56 Vignettes

A young man’s scorn for conventional literature spills out. Fans,kindly note,it is Bolano’s first novel

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published:July 21, 2012 3:46 am

Book: Antwerp

Author: Roberto Bolano

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Publisher: Picador

Pages: 78

Price: Rs 350

This July marks nine years since the death of Roberto Bolano,the Chilean-born poet-turned-novelist who grew up in Mexico and died in Spain at the age of 50,waiting to climb the last few notches to the top of a liver-transplant list. Since the publication of Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night in Chile in December 2003,the last decade has steadily built Bolano’s posthumous reputation for an Anglophone readership,till his canonisation was completed with Natasha Wimmer’s renditions of The Savage Detectives (2007) and 2666 (2008). No dead writer has been more prolific,and the industry that has grown around his ghost keeps reaffirming his sainthood — to the extent that the non-sequential translations,even while complicating a full assessment,enrich the game. Bolano’s Hispanophone readers,having missed out on most of this thrilling pursuit,nevertheless have a headstart. We too may soon square with them,as Woes of the True Policeman (Wimmer),due this November,promises to be at least the penultimate of Bolano’s unpublished novels.

Antwerp,meanwhile,was the last novel published — in 2002 — before Bolano’s death. It is also the first one Bolano wrote,in 1980,long before he would make his definitive switch to prose. Written in 56 vignettes,the shortest of which span only a few lines and many of which suddenly collapse into unfinished sentences — sometimes direct speech or quotations — the book and each of its fragments are a young cynic-cum-idealist’s (oxymoronic as that sounds,he was 27) shattering indictment of every conventional form of the novel.

In his 2002 introduction,“Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later”,Bolano contextualises Antwerp: “The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great,though only a little greater than my scorn for marginal literature.” Throughout his literary life,Bolano would give the impression that his faith in literature was much against his better judgment,or that literature,the “dangerous calling”,mattered too much to care about polishing up diction and syntax. Nowhere does this appear more tangible than in this novella. Because Antwerp is where Bolano began,his literary executor,Ignacio Echevarría,has labelled the book the “big bang” of Bolano’s universe. Characters,images and phrases return in order-less patterns till the reader makes out a murder scene,a campsite,a corrupt cop having sex with a young girl in a hotel,a hunchback,an English writer,and another writer called Roberto Bolano. By the time we come to the 49th vignette titled “Antwerp”,all the themes,motifs,preoccupations and prejudices that would populate Bolano’s universe have been paraded,without apologies and without ever attempting to make up a whole.

And what makes up Bolano’s universe? Violence (Antwerp’s Costa Brava,2666’s Santa Teresa/ Ciudad Juárez); sex; poets and wanderers (like the character Roberto Bolano); questers (detectives,literary and otherwise); youth; love; and failure. All of which climax in the randomly absurd: “In Antwerp a man was killed when his car was run over by a truck full of pigs.” Or,the nightmarish: corridors full of “women with no mouths”. Writing is a sickness,literature is necessary but impossible,the poet is a failure and thus a hero. These alone are Bolano’s fragments shored up against total anarchy. Bolano’s most disturbing premise is this: you have to shake everything out of literature till the skeleton remains,discounting even language and metaphor. Although his own metaphors often cannot be bettered,Bolano’s single most important contribution to literature in Spanish is killing off the last remnants of the old rhetoric,which both the Spanish language and even the Latin American Boom were loathe to abandon altogether. In that sense,this most un-Borgesian inheritor of Borges’ mantle finished his master’s task. Incidentally,the attribute of Latin American Spanish Bolano hated most was the rhetoric of the junta that ruled Borges’ Argentina.

It is when we realise this that we come to understand why Bolano claimed that Antwerp is the only novel of his that did not embarrass him. It is his most idiosyncratic and most honest work — the thing in itself: “I wrote this book for myself,and even that I can’t be sure of.” His intent and despair (at 27) are caught in the last vignette,“Postscript”: “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.” In the sense that Antwerp is the antithesis of the epic 2666 on scale,it can be said that what began in Antwerp’s laboured bursts culminated in the 2666 magnum opus.

Since we know beforehand how Bolano’s journey ended,it is interesting to see how it began. Formal experimentation is the wont of the novel,and Bolano had shown his inclinations in the monologue By Night in Chile and the fictitious encyclopaedia Nazi Literature in the Americas. Coming to us after 2666 and not before (unlike the Hispanophone reader),Antwerp is Bolano’s lighting out for the territory,which we know he found. In the unlikely case of your never having read him,forget this book,begin somewhere else. Otherwise,this is a collector’s item.

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