1. AMNESIA

I'm not quite sure if I've actually read all of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp. Normally this fact would disqualify me from discussing the book, but in this case, as the U.S. Supreme court might say of certain kinds of pornography, it's intrinsic to the experience. The book consists of 56 numbered and named sketches, most of them less than a page long. I started reading at the beginning, but soon found that I was suffering from a kind of amnesia—that is, while I was reading each sketch, I found it quite absorbing—each word, each sentence seemed meaningful, indeed full of an intense energy or focus or concentration that carried me along, but when I reached the bottom of the page, or more typically, when I reached the substantial white space at the bottom of each page (the sketches are really short), I would realize I had no memory of what I had just read. After a few pages of this, I started skipping around. I would bounce from sketch to sketch randomly, and then, perhaps, read a few sketches in reverse numerical order. I recall that starting at 33. THE REDHEAD and then proceeding, in descending order, to 24. FOOTSTEPS ON THE STAIRS resulted in a more-or-less coherent narrative. I'm not sure whether the story was moving forward or backward in that reversed sequence—but it held my attention even as it disoriented—sort of like that dolly zoom in Hitchcock's Vertigo—a sense of movement, even as things seem to stand still. After several hours of reading this way, I know I've spent enough time reading to have read the whole book, but I can't be sure whether I've read all the sketches or not. It's entirely possible, for example, that I've read 7. THE NILE four times and 6. REASONABLE PEOPLE VS. UNREASONABLE PEOPLE not at all.

2. THE ELEMENTS

The scenario of the cop and the witness. A certain taste in porn. As if seen. As if remembered. The fevered glimpses. Through a peephole. There's a writer, working at a nothing job, a security guard a campground near Barcelona, writing this story. It's happening to him, this story, one way or another. The writer refuses to indulge in cheap narrative completions. There's a red-haired girl in the drug trade whose job, apparently, is to have sex with a narcotics cop. A body found in a park of some sort. Maybe it's the campground where the writer works, maybe the writer found the body in his official capacity as night guard, maybe he spent the next day re-imagining the discovery of the body as a lurid hard-boiled crime novel. Or as a hard-core porn flick. Watching the cops. Watching the body. The cop has sex with a witness. It feels like a specific genre of hard-core porn: cops having sex with witnesses at a murder scene. If the genre didn't exist, Bolaño would need to invent it, or the writer in Antwerp would need to invent it. There's some story about pigs and death in Antwerp. The cheap crime novels and hard-core porn flicks inform the real world, where real bodies and real cops and real drugs meet. Or real bodies and real cops and real drugs inform the experience of a hard-core pornography, which the insomniac writer watches. The writer tries to put it all in words, but he refuses to make it a conventional story. An English writer struggles to control his tenses. Bolaño tells Arnold Bennett to fuck off. Did I really read that? I can't find the passage again... Maybe you can find the line about Arnold Bennett only if you read the sketches in a certain order...

3. SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE BOOK CLUB

  • Is Antwerp a failed experiment?
  • If it's an experiment, what hypothesis is being tested?
  • Does it succeed as immersive narrative? Is it a good beach read? (Hint: No.)
  • Would success as immersive narrative constitute a failure of the experiment?
  • Does it transgress, explore, discover, test boundaries, push things too far? Hint: Yes.)
  • Is it diminished or expanded by its own self-referentiality?
  • Did Bolaño violate an important rule by including himself in the narrative?
  • Is the rule really important?
  • Is Antwerp an attempt to grow a crime novel from the compost of a poetic imagination?
  • What do the body, the cop's huge cock, the vibrator plugged into the wall for power, the fingered asshole, the watching eyes, the pigs in Antwerp and the author's refusal to compromise have in common?
  • Who the heck chose this book for our club?

Over the last week or so, I've re-read the opening section of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives—the diary of one Juan García Madero, the seventeen-year-old law student, who joins the visceral realists, stops attending classes, loses his virginity (several times in close succession, with several different women), and squeezes several years worth of reading, writing, fucking, and wandering around Mexico City into the two months between November 2, 1975, and the first few minutes of New Year's Day, 1976. Some observations:

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This weekend I read Nazi Literature in the Americas, the latest novel by Roberto Bolaño to be translated into English. In the last year, since reading Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, I've found myself increasingly hungry for his prose—so far, I've read most of Bolaño's work that has been, as Nabokov would say, "Englished." For an American reader, this means working through the elegant volumes released by New Directions: the novels By Night in ChileAmulet, and Distant Star, and the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. (The North American publishing rights for Bolaño seem to have been allocated by thickness: New Directions, working with translator Chris Andrews, publishes Bolaño's slim volumes, and Farrar Straus Giroux gets the massive tomes: The Savage Detectives and Bolaño's last work, 2666, which, I trust, Natasha Wimmer is at this very moment busily translating.) I've read them all except Amulet, which arrived in the same Amazon.com Super Saver shipment as Nazi Literature in the Americas, so that's next on my list. The New Yorker also recently ran a short story by Bolaño—a very Borgesian piece about an Argentinean judge who retires to a ranch in the pampas, translated by Chris Andrews—so I'm hopeful that New Directions will soon release another short story collection.

