Old favourites: Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño (1980)

Week 2: A year of Rob Doyle’s best-loved books

Chilean writer Roberto Bolano answers journalists’ questions in July 1999 in Caracas, Venezuela. Photograph: José Caruci/AFP/Getty Images

Chilean writer Roberto Bolano answers journalists’ questions in July 1999 in Caracas, Venezuela. Photograph: José Caruci/AFP/Getty Images

 

Long before he attained world fame, the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño wrote a very short novel that was so weird he didn’t even show it to any publishers. In a preface written when Antwerp was finally published 22 years later, Bolaño suggests the frazzled condition from which it had emerged: “My sickness, back then, was pride, rage and violence . . . I never slept” – before affirming the credo that makes him such a seductive a figure to the young, the idealistic and the damned: “I believed in literature: or rather, I didn’t believe in arrivisme or opportunism or the whispering of sycophants. I did believe in vain gestures, I did believe in fate.”

Antwerp consists of 56 numbered and titled fragments, which do not so much tell a story as hint at the existence of one that blew itself apart and left ghostly, radioactive traces. Images recur: waiters silently traversing a windy beach; deserted highways and hotels; “cops who fuck nameless girls”; a hunchback in the woods. A writer, ‘Roberto Bolaño’, flickers in an out of view, prey to hallucinations and disembodied whispers. The effect is totally disorientating and incredibly haunting. Bolaño throws his lot in with the core surrealist technique of juxtaposing startlingly incongruous elements. Narrative logic is shoved out of the speeding train. What remains is a trance of pure atmosphere, the universe as perceived by a shaman in the throes of delirium tremens.

In Bolaño’s subsequent work, the sensibility remained intact, but he came to his senses and began telling coherent stories, and they are very good. He always wrote, to use his own phrase, like a madman imitating a madman. But Antwerp stands alone. It is a mysterious work, like a dream that confounds us on waking, suggesting depths beyond our knowable selves. It is also funny, like all Bolaño’s work, even if the only “joke” he cracks is a punchline that swallows its own tail: “Remember that joke about the bullfighter who steps out into the ring and there’s no bull, no ring, nothing?”

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