Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stray Sentences

By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
78 pages
New Directions
April 30, 2010

All I can come up with are stray sentences, maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences. Desolation must be something like that, said the hunchback. "All right, take him away" ...

Roberto Bolaño wrote Antwerp some twenty-five years ago during the Barcelona phase of his global wanderings (as fictionalized in The Savage Detectives). In the preface, he explains that he wrote Antwerp for himself as a collection of loose pages that he would play around with and reread from time to time. He finally decided to publish it in 2002, having previously felt that any publishing house would simply slam the door in his face.

At this stage in his life,
Bolaño says he was still reading more poetry than prose. As such, Antwerp is best thought of as a series of loosely-connected prose poems. The setting is a dreamscape where odd little phrases and fleeting visions drift in and out of Barcelona's abandoned lots and empty houses. There are several references to a woman with no mouth or a whole corridor of them. Disembodied clapping is occasionally heard. Along with Bolaño's consistent use of the present tense, it is as though we are viewing either a slideshow or a disjointed film sequence.
"Reality is a drag." I suppose all the movies I've seen will be useless to me when I die. Wrong. They'll be useful, believe me. Don't stop going to the movies. Scenes of an empty commuter town, old newspapers blowing in the wind, dust crusted on benches and restaurants.
e glimpse a hunchback living in the woods, an ephemeral Englishman, fragments of the itinerant life, a campground, and a drug-dealing teen who fucks narcs. There's not much plot to speak of beyond several reappearing characters and references to a dead body and a detective looking for someone.

But there is still that sense that hidden forces are at work here, akin to what Bolaño would later expand upon in 2666. The gritty and violent sex scenes, the murder, allusions to homelessness and unemployment, and the looming presence of law enforcement clearly form a pattern, although what this means exactly is never developed. We are watching a drama unfold through a hazy screen and we're not quite sure what it is that we're seeing. Overall, Antwerp is an unusual, half-formed little book. Still, it has its appeal, especially to Bolaño fangirls like me who love his cryptic atmospheres. It is best read alongside The Savage Detectives and 2666, as the three works seem to compose a loose trilogy. According to Publisher's Weekly, Roberto Bolaño is apparently "doomed to have all of his scribblings published" (they didn't like this book) but that's just fine with me.

A big thanks to Frances for sending me this ARC as a surprise along with her extra copy of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo! I will be reading that next.


Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderfully intriguing. I've got The Savage Detectives checked off, but still have 2666 to read. Perhaps this would be a good bridge between them? Or would it be beneficial to read 2666 first...?

E. L. Fay said...

I think you definitely need to read either 2666 or The Savage Detectives first to get a good feel for Bolaño's style and what he may be doing with Antwerp. Reading it after Detectives and before 2666 is a great idea. It really does bridge the two: you get a sense of Bolaño's internationally itinerant life, which you're already familiar with from Detectives AND you get introduced to that dark, violent, cryptic atmosphere that characterizes 2666.

Parrish Lantern said...

one of the few Bolano's I've yet to read, as to the question which to read first, I'd suggest Last Evenings on Earth

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