After a post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” to open the year, it is probably also appropriate to now have a look at one of Roberto Bolaño’s books, given I have lofty ambitions to make my way through all of his works, those I haven’t read before, over the coming year.
His earliest “collection” is “Antwerp”, written in 1980 but not published, originally under the title “Amberes”, until 2002.
A collection of fifty-six vignettes, a work that is commonly referred to as the only book “he wasn’t embarrassed by”, from the off this collection has a mystical, cryptic, poetic feel. It is a façade, but so is life, and Bolaño is telling us, in a clipped style, that you shouldn’t try and read too much into it;
Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a façade.
– David O Selznick
The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The Fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade – dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta. 1959. Everything looks worn. Not a recent phenomenon. From a long time back, everything wrecked. And the Spaniards imitate the way you talk. The South American lilt. An alley of palms. Everything slow and asthmatic. Bored biologists watch the rain from the windows of their corporations. It’s no good singing with feeling. My darling, wherever you are: it’s too late, forget the gesture that never came. “It was just a façade.” The kid walks toward the house.
This is a work where the images of a young poet, turning his hand to fiction, splash over the page in front of you, there are unpolished gems a plenty. For example on page two Sophie Podolski makes an appearance, she also appears in “The Savage Detectives” and “Distant Star”.
“…Not to mention France, great country of devouring mouths, where one hundred faggot poets, from Villon to our beloved Sophie Podolski, have nurtured, still nurture, and will nurture with the blood of their tits ten thousand queer poets with their entourage of philenes, nymphs, butches, and sissies, lofty editors of literary magazines, great translators, petty bureaucrats, and grand diplomats of the Kingdom of Letters (see, if you must, the shameful and malicious reflections of the Tel Quel poets). And the less said the better about the faggotry of the Russian Revolution, which, if we’re to be honest, gave us just one faggot poet, a single one.” (From “The Savage Detectives” P73 Picador edition)
Soto also tried (unsuccessfully) to translate Sophie Podolski, the Belgian poet who committed suicide at the age of twenty-one,… (from “Distant Star” Page 67 Vintage edition)
Sophie Podolski was a Belgian poet, who had one published work, she suffered from schizophrenia and died, just aged twenty-one, ten days after a suicide attempt.
As each vignette unfolds, you can see this being the rich fertile soil of Bolaño’s later literature at work, here he is sowing the roots, the seedlings that will take root, be grafted, and develop into fully fledged novels, stories or poems.
Although, on the surface, it would be easy to dismiss this as experimental, for example in “I’m my own bewitchment”, there is the quote “My name is Roberto Bolaño”, “our stories are sad, sergeant, there’s no point trying to understand them.”
The images set of down the road and yet they never get anywhere, they’re simply lost, it’s hopeless, says the voice – and the hunchback asks himself, hopeless for who? The Roman bridges are our fate now, thinks the author as the images still shine, not too distant, like towns that the car gradually leaves behind. (But in this case the man isn’t moving.) “I’ve made a count of air-heads and severed heads”…”Although in eternity it’s hard to tell them apart”…I told a Jewish girl, a friend of mine, that it was sad to spend hours in a bar listening to dirty stories. Nobody tried to change the subject. Shit dripped from the sentences at breast height, so that I couldn’t stay seated, and I went up to the bar. Stories about cops chasing immigrants. Nothing shocking, really, people upset because they were out of work, etc. These are the sad stories I have to tell.
So many images that appear in Bolaño’s later works are tossed at the reader here. There are cinematic glimpses, a man ties a sheet to trees in the forest “I’m going to show a film”, the sections are peppered with “fade to black” or “on the screen”, accompanied by silence. This is a collection of cinematic images that will become Bolaño’s toolkit, or trash can, he will draw on these throughout his writing career.
Here is a mysterious poem from “The Savage Detectives”
In the novel the following explains the poem “And I asked the boys, I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.”
In “Antwerp” here is the poem;
And the explanation? “The straight line is the sea, when it’s calm, the wavy line is the sea with waves, and the jagged line is a storm”…The straight line made me feel calm. The wavy line made me uneasy, I sensed danger but I liked the smoothness: up and down. The last line was agitation. My penis hurt, my belly hurt, etc. (sections 21 and 22 from “Antwerp”).
Another common theme is the campground reference, readers of Bolaño’s other books will know of the recurring campground, here “a campground should be the closest thing to Purgatory”. I’ll post my thoughts about Bolano’s 1993 novel “The Skating Rink” in the coming days, another very early work, where the campground is a central theme.
Another interesting dimension to this work is that it also appears as a section in the larger publication “The Unknown University” (2007), under the title “People Walking Away”. Laura Healy the translator in 2013, and there are stark differences to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of 2010. Here are a couple of examples:
The vignette “Calle Tallers” in “Antwerp” contains an extra sentence – “I saw it all from the next room through the hole, someone had drilled for that purpose.” Occasionally the tense is different “flashes” instead of “flashed”, but the inclusion of a whole sentence that adds the voyeuristic element is quite extraordinary.
Another example “Like a Waltz” in “The Unknown University” collection contains the extra sentence “like campground spiders, she moves about, weaving a web over my face.”
I will leave it to Bolaño scholars and people more au fait with Spanish, or those with access to manuscripts to figure out which is the definitive text.
A work I would suggest readers approach later in their Bolaño journey, once you’ve got a handle on the motifs, themes and recurring images, it adds another element to those features of his work, however if you were to read this as your first Bolaño escapade you would probably believe the move from poetry to fiction was blurred and it could taint your future reading of his works. Having personally read six of his novels I found this a fascinating melting pot of ideas, ones that would later take shape as a central theme, or a Mc Guffin, and it will be a book I will refer back to as I make my way through his other novels, short stories and poems.