A playful primer for fans of Roberto Bolaño

FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBY reviews Antwerp By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer Picador, 78pp. £12

FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews AntwerpBy Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer Picador, 78pp. £12

THERE ARE NO rules in fiction, at least as far as the brave are concerned. And the brave include writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, William Gaddis and, of course, the most maverick of them all, the Chilean daredevil and poet turned novelist Roberto Bolaño. Author of The Savage Detectivesand 2666, Bolaño was the consummate wild card who appears to have taken Lewis Carroll's vision from the 19th century into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Bolaño knew life is about the moment, the fractured second that defines existence. His imagination leaped free. As for his stories, the best advice is: tie your shoelaces and be ready to run. His narratives are invariably fast-moving, alive with stories within stories. He was an artist at work with one eye on the clock. His race against death provided quite an incentive. Aware he would die young, he doubted he would reach the age of 37, but he died in 2003, aged 50, while waiting for a liver transplant. Since then, his literary legacy has continued to pour out in a torrent. English-language readers have been keeping the translators busy, while the Spanish-speaking world already knew about him and revered his daring, his belief in language and his dedication to the motifs as well as to the random facts that spawn stories.

Antwerpis a little book, a sketch pad, but it is essential for readers of his other works. In keeping with the marvellous frenzy that surrounds Bolaño, none of his works has appeared chronologically. Therefore, Antwerp, his Book of Genesis, written in 1980 when he was 27, but not published until 2003, holds the keys to fiction that his admirers will already have read.


Bolaño specialised in bold images and a film-noir atmosphere. Within most of his books are films pushing to be made, and Antwerpis a movie, moving at top speed and featuring hapless girls, failed poets, seedy hotels, shifty cops, deserted campsites and, not to be forgotten, the hunchback who may or may not be doubling as a dwarf. At the bruised heart of this narrative as a work in progress is a murder: "A body just outside of town".

The action appears to be set on the Costa Brava and in Barcelona. Mexico is also important, as it was to Bolaño, as both inspiration and theme. “Don’t stop going to the movies,” the prevailing consciousness advises in chapter 18 of the 56 brief instalments that make up the whole. In that sequence, the hunchback “strolls down the empty pool, sits in the deep end, and lights a cigarette”. The author then wonders: “Was it in Mexico City that I saw the hunchback for the first time?” It is an important moment; Bolaño’s fiction is as rich in recognition as it is in mystery. There is always a flash of finality: “No one will ever close this window again.”

Reading this disjointed yet oddly cohesive narrative is to walk into a maze of mirrors, mirrors that Bolaño was forever glancing into. As a writer, he saw epics in the reflections caught by a shop window. For him, story is a bit of paper that gets passed from hand to hand. This is not to suggest that he couldn't defer to convention: Distant Star(1996; English translation 2004); Amulet(1999; 2006) and Monsieur Pain(1999, 2010) testify to Bolaño's ability to shape short, snappy and wonderful conventional fictions.

But Antwerpis an improvisational delight, black, violent and quivering with intent. It is as if the characters are reacting for the first time to a script in which they have been given complete freedom by a more than liberal director. Voices speak at once, blurring and amplifying each other. The writer wanders in and out, bemused by the shape it is taking. "Police cars with their radios on: useless information raining down on them from all the neighbourhoods they pass through." We keep searching for the variation of the nameless girl, violated by any number of corrupt detectives, that will end up as the corpse. But it may not be any one of them.

Where does the artist fit into this mosaic of images, and long shots of dark bars and rain-drenched streets? He is everywhere and nowhere. The architect turned confused passer-by. Will the crime be solved? Will it even be established that there was a crime? Who knows? Does it matter?

The artist sounds a bit exasperated about the notion of logistics, and retorts, off camera no doubt: “Tell that stupid Arnold Bennett that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels.” Throughout the text, maxims are uttered: “I’d say the only beautiful thing here is the language.” But perhaps they are really intended as authorial asides, because Bolaño, being Bolaño, enjoys striding in and out of the action or nonaction, all the while sustaining a sort of running commentary: “I can’t be pessimistic or optimistic: everything is determined by the bat of hope that manifests itself in what we call reality.” This is followed by a most wonderful, and wonderfully contentious, statement: “I can’t be a science fiction writer because my innocence is mostly gone and I’m not crazy yet . . .”

So where exactly does Antwerp the city fit into all of this? "In Antwerp a man was killed when his car was run over by a truck full of pigs. Lots of pigs died too when the truck overturned." No one knew better than Bolaño the difficulties of writing, the sheer labour. But he also thrived on the exhilaration, and his fiction, his art, is exhilarating as well as exhausting. Antwerpis a primer: a playful if deadly serious statement of intent, although one framed by artistic speculation, not dogma. It is not an ideal place in which to begin an engagement with Roberto Bolaño; it is the beginning now offered against the pulsating backdrop. What a beginning to view at the end, and, as so true of the best beginnings, it is a lively guide with which one can now revisit The Savage Detectivesand 2666. After all, as every Bolaño reader has discovered, no face, no gesture, no comment is merely there. He was the shaper of subplot, the instigator of subtext.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times