It’s easy to see why New Directions made such a tangible physical object out of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp by showcasing it in a starkly bound hardcover edition, textured and black like iron; the texts it contains are like sand pouring through one’s hands, and leave the reader grasping desperately for something solid to hold. And as though to taunt the reader’s floundering, the back of the book carries a disproportionately large embossed quotation from Bolaño himself: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” Even taking into account that an artist’s assessment of his or her own work should usually be taken with a grain of morphine, when it came to Antwerp, the embarrassment – at least in terms of the book’s challenges to a reader - was all mine.
One knows quickly that Antwerp isn’t going to follow narrative conventions. This short work of “just loose pages,” compiled - “written” just doesn’t seem the right word - in 1980, when Bolaño still thought of himself primarily as a poet, but not published until 2002, comprises 56 linked vignettes offering up repeated signifiers that accrue into a kind of “novel” (his word, not mine). Did I write “vignettes”? That’s not quite the right word either, as its root implies a view onto something, whereas Bolaño’s texts are about as opaque as the dirty windows that recur throughout the book. Antwerp reads like a writer’s notebook: notes, fragments that might one day find their way into a novel (and indeed have, since certain elements will be recognizable to anyone who’s read Bolaño’s later works, thus Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarria’s frequently quoted observation that Antwerp represents “the Big Bang” in Bolaño’s literary universe). Even this is a somewhat optimistic assessment. While many episodes feature straightforward, coherent passages, these are interrupted by phrases and sentences that crowd upon one another without linearity or clear connectivity, at times as though William Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique had been scored for jagged glass and razor wire (indeed there’s reference to Burroughs on the first page of Antwerp). These ostensibly unrelated snippets of text clump together in inchoate clusters. Pronouns appear without identifiable referent. Certain phrases arise inexplicably within quotation marks as though snatched from overheard conversations or lifted from a screenplay. Nearly every attempt to logically bridge one free-floating element to another results in a plunge into an abyss. We’re adrift on a sea of disconnected texts – or rather, texts that imply connection due to the recurrence of certain ingredients, but, for all that, don’t point us towards a clear resolution of their relation. In this Rorschach test of a book, attempts at interpretation become nearly as atomized as the texts that beg them. A few phrases seem to play deliberately with the reader’s efforts to penetrate the opacity of the whole: “The hunchback is your guiding light.” Is he really? Are we supposed to be attuned to some significance outside the book? Should we think of Quasimodo? Is it Roberto Bolaño hunched over his desk in his cheap room at night? Might it be Lichtenberg? Regardless, should we really follow him, and if we do, where might he lead us - into or out of the forest of signs?
And what should we make of the David O. Selznick epigram that graces the first text in Bolaño’s game of 56-card pick-up? “Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a façade.” Is Bolaño warning us that the ensuing texts will be simply a façade too, that behind them (as I once heard someone charmingly misquote Gertrude Stein’s quip about Oakland), “there is nothing there, there”? Nearly all of these texts feature a cinematic attribute – a reference to a shot, a perspective, a screen or projection. But what to do with this flickering zoetrope of spliced images, this jump-cut fragmentation? Even after blinkering through these disparate, suggestive pieces and bringing to bear our own empirical and imaginative responsibilities as readers (one of Bolaño’s favorite Lichtenberg aphorisms seemed humiliatingly apt to me in my own reading: "A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, don't expect an apostle to peer out"), how are we to put them together and give them a comprehensible form in a work that seems to be about form itself, the usual rules abandoned in an experiment in what can be done beyond or without them?
One tenuous foothold is provided by Bolaño’s 2002 preface, “Total Anarchy” (a title so hyperbolic that I felt inclined to treat it the way an Amy Hempel character treated her moving van being swallowed by a landslide upon her arrival in California by noting, “an omen that big can just be ignored”). Here Bolaño characterizes Antwerp as a book written “for myself…and of that I’m not even sure” and later as written “for the ghosts,” lines dashed off nightly in a sort of fever (Jack Kerouac writing The Subterraneans over three days without sleep came to mind). The epigram from Blaise Pascal at the beginning of the book offers another meager purchase, with its astonishment at the fact of being alive at a particular moment and place in the eternity of time, “to see myself here rather than there; there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then.” And indeed Antwerp reads as though the boundaries between one moment and another, one space and another, have vanished, leaving a “total anarchy” of place and time.
Except that it’s not exactly total anarchy. There are no grammatically nonsensical phrases, no patches of moss or pieces of garbage or cauliflowers, no sudden eruptions of Chinese calligraphy or mathematical equations or doodles in the middle of a page (well okay, so there is actually a doodle). There’s a logic to Bolaño’s network of signs and a perceptible integrity to the episodes and to the work as a whole. While these texts at first seem haphazardly tossed together in a frenzy of creation, an accretion begins to form from the repetition of certain conceits, images, phrases, personages. Waiters walking along a beach. A forest by a highway. Violence. A nameless red-haired girl. Cops. Colors. Faces without mouths and mouths unable to speak. The hunchback. Dirty windows. Sand.
