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Roberto Bolaño's "Antwerp"


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Posted (edited)

A review I wrote a year ago, maybe, about Bolaño's Antwerp

I am wondering if anyone has read it. What were your thoughts on it. It is a strange novel, in many respects, but nonetheless rewarding. Would love to know what your thoughts were.

Bolaño's Antwerp

Bolaño's early work is a 'culmination', retrogressively, of his later work. A strange event, really, since we often find traces of a writer's mature style when we look backward to his or her early creative output. With Antwerp, a work written in 1980 and published only in 2002, the year before his death, we see a concentrated Bolaño, struggling with what will always plague him in his writing - a confrontation with form and structure, an interrogation of voice, both enunciated and forgotten. For Bolaño, this voice has an ontological significance, and something that writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Bernhard, and Coetzee have all interrogated. In Bolaño, however, it is not only voice that he pursues, but voicedness - the quality of having voice.

What does this quality entail? Does it consist of a sense of authenticity? Is it authenticated by consistency and structure? Or is it an elusive moment of utterance? How does one articulate, as a writer, this elusiveness? How does one capture a quality, if it often dissipates the second it is offered or uttered drowning into a sea of other utterances as soon as it is brought forth? In Savage Detectives Bolaño showcases a history of two poets, itself a doomed project, through the voices of those who tangentially come into contact with these poets. Who they are, and where they may be is intertwined with what these encounters have brought to light about the two poets of the Visceral Realist school. There is a narrative impulse in Savage Detectives, but like the elusiveness of the two poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Bolaño, this narrative impulse struggles in its pursuit of a resolution.

In Antwerp, resolution is no longer the engine behind the narrative impulse. The Beckettian need to narrate aside, it is the struggle to find a narrative that plagues this narrative. All that exist in this novella are phrases, as one character implies, which never reach the end of their utterances. The chapters themselves are enigmatically short, and the characters do not interact with each other, though they recur occasionally throughout the text. Bolaño's interrogation is not only of discovering what it is that is being said, and by whom, both Beckettian preoccupations, but it is also an experimentation in the very meaning of having a voice. How do we have a voice, and how do we deal with having a voice.

Such an experimentation defies form and structure, and attests to a textual dynamics that transforms reading practices. How do we read if that which is being read refuses to be read 'meaningfully'?

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Edited by nivenkumar
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Posted

I haven't read this, but I have read 2666, which was shocking and amazing. I'll pick up Antwerp; anyone who has read and wants to discuss 2666, feel free.

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I've read a lot of Bolaño's work but unfortunately not Antwerp. It's interesting that your take seems to accord with Nicole Krauss's here:

Although many of the defining characteristics of the later Bolaño are already present in Antwerp, there is a labouring here, like someone trying to see how far he can swim weighted down by clothes, that one never encounters again in his later novels, which come to seem effortless. But it is this labouring, and its result (or lack of result), that Antwerp is about more than anything else. It is the hermetic record of a young writer's struggle with himself and with the form of the novel, a writer who is willing to stubbornly pursue futility rather than succeed on established terms, who is trying to wrestle undiscovered dimensions out of the novel and himself.
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That is interesting Hugo Holbling!

But I think where Krause and I defer is that she does not see this struggle recurring in his later work, whereas, I see struggle in all of his work. I mean take 2666 for instance. The novel, written as 5-parts (all of which can stand alone as novels in their own right) challenges the novel of a sustained narrative. It is as if the centre, the supposed master mind of the crime has so many forms and avatars, each encompassed by each of the 5 parts, and yet never conforming to a unified picture. In Savage detectives, the struggle is as clear as in Antwerp, where the narrative "labours" as Krause puts it, to find itself, labours to find those who are at the centre of this narrative.

This constant search for the centre of the narrative, and the interminable circling of voices and phrases - this, I think is Bolaño over and over again.

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This constant search for the centre of the narrative, and the interminable circling of voices and phrases - this, I think is Bolaño over and over again.

This approach also presents a challenge to the reader seeking a linear narrative and entertainment. Here's an older discussion at TGL on Bolaño's 2666, in which there are some examples of the author doing this: the critics asking Amalfitano why he was living in Argentina in 1974 (noted in your link) and their ignorance or disinterest in the murders. Moreover, there are no resolutions (or none that I can recall) in Bolaño's writing. This adds to the brutalising effect of the horror in 2666 and it's as though he is holding literature to account for it.

