Antwerp by Roberto Bolano – review

Antwerp was written in 1980, but wasn’t published for over twenty years. On the edition I have, there is a quote from Bolano himself saying that this is the only novel that didn’t embarrass him. Having read a few of his other novels, and with a whole slew more of them sitting on a bookshelf waiting to be read, I’m not sure why he would have been embarrassed by any of them. Still, if this is the one he felt most assured of, I don’t blame him.

When reading the author’s note, we find out that Bolano didn’t believe he would live past 35 – which was sadly prophetic. While Bolano left thirty-five in the mirror, he didn’t exactly live to a ripe old age, dying when he was 50. Bolano also notes that he had a piece of paper tacked over his bed that read, in Polish, “Total Anarchy.” He wraps up his author’s note saying that “Then came 1981…and everything changed.” I’ve tried to find a reason for the allusion to 1981, but have come up empty. Now, it’s an author’s note, so if it’s entirely personal and not explained, that’s fine. Part of me wondered if that was the year Bolano was married. I was able to find vague summaries of his life, saying that he moved to Spain in 1977, bummed around the Mediterranean, got married, and then everything just sort of jumped to the 1990s. There’s been talk of Bolano doing heroin, and at least one place I visited wondered if that was the year he first tried it. Of course, it could also be a reference to some world event. In 1981, the first space shuttle was launched, the Pope was shot, the first IBM-PCs were manufactured, and Spain legalized divorce (which might go with Bolano getting married). What stood out as the most likely, though, was that Poland crushed the Solidarity Movement in 1981. Given the other Polish connections with and within Antwerp, Bolano’s reference to 1981 fits. Or it’s a massive red herring.

Finally, leading into the novel, Bolano has this quote from Pascal: “By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me.” Antwerp plays around with time and place with near whimsy, and this idea that we are placed in the right time and the right place by some higher power, and without our say or knowledge, seems to be something that Bolano returns to in other works, as well. It’s been awhile since I read 2666, but it’s something he touches on, at times, in By night in Chile. Here’s the list of notes I compiled while reading Antwerp:

1. Kid walks towards a house. “My darling…it’s too late.” “It was just a facade.” -the house or a relationship? Is this a movie set? There is a quote to begin this chapter by David O. selznick, a movie mogul from Hollywood’s golden age of studios. I don’t believe this is a movie set, but I think Bolano may be making a reference to the artificiality of life. Even the things we take for being authentic could be artificial, created and situated by a more powerful force. These are just unsubstantiated thoughts, though.

2. +Sophie Podolski is kaput in Belgium. -Belgian poet, whose life story seems to have been lifted pretty literally by Bolano. She did try to commit suicide in 1974, and she did die 10 days later because of it. +man sitting alone, trying unsuccessfully to write poetry. -this has made me wonder how much of a work of metafiction Antwerp might be. Bolano is referencing a real person, in his author’s note he might be making a personal reference to the importance of 1981, and this was a time when he was trying to find himself as a writer. I don’t think it’s a big leap to say that the man trying to write poetry, while lamenting the loss of another poet that Bolano admired, was Bolano himself.

3. -man on a train –half a man? –hunchback lives in forest that the train is passing. —has can of sardines in tomato sauce —he’s eating —he watches the train -man on train –The Great Triangle Escape —Cigs —box of matches, called, “playing with matches.” -”opaline smoke.” –1. A mineral of hydrated silica. 2. A gemstone made of this mineral, noted for its rich iridescence. (free dictionary)

4. -Blonde girl, biggest window of boarding house -”My name is Roberto Bolano” -”Frankfurt” -preparing for death and subsequent transpareny –Bolano or blonde girl? —Bolano: expected to be dead at 35

5. -calabria common campground –the news is “sensationalistic” –harassed by locals –6 kids discover friend dead nearby –out of control screwing all over the place —sex and anarchy

6. -Reasonable vs Unreasonable People –collection of thoughts —”But I also dreamed of girls.” —”Pale men could see what was hidden in the landscape.”

7. Nile -sophie Podolski killed herself years ago -abandoned buildings in Barcelona -where girl was killed? -Belgian girl (Sophie?) who wrote like a star We know that there was a real Sophie Podolski, but it seems that Bolano is either mixing fact with fantasy, or there was a shift in girls that I missed entirely. We learn that this Sophie Podolski was killed in Barcelona, involved in drugs in someway, killed by a man who put a gun under her chin (which is important for later) and it was her involvement that got her killed. Also, the narrator of this chapter (which I would assume to be Bolano) remarks that she would have been 27, the same age as him.

8. next to juke box, girl listens to greatest hits 11. -man dreaming of woman with no mouth –connects back to this fictional Podolski who was killed with a gun pressed under her chin. I realize now that I have not found anything about how the real Podolski committed suicide. I’ve known of people who have tried to kill themselves with a gun, only to horribly disfigure their face. While gruesome, such an accident would explain why it took the real Podolski ten days to die from it. –works at a riding school –is getting married: previous affair with Podolski? –writer —lives in separate city from fiance

12. police sergeant looking for someone in Paseo Maritimo (someplace actual Bolano lived?)

13. -hunchback in a bar -Jewish girl listening to sad stories (sophie?)(jukebox, greatest hits?)(Podolski is a Jewish name)

14. -Child (?) whore, fucking police sergeant -red hair, green eyed girl

15. -Englishman hangs sheet in woods to watch movies -hunchback is watching: why?

16. -red haired whore in Barcelona – near Paseo Maritimo? –same girl fucking the sergeant?

