Antwerp is a funny little book. It's comprised of 54 sections and is hardly eighty pages in length. I say “sections” because chapters suggest something complete, a beginning and an end, an unfolding of events. Sections, however, are more open-ended, neutral; they merely act as distinguishing marks, and say nothing of the content. The section names are oblique and provide the reader with very little by way of direction. In some cases, they feel like an afterthought, as if chosen after the section was written, like when editors name untitled poems by their opening line. Bolaño uses prosaic names like “The Sheet,” “The Redhead,” “Twenty-seven,” and oddly ominous names like “Footsteps on the Stairs.” In fact, they appear so random, it may be that they’re entirely conscious; that Bolaño sought first an image, an impression, a concept, and decided to explore it thoroughly through prose. Antwerp is the length of a novella, but only loosely attempts at narrative story-telling; more so, it feels like a shattered mirror, the reader having to rummage through the pieces and recognize where the angles connect.
It is exactly the kind of literature I divine to find. Where the writer has chosen not to appeal to a reader, a market, but to an impulse which makes sense of life through writing; an inspection, so to speak, of feelings, signals, and moments. Bolaño seems to be thinking through these ideas as he writes, thereby forgoing the need to set a scene or play by the rules of narrative story-telling. Instead what we read is a compressed sprawl of the Bolaño universe, which explodes and contracts, spirals and fades, touching nonetheless on themes that consume him: crime, corruption, the seedy side of street life, drugs, sex, and rebellion. Calling Antwerp a novella is inaccurate; it’s more so a prose-poem.