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For the Bolano virgin, which of his books do you recommend?

Usually I try reading the oeuvre of a great writer chronologically. But perhaps not a good idea in Bolano's case?

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Heretic,

Well, I guess, you could read The Skating Rink which I think is Bolaño's most 'conventional' novel, but apart frpm that you might also want to try his short story collections, The Secret of Evil, and Last Evenings on Earth to begin with. And then Savage Detectives before hitting Amulet which takes the story of one single character in Savage and focuses on her for the whole novel. Then perhaps you can try 2666.

I don't really think it matters, though, but I wonder what Hugo thinks about this? Any thoughts, Hugo (by the way, thanks for the link to the discussion; I'll take a look at it soon)?

N.

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Not sure if anyone has read this short piece by Bolaño, but here it is.

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The story, "Phone Calls", to which Niven linked is included in a collection of Bolaño short stories published as Last Evenings on Earth. I had another Bolaño-virgin read "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva" from that collection (because it was set in India), and she then proceeded to enjoy the other stories as well.

If I had to describe the stylistic appeal of Bolaño, I would say that there is a persistent sense of understatement which makes one long for what is yet to come. In that way, it is quite musical; it draws along the way good music does.

Michael

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There's something to be said for jumping straight in. I think I read The Savage Detectives first, then 2666, before going back to some of the minor pieces. This accidental approach has been a little anticlimactic - a reader could be forgiven for asking where to go after 2666 anywhere in literature - but subsequently rereading these larger works has proven still more rewarding after filling in details or identifying other perspectives from the short stories.

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There's something to be said for jumping straight in. I think I read The Savage Detectives first, then 2666, before going back to some of the minor pieces. This accidental approach has been a little anticlimactic - a reader could be forgiven for asking where to go after 2666 anywhere in literature - but subsequently rereading these larger works has proven still more rewarding after filling in details or identifying other perspectives from the short stories.

Agreed. I started with 2666 and would most often recommend that as the place to start.

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Posted (edited)

I thought you might like to read what Bolaño has to say about The Savage Detectives:

There are some nice things - not many - about finishing a novel, and one of them is beginning to forget it, remembering a dream or a nightmare that gradually fades so that we can face new books, new days, without the constant reminder of what in all likelihood we could have done better and didn't. Kafka, this century's best writer, showed the way when he asked a friend to burn all his work. He assigned the task to brod, on the one hand, and also to Dora, his lover. Brod was a writer and he didn't keep his promise. Dora was less educated and she may have loved Kafka more, and one presumes that she carried out her lover's request to the letter. All writers, especially on the flat day, which is the day after, or what we vainly believe is the day after, have two devils or angels inside called Brod and Dora. One is always bigger than the other. Usually Brod is bigger or more powerful than Dora. Not in my case. Dora is considerably bigger than Brod, and Dora helps me forget what I've written so that I can write something new, and with no pangs of shame or regret. So The Savage Detectives is more or less forgotten. I can only venture a few thoughts about it. One the one hand I think I see it as a response, one of many, to Huckleberry Finn; the Mississippi of The Savage Detectives is the flow of voices in the second part of the novel. It is also the more or less faithful transcription of a segment of the life of the Mexican poet Mario Santiago, whose friend I was lucky enough to be. In this sense the novel tries to reflect a kind of generational defeat and also the happiness of a generation, a happiness that at times delineated courage and the limits of courage. To say that I am permanently indebted to the work of Borges and Cortazar is obvious. I believe there are as many ways to read my novel as there are voices in it. It can be read as a deathbed lament. It can also be read as a game.

That is what I meant in my post about Antwerp when I said there is a underlying voicedness in Bolaño's work. I have been working on, but have been slightly derailed in recent months, an investigation of Beckett, Bernhard, Bolaño, and Krasnahorkai, and the clear focus on a suspended sense of voice. Perhaps, I will get back to the abandoned investigation. This discussion has certainly made me revisit it again.

The above essay was taken from his collection of essays/thoughts, [between Parentheses].

Niven

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Edited by nivenkumar
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