Sunday, 23 March 2014


Antwerp - Roberto Bolaño
"reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences"

I started jotting down notes towards a coherent post on Antwerp but it seemed easier more in keeping with the spirit of the novel to leave them as simply notes towards a blog post.

Antwerp is the first known novel written by Bolaño. It was written around 1980 but not published until just before his death. It is short and experimental, with atmosphere and effect more than plot and character the driving force. It is closer in spirit to poetry than prose and perhaps marks the major staging post between both poles of Bolaño's writing.

The gun was only a word.”
Chekov, famously, said something about having to use a gun, if you introduce it. Bolaño seems to be saying that you don't.

A whore pretends she only does it for money, a spouse that they only do it for love.

The iconoclast poses for the sculptor as they wield the crowbar.

We all try to create or borrow form to disguise our fragmented essence.

Writing is always a compromise with life. "The man sits at one of the cafes in the hypothetical ghetto. He writes postcards because breathing prevents him from writing the poems he'd like to write."

The ghosts of Pinochet's disappeared hold hands with the members of the Polish union Solidarity. Is form the pattern-book for fascism? Can writers be anything other than narcissistic poseurs?
..."the workers slowly approach, dusty fields, its the end of April and they're paid in heroin ... I've turned on the radio, an impersonal voice gives the city-by-city count of those arrested today .. "Midnight, nothing to report" ... A girl who wrote dragons, completely fucking sick of it all in some corner of Brussels ... "Assault rifles, guns, old grenades" ... I'm alone, all the literary shit gradually falling by the wayside - poetry journals, limited editions, the whole dreary joke behind me now ..."

Chapter 11, Among The Horses tells a very straightforward story about a man without papers, living and working at a riding school who falls in love with a woman who lives elsewhere. He starts to write some magazine articles to pay for a trip to see the woman but he can't finish any. "All he writes are short crime stories. The trip recedes from his future, is lost, and he remains listless, inert, going automatically about his work among the horses."

Another character is a woman poet who kills herself ... You can play join the dots.

People disappear ... People stand together ... People are shot ... If you don't use the gun somebody will ...

What is a writer? (An octopus uses ink to hide its movements as it escapes from view.) "All writing on the edge hides a white mask."

Bolaño echoes Burroughs. Chopped fragments, guilt blowing across the soundstage like dry ice. Like Bill Lee, he places his puppet self among his strings: Roberto Bolaño, anarchist and camp guard. Witness.

In The Savage Detectives an entrance to something like hell is discovered. Is it an elaborate way to tell the truth in a lie? Here something awful is witnessed too. A crime. One crime in a world filled with crimes.

I can't help comparing this to Muriel Spark's Not to Disturb, which I read and blogged about recently. Both seem to distrust writing, or more particularly the expectations that writing is supposed to satisfy. Both also include elements of other narrative forms (film, theatre) and the economics of writing - journalism etc. The difference is, I guess, that Antwerp predates Bolaño's prime as a novel writer by a decade whereas Spark's novella comes between primes. (The Primes of Ms Muriel Spark). Spark's book is a lot more plot driven and it is easy to construct a simpler fiction over the bones provided whereas Bolaño's text is far more obtuse and personal. Spark's is a novelist resisting the gravitational pull of novels whereas Bolaño's is the resistance of a poet to prose, an insistence on the personal and the particular.

Much of the book reads like the screenplay for a dream: "Five yards from me, a trout leaped. I put out my cigarette and closed my eyes. Close-up of a Mexican girl reading. She's blond, with a long nose and narrow lips. She looks up, turns toward the camera, smiles: streets damp after the rains of August, September, in a Mexico City that doesn't exist anymore."

Is it impossible to escape nostalgia? Is this why "breathing prevents him from writing the poems he'd like to write."  Nostalgia for the love of a Mexican girl ... "Bolaño wasn't overflowing with solidarity or desperation, two good reasons to help the Mexican. But nostalgia, on the other hand ..."

Guilt: "He's a bastard but he knows how to feign tenderness. He's a bastard but the hand on her side is gentle."

Finally, perhaps writing is just autonomic - "An urge, at the cost of nervous collapse in cheap rooms, propels poetry toward something that detectives call perfection. Dead-end street. A Basement whose only virtue is its cleanliness. And yet who has been here if not La Vita Nuova and Hamlet." Beatrice and Ophelia. Love written, not lived.

I could write more. Sometimes there's more to write when less is understood. This is not a book that gives simple gratification but it will give the Bolaño reader much to think about. And it is very short, 56 short chapters on 78 pages with a lot of paper left naked and unadorned.

This piece by Monty Alexander is mentioned in Antwerp.


  1. That was actually one of the more enjoyable posts on Antwerp I've read, Séamus. I've been saving that book for a rainy day, but the quotes and your commentary make it seem kind of hard to resist. Interesting that it reminded you of your last Dame Spark, too!

    1. Not sure that says a lot about other Antwerp posts! It's well worth reading and you will find plenty in it. You might even post coherently on it...