The Roberto Bolaño craze has been in full swing for a few years already. It is to the point that publishers are publishing anything they can find (Bolaño died at age 50 in 2003). Lost works are creeping out of their hiding places. First came Diorama and The Troubles of the Real Police Officer. Now there is a novel about a board game called The Third Reich. All this from the drawers of his desk — God knows what will be revealed should someone finally stumble into the man’s attic or basement.
I have in my hands Bolaño’s very first novel. It is called Antwerp and it is but 78 pages, even with the generous margins. Bolaño wrote the novel in the late ’70s, but it was only published recently. It was given to my wife, the irrefutable Shuffy, by some rogue Hungarians as they were being run out of New York City. The Hungarians knew that my wife and I were going to be living in Antwerp for a little while. Written on the inside flap of the book are the words, “Antwerp is the new Hungary!”
So, it was a mysterious book even before I had read a single word. The reading did not make Antwerp any less mysterious. From the first sentence (“The kid heads toward the house”) to the last (“Let my writings be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage”), Antwerp is a novel of hints, clues, suggestions.
Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s executor, called Antwerp the “Big Bang” that created Bolaño’s subsequent literary universe. That would mean the fragmentary jottings from Antwerp later expand into the dense 900 pages of 2666, Bolaño’s magnum opus of crime and horror revolving around the small town of Santa Teresa. In a few literal ways this is probably true. Crime and violence are the twin stars in Bolaño’s works. They are already there in Antwerp, the narrative of which (if there can be said to be one at all) centers on the murder of six kids at a place called the Calabria Commune campground.
I’m more interested, for the moment, in how Antwerp is the birth of a literary mood in Bolaño, one that also stayed with him throughout the production of his longer and more ambitious works. Yes, Antwerp is the creation of themes and characters that will reappear throughout Bolaño’s writings. It is also the creation of Bolaño the writer, a statement about the kind of writer he wants to be.
A fleeting answer, a small answer to what kind of writer he wanted to be, can be found in that last sentence of the novel quoted above. Daniel Biga is a French poet and his poem, “Leopardi,” is a direct reference to Leopardi’s poem “The Solitary Thrush.” In it, Leopardi contemplates his own distance from the joys of life as similar to the lonely thrush, chirping away on a church tower, indifferent to the spring shenanigans going on in the valley below. The poet looks at life — like the thrush — from afar, detached. But the poet is also different from the thrush, since the bird has no knowledge of his condition, and sings instinctively. The poet is in a terrible situation, being aware of his distance from life and thus being unable to enter back into the flow of lived experience because of that very knowledge. This is the essence of a certain kind of poetic Romanticism. It is a Romanticism that Leopardi embodied in the early 19th century and that Bolaño, starting with his novel Antwerp, resurrected for the early 21st century. So Antwerp is not a Big Bang at all, but another happening in a series of little bangs that have crackled in men’s minds for a long time now, ever since we woke up to the troubling fact that, inexplicably, we are alive and then, just as inexplicably, will die. That, at its core, is what literary Romanticism has always been about. • 23 July 2010