Short digression here: What about the poetry? If Bolaño turned to fiction in 1990, at the age of 37, as a way of making money, then there must be at least 20 years of poetry, written in obscurity. Is it any good? Does it translate? Or was it a protracted period of juvenilia, of apprenticeship, the poetic martial arts exercises that eventually produced Bolaño's prose voice—a prose voice that is simultaneously poetry-centric and down-to-earth, unaffected and yet capable of taking off, without warning, into— well, into passages like this:

For a while we couldn't think of anything to else to say to each other. I imagined him lost in a white space, a virgin space that kept getting dirtier and more soiled despite his best efforts, and even the face I remembered grew distorted, as if while I was talking to his sister his features melded with what she was describing, ridiculous tests of strength, terrifying, pointless rites of passage into adulthood, so distant from what I once thought would become of him, and even his sister's voice talking about the Latin American revolution and the defeats and victories and deaths that it would bring began to sound strange and then I couldn't sit there a second longer and I told her I had to go to class and we'd see each other some other time.

That's from one of many "interviews" that make up the long middle section of The Savage Detectives. An old girlfriend of Arturo Belano (Bolaño's fictional alter ego) is talking about how she ran into Belano's sister some years later. I picked this passage, pretty much at random, from the passages I underlined in that long middle section, after I realized what was going on—that in the midst of Studs Terkelesque monologues, convincing recreations of actual spoken language, there would always appear at least one passage—two or three lines at least—where the everyday vernacular suddenly rises to vertiginous flights of metaphor—always in the character's voice, and always true to the emotion of the moment.

So anyway—back to Nazi Literature in the Americas. The most remarkable thing about this book is that it is not a parody, satire, caricature or burlesque—which is to say, it never limits itself to one-dimensional cheap shots. It presents us, in a mostly scholarly tone, with fourteen brief literary biographies of poets, playwrights, essayists, philosophers, plagiarists, and novelists, all of them inventions of Bolaño, all of them working in North and South America in the 20th century, and all of whom align themselves, one way or another, with the extreme right wing. Among them are cranks, crooks, rich dabblers, murderers and mediocrities, but also among them are true lovers of literature, hard-working devotees of their craft, prolific correspondents, tragic lovers, true friends, real writers of talent, and at least one or two deeply disturbing geniuses.

This is, by my count, the third work of Bolaño's to deal with what we may call "the fascist mind." (Actually, it was the first one written—but of course to me, as a monolingual American, it's the order of English translation that matters. The others are By Night in Chile—whose narrator is a very sympathetic, if profoundly compromised, Catholic priest, and Distant Star, whose central character is an utterly monstrous poet and pilot in Pinochet's Air Force.) It seems to have been an important part of Bolaño's artistic program—the tasks he set himself—to understand how a poetic mind, whatever its level of talent, could reconcile itself to a political ideology he found not merely abhorrent, but evidently and actively evil.

Since I am lucky enough not to know many true fascists, I have noted some of the values which Bolaño's imaginary littérateurs hold dear:

  • a love of strength
  • a love of victory in battle
  • a secret admiration for the marshals of the Soviet army
  • a love of wealth
  • a love of landed property
  • a desire to preserve the hierarchies of the existing social order
  • a hatred of the existing social order, for having weakened its hierarchies
  • a longing for some time in the past, when the social hierarchies were stronger (say, the Spanish Inquisition)
  • a vision of a glorious future
  • a hatred of Jews, homosexuals, and miscegenation
  • a hatred of the Enlightenment
  • a love of Germany
  • a love (at least among mixed-race Haitians) of the Masai
  • a love of the Catholic Church
  • a "longing for the epic and its proportions"
  • a love of death
  • a love of violence

Many of them are closeted homosexuals; most of them, whether wealthy or poor, harbor a deep resentment based on a humiliating experience. Others simply hate.

I should mention that Bolaño's characters are imaginary only in their names and the details of their lives—there are people just like them out there, in our world, right now.

Finally, I should like to mention that the last biography in Nazi Literature in the Americas is a rough draft of the story that would become Distant Star. That novel is vastly superior, in every way, to the version in Nazi Literature in the Americas. I would recommend to a reader new to Bolaño: when you get to the final chapter ("Carlos Ramirez Hoffman"), set the book aside and read Distant Star. Then return, if you are curious, to see the rough draft.

Reading Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Marcenda leaned back on the sofa, slowly stroking her left hand, her back to the window, her face scarcely visible. Normally Salvador would appear now to turn on the chandelier, the pride and joy of Hotel Baraganca, but on this occasion he does not, as if to show his displeasure at being excluded from a conversation which he, after all, made possible. This is how they repay him, sitting there rapt in conversation, whispering almost in darkness. No sooner did he think this than the chandelier went on, Ricardo Reis had taken the initiative, because anyone walking into the lounge would have been suspicious to find a man and a woman together in the shadows, even if the man was the doctor and the woman a cripple.

Emerging from the page, he says to himself: yes, that’s it, I will devote myself to the pursuit of pure beauty, beauty in its pure form, no, that’s not the right word, beauty doesn’t do justice to what Saramago achieves, for one thing there is a simplicity, an ordinariness to his language, what elevation it has come from something other than the urge to write beautiful prose...

...maybe that’s the problem, a definition of beauty derived from poetry, for there is certainly an imaginative intoxication in Saramago’s description of the conversation between Ricardo Reis and the girl with the paralyzed hand at dusk in parlor of the hotel, but the beauty that Saramago achieves is an inherently fictional beauty, an inherently narrative beauty, an inherently dramatic beauty...

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