Phrases referencing the futility of words and language also proliferate, and the various origins of this fragmentation of language in Antwerp are suggested by consistencies within overlapping spatial and temporal planes: dreams, films, observations in streets and parks and campgrounds and stations, reflections regarding the process of writing itself: “Phrases appeared, I mean, I never closed my eyes or made an effort to think, the phrases just appeared, literally, like glowing ads in the middle of the empty waiting room…like news on an electronic ticker”… “Hands in the process of geometric fragmentation: writing that’s stolen away just as love, friendship, and the recurring backyards of nightmares are stolen away”… “All I can come up with are stray sentences, he said, maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences”…”There are no rules.”
For all its splintered jaggedness, what holds Antwerp together (loosely) is this tension between “total anarchy” and what we can see is surely not “total anarchy.” Bolaño feeds us just enough to keep us in a maddening state of doubt about the text. Is there an actual story among these shreds and scraps? Poring through them one gets glimpses of a story or stories amid the book’s several murders, malevolent cops, films being made and watched (many of these elements, particularly the suggestion of literature involving a kind of detective work, will of course reappear in Bolaño’s later novels).
Why “Antwerp”? One of the 56 episodes bears that title and recounts a horrific accident outside that city in which a truck carrying pigs crushes a car and leaves the pigs dead, injured, or running off down the highway like Bolaño’s own piggly little insubordinate sentences. Bolaño might have used any of the other 55 titles for the ensemble. But in picking this one, #49, distinguished by virtue of its geographical particularity and imagery, Bolaño succeeds in having the reader’s attention coalesce around it. Something is buoyed above the sea of other signifiers. But what, exactly, and why? The only other time the city’s name appears is in the penultimate text, which recounts the disappearance of an expat girl from the campground and implies her murder, foreshadowed – if that’s the right word – by earlier texts, including one that features an account of six young campers shot to death, perhaps by paramilitaries or police (one recognizes these young people right away – they group together across the globe as they have for years in parks and on beaches and in foreign places seeking meaning and solidarity and connection). In this text, we also see the parents of the disappeared girl driving towards some European city - “On the way to Lyon, Geneva, Bruges? On the way to Antwerp?” – perhaps on the way to the girl’s funeral, perhaps oblivious to her death in a foreign land, with their trajectory loaned an ominous foreboding by the aforementioned absurd accident “on the death-doomed European highways” – another of the “sad stories” to which Bolaño refers repeatedly throughout the book.
But in the interstices of these linked signifiers and sad stories amid swarming stray sentences and disrupted spatio-temporality, one can see another glue holding Antwerp together: the motifs that suggest (as helpfully contextualized in Bolaño’s preface) something of the writer’s own predicament at the time of his writing the book. A montage, an abstract but discernible portrait of that life emerges – or at least of a life one can imagine Bolaño having led (there are never equivalences in this book, only intimations) - a life marked by youth, fear, loneliness, sadness, poverty, immaturity, vulnerability, loss, working odd jobs to survive, smoking and writing in cheap rooms, being a stranger in a strange land, glimpses of and proximity to violence, huddling with other young adrift expats, watching pornographic movies in theaters and b-films on a sheet strung between trees in a communal campground, having little but writing and the aspiration to be a writer to give one the courage to carry on. Some of these elements in the preface and the texts communicate a youthful sentimentality, pathos and even mild self-romanticization, particularly the last page, where Bolaño breaks through his fourth wall and tells us of the life-line of certain phrases and sentences capable of “grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.” Perhaps Antwerp was the one novel that didn’t embarrass Bolaño because it so honestly represented this time of youthful vulnerability and aspiration, its unmediated texts given permission to drift upward or downward at their wont and marking for him the fearful courage - to which he alludes in his preface with a forgiving kindness towards this early, obliquely autobiographical effort – of daring his transformation into an artist.
For this reason, Antwerp may primarily be of interest from the standpoint of Bolaño’s literary origins (Echevvaria’s “Big Bang” comment may represent the most compelling reason for reading the book). The curious last line of Bolaño’s preface - “Then came 1981, and before I knew it, everything had changed” - may denote some event to which we are not privy, or, more unlikely, may allude to a year of significant change in post-Franco Spain (where Bolaño lived at the time), or, more likely, may reference Bolaño’s recognition of his emergence as a fully committed writer. Or, it might simply mark the arrival of another year, another incremental step away from youth. Regardless, it asserts a conscious delineation, a line drawn in the sand from across which Bolaño could move on to grander things, with fragments of these loose pages trailing behind him.