Roberto Bolano’s novel Antwerp is reviewed by Gabriella Swerling.
Review by Gabriella Swerling
Remember that joke about the bullfighter who steps out into the ring and there’s no bull, no ring, nothing?
Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp is a startlingly beautiful and innovative piece of writing which meanders into and distorts reality. It completely engulfs you in its world where only nonsense makes sense, and continues to haunt you throughout – long after you turn the last page.
Bolaño’s poetic prose is infiltrated with a sweeping lens that scans a panoramic viewpoint from various characters. Consciousness between characters becomes a form of discourse. Antwerp’s fragmented filmic style severs any possibility of having a clear narrative flow. It is almost as if Bolaño is fingering the reels of film, staring at the inside of his head, biting his lip and eventually deciding that:
The only possible scene is the one with the man on the path through the woods, running.
This is how he chooses to open one of the short chapters. Antwerp goes on to describe various ‘scenes’, ‘close-ups’, ‘zooms’ and ‘off-screen’ shenanigans that dictate the cinematographic image the reader should paint inside one’s own head.
(He says: I’m in a cage – it’s a private joke – then he buys cigarettes and walks away from the camera).
This ‘camera’ is the vision that mediates between story and reader. It is how the reader becomes involved in the detective plot, suddenly jolted into looking for and spying upon various characters that had previously passed as unremarkable. Dormant characters who know they are wanted by both the detectives and the reader swiftly become elusive. The reader must make a sort of collage of various moments and different perspectives of the same moment – cutting snippets here and there and pasting them around one’s own internal detective office. One can only try and fail to disentangle a literary experiment that is knotted as tight as Antwerp and reduce it to a mere story. Or even a synopsis. As he says himself, ‘rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels.’ Thus, Bolaño’s rebellious form defies definition. It is, in effect, the reader who writes the story. The result is a succession of internal monologues, asides and scenarios that are so slick it almost needs a soundtrack to match the picture.
Bolaño involves his reader in a journey that explores the interconnectedness and thin veil between us all. His tragically beautiful sentence:
The two of them wept like characters from different movies projected on the same screen
best epitomises this sentiment in which he allows a filmic merging of surrealism that drips with reality. His repeated use of synaesthesia emphasises the need to suspend disbelief in order to attempt to grasp Antwerp. Just because he doesn’t make sense, doesn’t mean you can’t understand him. As Bolaño says, ‘I can’t get a fix on the frequencies of reality.’
Bolaño only turned his pen to prose to make a living for his family, confessing: ‘I blush less when I re-read my poems.’ One can see how, then, Antwerp was described by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor as ‘the Big Bang of his fictional universe.’ This explosive experiment with form allows his pen to sneak back to its delicate and comfortable, poetic inclination and that is exactly why he says ‘the only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.’
‘Roberto Bolaño’ even manages to make an appearance within his own elusive novel. He is simultaneously the lone, tortured writer (both within and outside the confinements of the page) and a spectator to his own movie – a heckler almost. He interjects the flow of the plot within parentheses of ‘(applause)’ here and there. He praises both the triumphs of various characters and his own revolutionary style. Bolaño as the paranoid, self-conscious writer attempts to elude the gaze of the ever-active reader who is keen to finish the puzzle and piece the jigsaw that Bolaño set. In the short nine-line ‘chapter’ entitled ‘Romance Novel’ the reader is allowed inside the head of a character who is demanding to know whether someone
really thought Roberto Bolaño had helped the hunchback just because years ago he was in love with a Mexican girl and the hunchback was Mexican too.
Bolaño’s critical self-awareness reveals how Antwerp is not merely an investigation of aCosta Brava crime scene, but also of himself. He paints a portrait of himself as a young man and an artist.
But this is not a story that finishes once the reader has reached the last page. There is no beginning, middle and end to Antwerp. Various motifs reverberate around the plot. Nameless girls, love, cops, the fake cop, poetry, misfits, violence, the hunchback, the campground, Barcelona. What appear on the surface to be short, incoherent stabs at violently changing perspectives are actually carefully crafted vignettes – moments in time that flit and flutter about. As a result, the reader is unwittingly consumed within the detective plot in order to somehow write their own version of the story. Bolaño helps a little by leaving a limited trail of clues, questions, red-herrings and motifs.
Yet the case for the detectives – and the reader – cannot be closed because Bolaño’s aim is not to solve or resolve, but just to tell and to show. It just is. It just is fifty-six sections, moments, ‘chapters’ of a crime investigation set on the Costa Brava intermingling with voices from dreams, nightmares, him, her, them and from the lost writer ‘Roberto Bolaño’ himself.
Bolaño chose not to publish Antwerp until 2002, a year before his death and more than twenty years after he wrote it. What is left is a haunting, meditative piece in which Bolaño selects the best words in the best order, never wasting one of them.
Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.