Friday, July 06, 2012

 

Because I was going to read in Antwerp, I thought maybe I should read Roberto Bolaño’s novel of the same name. I should have known that Bolaño, who was a master of misdirection, was more or less writing about everything but Antwerp & that most of the book is set in Spain. But then I found myself speaking more Spanish in Belgium & the Netherlands than I did Dutch, so there was a curiously appropriate echo there too. Here is the title chapter, the 49th of 56, of Antwerp in its entirety as translated by Natasha Wimmer:

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, others had to be put out their misery by the side of the road, and others took off as fast as they could … “That’s right, honey, he’s dead, the pigs ran right over him” … “At night, on the dark highways of Belgium or Catalonia” … “We talked for hours in a bar on Las Ramblas, it was summer and she talked as if she hadn’t talked for a long time” … “When she was done, she felt my face like a blind woman” … “The pigs squealed” … “She said I want to be alone and even though I was drunk I understood” … “I don’t know, it’s something like the full moon, girls who are really like flies, though that’s not what I mean” … “Pigs howling in the middle of the highway, wounded or rushing away from the smashed-up truck” … “Every word is useless, every sentence, every phone conversation” … “She said she wanted to be alone” … I wanted to be alone too. In Antwerp or Barcelona. The moon. Animals fleeing. Highway accident. Fear.

We might even segregate the sentences like this:

1.       In Antwerp a man was killed when his car was run over by a truck full of pigs .

2.       Lots of pigs died too when the truck overturned, others had to be put out their misery by the side of the road, and others took off as fast as they could …

3.       “That’s right, honey, he’s dead, the pigs ran right over him” …

4.       “At night, on the dark highways of Belgium or Catalonia” …

5.       “We talked for hours in a bar on Las Ramblas, it was summer and she talked as if she hadn’t talked for a long time” …

6.       “When she was done, she felt my face like a blind woman” …

7.       “The pigs squealed” …

8.       “She said I want to be alone and even though I was drunk I understood” …

9.       “I don’t know, it’s something like the full moon, girls who are really like flies, though that’s not what I mean” …

10.   “Pigs howling in the middle of the highway, wounded or rushing away from the smashed-up truck” …

11.   “Every word is useless, every sentence, every phone conversation” …

12.   “She said she wanted to be alone” …

13.   I wanted to be alone too .

14.   In Antwerp or Barcelona .

15.   The moon.

16.   Animals fleeing.

17.   Highway accident.

18.   Fear.

It’s interesting to read Bolaño up close like this, something Antwerp lends itself to in the way that the long slog of 2666 does not. In a way, I think that’s what Bolaño must have meant when he claimed that “the only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” Any chapter in this book could be close read as though it were a poem & you’d extract something of value from the process.

I read this chapter as bracketed. At the beginning and end are sentences & fragmented not contained by quotation marks nor pushed apart by ellipses. In between are ten sentences that are set apart with those marks & dots. I’m reminded of the way so many Baudelaire prose poems have exactly 14 sentences, and tho this doesn’t have the same pseudo-sonnet flavor, it’s not that dissimilar in spirit.

The opening pair of sentences are referential – they set a scene that is then the topic for a conversation in a bar in Barcelona, which in turn is being reported, perhaps to the reader directly, but also very much as tho it were a conversation in a bar. It’s interesting to note which of the sentences-within-quotation-marks are about the accident, which are about the discussion (or at least about the woman with whom the narrator appears to have had the discussion), and which operate on some meta level, especially sentences 9, 11 and 13. That it’s every other sentence at that critical juncture strikes me as not an accident. But what matters is the degree to which this chapter is about deferral, displacement, the thing said never being even a good shadow of image of the thing being reported.

The most interesting – because most disturbing – moment in the chapter is the statement “girls who really are like flies.” This is a level of misogyny worthy of Irving Layton, or of Creeley at his worst. It seems out of place, because the depiction of the women elsewhere in this chapter suggests fragility, vulnerability. And yet cognitively the image fits because we associate pigs in industrial quantities with flies. What is the woman’s relation to the accident, and is she reporting it to the narrator or vice versa? How you hear the word “honey” in sentence 3 has a lot to do with the interpretations that will follow.

The broader context for this chapter – the 48 that came before & the seven that follow – is that Antwerp is a noir novel, a murder mystery of sorts with multiple bodies, both genders, although it’s not so much a whodunit as a what-was-done-it? One or more men have been murdered, as have one or more women, quite possibly several more women. Or at least there are bodies and cops standing around, looking bored, smoking, talking about other stuff. People disappear, but what we get are not the details of the usual Chandler or Hammett volume, but rather the emotion. In this sense what really matters in this chapter is the narrator’s frustration at the idea that “every word is useless” – it neither is the reality nor even the emotion of loss so much as a filter or screen. It’s never quite clear whether the narrator, whose name appears to be Bolaño, wants to break in or out, but it is manifest that he wants to break. Period. What does that last sentence, to call it that, really mean? Whose fear? How?

Regardless of how you read that, the end of this chapter doesn’t work. Bolaño ties it up too neatly, almost as if to signal that this is exactly what it is, not a false closure so much as a fake one. This is pretty typical of Bolaño at the top of his form & has, I think, a lot to do with the Bolaño boom. Quite a bit like Philip K Dick – the writer he most reminds me of – Bolaño isn’t a producer of neat packages. 2666 doesn’t really go anywhere, his other novels are sketchy, but it’s the ideas in those sketches that leap out at you. Just as Dick’s novels are so often a series of false starts – each more brilliant than the last – followed by a necessary “let’s wrap this up & shove it out the door” ending, Bolaño is profoundly disinterested in well-wrought urns. He rightfully distrusts them. Antwerp works precisely because (and how) it doesn’t. And if the goal of all writing is to fail better, Bolaño at his best does it pretty damn well.

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