Book Review of Antwerp by Roberto Bolano
“I know of one Greek labyrinth which is but one straight line. Along that line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.” Borges, Death and the Compass
“Murder is a religious subject,” wrote Graham Greene. “The interest of a detective story is the pursuit of exact truth.” Indeed, the crime genre affirms values of teleology and reason as its narratives move from the discovery of the victim through the amassing of clues until the murderer is revealed.
From disclosure to closure, few things could be more comforting than this way of taming the world: the pursuit of exact truth is an affirmation of meaningfulness. But Antwerp, by Roberto Bolaño, enters the crime genre and takes meaning hostage. I can’t say for sure what he does with it. Perhaps that is the mystery of the novel.
It doesn’t tell a story. Rather, we get glimpses of stories, as events pile up in fragments and frames, each unleashing a chorus of disembodied voices, while a fictionalised version of the author feeds us with images and snips of conversations, broken stories and dreams. The book’s 56 short chapters – or vignettes, or prose poems, or whatever you want to call them – do not comprise the traditional narrative arc of the crime genre.
Instead, Antwerp reads like the gathering of forensic evidence – loosely pertaining (or perhaps not at all) to a murder in the Costa Brava, and a string of other “sad stories” and “last gasps”. The hunchback in the woods… Cops who fuck nameless girls… Death throes and an asshole from South America, on the road. We are left to decide whether we will attempt to solve the mystery by drawing connections between these pieces of evidence.
But the first job for the reader-detective, before they can examine the evidence, is to consider the nature of Antwerp‘s mystery. Any attempt to read the novel how we have been trained to read, to assemble the recurring narrative elements – “a campsite”, “a red-haired girl”, “Roberto Bolaño” – into a nice, clean, causal plot would be maddening. It requires another approach.
Antwerp snaps moments into focus, then blurs them, refuses to distinguish important sequences from what may just be noise, and operates according to a contradictory scheme. Chapters unravel, they stop short, they disintegrate. This, of course, makes specific demands on the reader – if the stories don’t do what you think they are going to do, how are you going to read them?
One way of understanding Antwerp – insofar as we can see how it departs from the traditional detective story – would be to begin at the end. After all, starting at the end and working backwards is one way that detective writers may build the neat teleology of their stories – begin with ultimate clarity, and then muddy the water so the reader can see the solving of the story unfold.
So what happens if we start at the end of Antwerp? Does the final chapter (entitled Postscript) conclude a steady movement away from entropy as Bolaño goes through chaotic elements and towards order? No such luck. What we find instead is a statement explicitly against that:
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. (Significant, said the foreigner.) 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.
If we are to attempt to take this at face value, the passage begins with a yearning for quiddity – the idea that you might be able to recover what it was like to be alive at a certain time, at a certain place.
It goes on to further invite us to look away from “fiction” and turn towards a possible moment located in history – the poet Daniel Biga on a bridge. It is one of several invocations of the biographical “real” in the novel (for example, the death of the poet Sophie Podolski, 27 years old).
As a conclusion, this yearning and genre-blurring doesn’t draw a neat line under anything. Its gentleness even seems out of place in a novel which has described some very dark, seedy and violent events. As carefully as we may have managed to pull together fragments of Antwerp‘s fractured plot, this does not appear to be part of it.
But what it does have in common with the rest of the novel is a description of a powerful experience, happening at a certain place, given weight by a particular mood – in this case, one of nostalgia or loss.
But what makes it important – why is this particular experience so significant? It is a careful description of a particular type of moment which draws from notions of youthful strength, an invocation of literary authority, the place it might have happened – all of which combine to create the sense of a significance, even if we don’t understand exactly of what.
We may not have plot conclusion. We may not even have continuation of mood. But what we do have is a fitting conclusion to the conceptual undertone of the book. The postscript takes pains for you to realise, if you didn’t already, that this is a description of a moment of salience.
Salience refers in psychology to the phenomenon of experiencing events as linked and meaningful “(Significant, said the foreigner)”. It is the impulse behind the disembodied voices throughout the novel who comment on events. It doesn’t matter that there may not be something inherently significant about the Postscript – it is the simply the experience of significance which underlies its importance.
The novel is set up to examine salience right from the beginning. Not in the author’s introduction (which, incidentally, is so self-mythologising it should be read as part of the fiction: “I worked at night. During the day I wrote and read. I never slept. To keep awake, I drank coffee and smoked”) – but in the epigraphs, one directly after another. The first contains the wonder and terror of a religious moment, the second, a secular chill.
The first quotation, from Pascal, considers the sheer terror of “the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me”. It continues: “I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there.” The quote is from Pensées, in which the theologian seeks to justify faith by wagering the consequences of belief and disbelief in a world where there is a God, and one in which there is not. But in Antwerp, Bolaño has invited us to bet on meaningfulness – stakes equally high, perhaps.
What immediately follows this is a quotation from David O Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind. It reads:Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a facade.
The house, a set, was a facade, there were no inhabitable spaces behind the windows. This is not necessarily a regretful sentiment – just as there is no real house in Gone With the Wind, there is no limit to the scope of belief: the novel, the whole world, is a series of movable facades. If the world is a series of facades, then thought is a door to infinite possibility. Anything can be simulated.
By placing these two epigraphs together, Bolaño sets up an interesting premise for a detective novel. On the one hand, we have a world of facades in which anything can be possible. On the other hand, are the experiences they provide authentically meaningful? In the chaos of the novel, it feels there could be hidden a series of meaningful events, if only we could just puzzle it out.
But the reader quickly realises that there is so much background noise that, really, any one thing could be as important as anything else. Stories carry us off and we begin to feel hopeful – only for them to stop short, merge with another, take a U-turn. There is a process of stripping away in each chapter in which hierarchies unfold – typical of Bolaño. For example, the story about a man who was killed in a collision with a truck full of pigs is concluded: “I wanted to be alone too. In Antwerp or Barcelona. The moon. Animals fleeing. Highway accident. Fear.”
Everything keeps falling away. Barcelona, Antwerp, the moon, fear. Equally it might be Leopardi, Daniel Biga, Nordic bridge, courage… Bolaño’s power in Antwerp is the ability to commemorate meaningfulness by marking its loss, much in same way a war memorial or gravestone does. Antwerp is crammed full of these monuments.
But what are we meant to make of these monuments of quiddity? We have been handed a difficult task. So difficult, in fact, it’s as if by presuming or betting on meaning we have been set up to lose. The question is, what is it to lose meaningfulness? The knowledge of that experience is beyond us. “The infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing”.
The opposite of salience is dysphoria, which is crucially not the experience of meaninglessness or indeed absurdity – but a flat, featureless absence of experience. Antwerp lures us to grasp for the experience of what it is to lose salience. As the novel gathers pace, every sentence seems to usher us towards this unknowable portent. There is nothing like reading Bolaño to bring a person face to face with this kind of fear, while simultaneously keeping it thrillingly just out of reach.
Publication Date: 02/09/2011
Number of pages: 96
James Gray has a life-long interest in politics, travel, the environment, and global affairs. He works in IT but his heart truly beats for the written word.