barcelona a South American is dying in a foul-smelling room. Police dragnets. Cops who f--- nameless girls. The English writer talks to the hunchback in the woods. Death throes and an a------- from South America, on the road…”
Many of the sections read like the descriptions of half-remembered movies, others have the tenor of a nightmare, with corridors “full of women with no mouths”. The prose is tricksy, the narrative flagrantly chopped about and allusive.
You comb the text for clues – not to identity of the murderer, but to what is going on at all. To that extent, the title does offer a gentle interpretive nudge, in the form of a randomly inserted anecdote that begins: “In Antwerp a man was killed when his car was run over by a truck full of pigs.” It’s a neat summary of the vicious absurdity of life in Bolaño’s world view, conquerable only through literature, which is how those failed poets get to be written up as heroes.
All of which means that Antwerp is a fascinating, even compulsory addition to the Bolaño fan’s bookshelf, but is in no way a recommended introduction to it, despite its brevity. The two great novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, may be 20 or 30 times longer than this jagged little array of prose-poems, but they are also 10 times more readable. There, the pages just fly by; here you must crawl across them at a snail’s pace, stopping and ducking often, as the sentences whizz over your head like bullets.