Books Magazine

The Language of Others is Unintelligible to Me

By Jaac
The back of the New Directions edition of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp displays this quotation from Bolaño (in gold lettering on the matte black fabric): 'The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp.' This was sufficient incentive for me to buy the book. Not that I actually disliked Last Evenings on Earth -- nor particularly disliked The Savage Detectives, even though I soon lost patience and gave it away, my longing to clear the thick fawn space that it occupied so much greater than any curiosity I had for the rest of it in the end. Simply, I was disappointed -- and especially disappointed given the hype that attaches itself to this book that is no longer in my house. 

In his introduction to Antwerp, 'Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two years later ', Bolaño gives some sense of how this tiny volume might be different to his other novels:
I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would have slammed the door in my face and I'd have lost the copy. I didn't even make what's technically called a clean copy. The original manuscript has more pages: the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness.

In the novel itself, although there are the usual maverick writers and slim, prostrated girls -- the usual crime and sleaze -- so much has been stripped from the hard, obsessive core of it, that it's possible to begin to be enchanted. Most fascinating is his use of ellipsis to isolate and make strange the found objects of speech:
But I used to be in a gang and I had the Arab in my sights and I pulled the trigger at the worst possible moment. Narrow streets in the heart of Districto V, and no way to escape or alter the fate that slid like a djellaba over my greasy hair. Words that drift away from one another. Urban games played from time immemorial ... "Frankfurt"..."A blond girl at the biggest window of the boarding house" ... "There's nothing I can do now" ... I'm my own bewitchment. My hands move over a mural in which someone, eight inches taller than me, stands in the shadows, hands in the pockets of his jacket, preparing for death and his subsequent transparency. The language of others is unintelligible to me. "Tired after being up for days" ... "A blond girl came down the stairs" ... "My name is Roberto Bolaño" ... "I opened my arms" ... (from chapter 4, 'I'm My Own Bewitchment' )

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