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A violent, kaleidoscopic prose poem by the young Bolaño,
This review is from: Antwerp (Hardcover)
This little book was Roberto Bolaño's first 'novel', written in 1980 when the author was 27, although it is both short enough to be barely a novella and rather different in structure from anything that the author went on to publish in the 1990s. By his own account Bolaño was both very fond of 'Antwerp' ('Amberes' in the original Spanish: this is Natasha Wimmer's translation) and, according to the brief introduction he wrote for the first Spanish edition of 2002, absolutely certain that it could not be published: too enigmatic, too violent, too disjointed.
Bolaño was better known at that time as a poet than as a writer of prose, and 'Antwerp' has something of the structure and compression of a prose poem. It consists of 56 sections that total about 78 pages of text, though none of the sections is longer than a couple of pages and some are a single paragraph. Each section has a title that seems to have been plucked almost at random from the text of that section.
In this way Bolaño presents a tale that the reader struggles to understand and has to co-compose. There is no attempt at linear, chronological presentation: the narrator, who is a writer, who may be Bolaño himself or only ' Bolaño', flits rapidly between memory, description, dialogue and scraps of what may be verse, journal entries, lines from letters. It's a crime story, of a sort, set mainly in Spain. There's a girl, a hunchback, a campground, an Englishman. There's a corrupt policeman and several suspicious deaths. There is a young man who is trying to write in a foreign country.
'Antwerp' is almost impossible to reassemble coherently at a first reading, but it demands reading and rereading because of Bolaño's prose. This is the writing of a man who was a nobody but was on the cusp of becoming one of the most significant Latin American writers of his time. In the brief introduction he speaks of reading science fiction alongside the ancient Greeks, pornography alongside poetry. In 1980 the bag of postmodernist tricks had not yet been exhausted by repetition, and 'Antwerp' has the intensity and strangeness of one of Beckett's short fictions. It expresses the violent alienation and disgust that is perhaps only possible to a professional wanderer who is clinging to literature like a drowning man.