Author: Roberto Bolano (D)
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Published: 2010 (U.S.)
Roberto Bolano died relatively young. He passed away in 2003, of liver failure, at the age of fifty. Of course, depending on the literary conspiracy theorist you’re talking to, he might have been a heroin addict. Argueably, that’s a much more interesting way to go, but in the long run dead is dead and that’s what matters. Bolano was noted, both in life and in death, as one of the most important Latin American writers of the modern day. Of course, as you can imagine, I didn’t give a jack about any of this information when I picked up Antwerp. Though originally published by Anagrama Barcelona in Spain, it was translated in 2010 by Natasha Wimmer, who has translated other works by Bolano including his landmark novel 2666, and his work Savage Detectives, both of which are on my reading list. It is worth noting that I didn’t pick up Antwerp for its stunning cover. My edition is a plain black binding with the title in gold. Rather, I picked it up because of its length.
That’s right. I got lazy. What are you gonna do, cry?
Reading a translated work is always a little hinky. The truth about spoken language is that there is no true way for one to blend seamlessly into another. Spanish and english are usually comparable grammatically and this makes reading the works of Latin American authors a little more simple than, say, reading Franz Kafka. The translator often has to make syntactical decisions by his or herself. Does this word mean the same thing in both languages? If I change the format of this sentence, can I maintain what the author was trying to say while making it more accessible to the intended audience? Antwerp is as much Natasha Wimmer’s book as it is Bolano’s. Not being bilingual by any stretch of the imagination, I am going to treat Wimmer’s translation as a fairly accurate portrayal both syntactically and artistically. Nuts to any other edition.
Let’s move on to the actual novel (novella? novellette? Eh. whatever.) The title Antwerp evokes certain things. If you’re a history buff then you think of the port of Antwerp as the end goal of the German army, which attempted a major thrust into allied territory with the ill fated Battle of the Bulge. If you like to have fun with words, you’re probably remembering all those illustrations of ants you saw as a child in your local library. Or maybe you’re going, “what the fuck is an Antwerp?”
Antwerp is a Belgian town, and, as it turns out, the scene of a crime.
What kind of crime?
Who perpetrated it?
Was it the butler in the drawing room with the pipe?
I can’t say as I have any idea. I enjoyed reading it, though.
Antwerp is set up in a series of vignettes, rarely more than five hundred words. More prose-poems than flash fiction, they speak of various goings on in and around Antwerp, introducing you to the different investigators, suspects, and possible victims of the crime. If you’re expecting an actual conclusion, you’ll be disappointed. There is no epic arrest or even a real moment of ‘aha!’ when at last the perpetrator is identified. Antwerp is one of those novels where the journey you are on means more than the final destination. Be careful not to end up in the Doldrums.
Antwerp is stylistically marked by a combination of longer, lyrical sentences and shorter clipped ones. Some sections read like poetry, others like weather reports. An example here. The first excerpt is from section two, titled ‘The Fullness Of The Wind’. The second is from section three, ‘Green, Red, and White Checks’.
Twin highways flung across the evening, when everything seems to indicate that memory and finer feelings are kaput, like the rental car of a tourist who unknowingly ventures into war zones and never returns, at least not by car, a man who speeds down highways strung across a zone that his mind refuses to accept as a barrier, vanishing point (the transparent dragon) and in the news Sophie Podolski is kaput in Belgium…
Now he, or half of him, rises up on a tide. The tide is white. He has taken a train going in the wrong direction. He’s the only one in the compartment, the curtains are open, and the dusk clings to the dirty glass.
The first section moves seamlessly over itself. The second gives you information on place, time, and setting as though it is nothing more than a storyboard or newspaper article. I find this combined style fun to read. If the book went entirely as one or the other, it would be harder to keep focus.
Whatever crime took place in Antwerp, it is incredibly likely (okay, okay, definitely) sexual in nature. Parts of this book will turn you on. I don’t find this to be a problem, but some readers might. I could take a moment to detour and give a long winded explanation about how utterly stupid it is that we as a society are perfectly alright with graphic presentation of violence but view any kind of natural reproductive or pleasurable act to be heinous and deserving of the highest punishment morals or religion can bring down, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say, if you can’t take the dildo, get out of the big kid’s pool.
Bolano wrote of Antwerp that it was the only novel that didn’t embarrass him. I can’t really comment, since I haven’t read any of his other works. I can say, however, that Antwerp is one of those subversive gems you’re going to come to time and time again.
And if you’re reading it one handed sometimes, well- I won’t tell if you won’t.