Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Roberto Bolaño: Antwerp: "I am amazed to see myself here rather than there" (Pascal)

The continued publication and popular packaging of [Bolaño's] incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition. Sam Carter, The New Republic

Unlike Mr. Carter, I am of the school of thought that says--the more Bolaño the better.  Even  when the great Chilean/Mexican/Spanish poet and novelist isn't at his best, his work is full of riches--powerful writing, dense plotting, and significant themes. In Bolaño there are always passages, sections, or in the major novels hundreds of pages of writing that are inspired and unlike anything else written in the last part of the twentieth century and the troubled first part of the twenty-first. The final two hundred pages of Savage Detectives, the long middle sections (three and four) of 2666, the tighter and fully satisfying By Night in Chile, and the more recent Monsieur Pain--flawed, and perhaps too derivative of his own work, but still a fine book, full of energy and great writing. 

Antwerp is a greeting card of a book--a dinghy attached to 2666 or to the new Woes of the True Policeman.   But Antwerp contains some of Bolaño's most lyrical writing. Written in 1980, a book "written for the ghosts," Antwerp was published in the year before  Bolaño's death, but it contains, in brief fragments, many of the main themes of his longer works--a mystery story, a melancholy narrator, cameos by the author, motorcycles and sleaze and corruption--the world, in other words, run amok, but ordered, always and only, in prose. "It's summer and the policemen are drinking at the back of the bar. Next to the jukebox a girl listens to the latest hits.  Around the same time, someone is walking, far from here, away from here, with no plans to come back."

As in any Bolaño novel, no matter what is taking place in the foreground, something bad is occurring just off stage--as in the numbingly brilliant 'Part About the Bodies' in 2666; as one reads, one knows that a woman is being killed, right now, somewhere in the Sonora, and the build up of tension, of despair, is visceral, unlike anything else I can think of in literature.  In addition to its thin but compelling story, Antwerp pays homage to Cortázar; the fifty-six short sections of the book, less than a page each, are interchangeable, the story not so much a narrative as a shifting of moods, an adumbration of ideas, scenes, characters, riffs.  Sophie Podolski is here, rapist cops pop up in the bushes, Englishmen who haven't a clue glide through a sentence, various unnamed girls who enjoy sex and sunsets, and  also many of the tropes of Romantic Dogs--Bolaño's 2006 collection of poems--and, above all, the same powerfully rendered feeling of the flimsiness of the world--of relationships, lives, hopes, youth--all of which, in Bolaño's view, are about to come to an end.  All that endures in Bolaño is writing. 

"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. . . Odes to the human and the divine.  Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage." 

Published by New Directions and beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer, who has done so well by Bolaño.

George Ovitt (1/16)                                                    

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