18. -Mexican girl, blonde, sleeping w/ dark haired man: “soon she’ll reach the sea.” -hunchback referenced but not specific

19. -Roberto Bolano once loved blonde mexican girl years ago –same girl as in 18? –dark haired man=Bolano? —show connection to hunchback goes back years.

20. -hunchback in woods talking to English -cops searching for someone -cops fuck “nameless” girls -South American dying and lost on the roads (Bolano?)

24. -”The gun was only a word.”

26. -Hunchback & englishman -South American didn’t die

27. -cop finger fucking ass of girl – “already overcame the gaze.”

29. -Hunchback can’t hear Englishman speak – figment of imagination?

33. -red head messed up in drug trade (Sophie?) fucked by cop w/ dildo, but never his “large” dick

35. -60# girl -”destroy your stray phrases!” -”In his gaze there is no hunchback, no Jewish girl, no traitor.” -”But we can still insist.”

39. -foreigner lived in a tent –paid with French money –spoke perfect Spanish

40. -girl hiding on balcony -40ish man confesses through door of being chased by Colan Yar

43. -Dreams of girls who open mouths but couldn’t speak –Andalusian girls –Lola Muriel –night watchman, madly in love

45. -she loved busy days -cops rush into building –arrests man standing at window —thinks of Andalusian girls

47. -bolano couldn’t help falling in love at least once a year –writing in pit stops, etc.

50. -secret sickness named Lisa –connected to Bolano—his yearly love affair

51. -can’t go back to crime stories

52. -gangsters equal mothers -at golden hour, no one remembers the hunchback

53. -nameless girl wanders working class neighborhood of Barcelona –”Born in France, to Spanish parents?” –Rosario or Maria Dolores –blonde hair –”She goes back to the bathroom. Girl kaput.”

54. -movies in woods -man with yellow face, badly scarred -fleeing Colan Yar

56. Postscript -”All I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing.”

I did some research on Colan Yar, trying to find a significance to the name. As words, I ran them through a number of languages in Google Translate, but didn’t get anything interesting, or anything at all, really. Then I did searches for them as names, and I came up with a few different things. Colan originates from the UK, and has different meanings depending on what part of the UK you’re from. In gaelic it meant “from the coal pool,” which didn’t seem to be something that would fit. But the Irish meaning is “peaceful dove,” while Olde English has it as “young child.”  At another site, they give a French meaning for “young boy,”  though their Gaelic meaning is noticeably different from every other site I’ve seen that gives the Gaelic meaning. Yar doesn’t have near the variation, pretty solidly being given credit to having a Persian origin and meaning “friend.” I think there might be something to this, given Bolano’s interest in time and memory. I would wonder if “Colan Yar” is a way for the characters to be fleeing their youth in some way, or their past.

I, also, looked up Andalusia. I had heard of Andalusian horses, but I was wondering why Bolano repeatedly referred to Andalusian women towards the end of Antwerp. It’s an area in the south of Spain, bordering the Mediterranean sea. It’s capital is Seville. I wondered if this was connected to the Paseo Maritimo, but it doesn’t appear to be – at least not directly. Andalusia is a southern coastal region, while Paseo Maritimo is the eastern coastal region. While one could bleed into the other, it seems like they are likely to be distinct areas. What it could be implying for the story is a direction of travel for one of the characters.

In looking over the web, there are some fine articles/sites up about Antwerp. Emmett Stinson does an incredible job of running down the disparate threads in Antwerp and creating a logical progression of events. The Owls has a thoroughly awesome series of articles called The Antwerp Project, and which nothing I saw could do justice to, and they turned me onto another post by Morgan Meis about the Romantic allusions made by Bolano. The blog that I found myself favoring was Mike Ettner’s review. While reading Antwerp, I couldn’t shake the metafictional feel of it. I wouldn’t go as far as Mike Ettner does, and suggest it might be the structural underpinning of an unfinished novel – I think the novel is finished, and Bolano says as much when he says it’s the only novel he wasn’t ashamed of. However, being able to articulate what I think it is, or at least what I think I think it is, is more difficult than I imagined. The closest I can come is to say that I think it’s a fictional account of Roberto Bolano writing a fictional account of a murder. What I couldn’t help but see as I read was a movie, where some chapters were of the writer working, or those moments between work, while other chapters were showing us what was going down on the page. It is a world where we are seeing both the inspirations for the story, and the story itself. If you ask me tomorrow, though, I might say something different. I, also, agree with Mike that a fullscale biography of Bolano could be very enlightening with Antwerp.

I tried to look up some facts of Bolano’s personal life from that time period, but there was just nothing out there, aside from the barebones of him moving to Europe in ’77, getting married (but I still don’t know when that happened) and then suddenly catapulting into the 90s. Anyway, I hope this is at least mildly helpful for anyone reading Antwerp. I know my notes lack a bit of cohesion, but they are what I took as I read, for better or worse.

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3 Responses to “Antwerp by Roberto Bolano – review”

  1. ip Says:

    Just a thought… couldn’t Colan Yar just be “Scotland Yard”? ipchrist from Greece

    • charlieblizz Says:

      It is a definite possibility. I see a poster at Mike Ettner’s blog made a similar comment, and that “Colan Yar” and “Scotland Yard” are phonetically similar to Spanish speakers. So it is very possible.

  2. rob Says:

    June 1981, first paper published (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) on what would become known as AIDS. AIDS (a syndrome that showed first in gay men and injection drug users) features most prominently in Bolano’s Distant Star but in various other places too. Though if an as then unnamed epidemic was this watershed moment for Bolano, he would have had to have been either almost presciently observant (the new syndrome didn’t become more widely known until a year or two later) or reliant on hindsight (the manner by which many memoirs and novels identify 1981 as “year zero”).

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