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Roberto Bolaño’s Total Anarchy

By David Varno

The Bolaño short fiction that’s been coming out in the New Yorker and Harper’s over the past few months is getting stranger. Necrophilia and the Colombian porno industry are edgy enough subjects, but Bolaño went further by exploring elements of the fantastic. The stories have been available in Spanish for a while; perhaps now that the late Chilean author has made such a name for himself, it’s safe to publish the wackier stuff, and it comes at not a moment too soon. Since the mesmerizing 2666, we’ve had The Skating Rink, a tight, well-told mystery; Monsieur Pain, an intriguing glance at Bolaño’s early development, his passion for poets, and use of several genres to achieve his form; and now Antwerp, which promises more of the same. Having read Antwerp, a loosely connected narrative of 56 prose pieces spread over 78 pages, my anticipation has shifted to the short stories, which will appear in three collections over the next year, translated by Chris Andrews.

William Burns,” published in the New Yorker this past February, is a (relatively) conventional tale of a gun-toting man who’s crossed the border into Sonora from Ventura, California. Burns beats to death an intruder on the house in which he is shacked up with two local women. He first sees the intruder, whom the women call “the killer,” on a trip into town. The killer’s dog follows Burns, and he takes it home. The transfer advances the story with the kind of quickness that Calvino attributed to Charlemagne’s ring. No explanation is necessary; Burns is now “the killer.”

Things get a little nuttier with “The Return,” which appeared in the April issue of Harper’s. The story is part of an eponymous collection forthcoming from New Directions in July. It’s one of the better Bolaño stories out in translation, up there with the masterworks included in Last Evenings on Earth (ND, 2007). Before the narrator, who is dead, goes through the events leading to his end, he mentions a few things about the afterlife, where he has learned of a famous French fashion designer’s necrophilia. What follows is made believable through concrete physical description, centered on a risky yet effective reference to Ghost, a film that the narrator calls “idiotic…inane and unbelievable,” despite his appreciation for the special effects. Whether Bolaño himself was a closet Ghost fan or he let his character speak to his disdain for it, he gets away with a parallel between the movie and his own plot. The matter-of-fact narration makes this love story, featuring a fashion icon and the ghost of the corpse he’s just molested, the opposite of idiotic, inane, and unbelievable. “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura,” which also appeared in April, features a man who visits a retired porn actor, after telling us that he remembers seeing the actor penetrate his mother from the womb. To top it off, they are from the Medellín neighborhood of Los Empalados (The Impaled). “It’s hard to believe,” the narrator says, in the first sentence, and yet we do.

The success of these stories reveal what is lacking in the fantastic elements of Antwerp. The narrative is spotty and the juxtaposition of styles (detective, science fiction, prose poetry, etc.) doesn’t really come together. These factors didn’t stop me from enjoying Monsiur Pain, another short novel written early in Bolaño’s career, and Antwerp is set on familiar territory; the Calabria Commune in Italy, where six murders are reported and vaguely investigated, brings to mind the Spanish campground in The Savage Detectives and The Skating Rink. The difference is that we never get characters; the setting just floats in space.

Antwerp seems to be functioning more on the terms of poetry than fiction, and works best when Bolaño pulls back: “Maybe they committed suicide. Maybe it was all a dream. The wind in the rocks. The Mediterranean. Blue.” Another passage, called “The Bum,” is a beautifully written piece of microfiction. It takes place in a bus stop, and the feverish prose dreams—“I never closed my eyes or made an effort to think, the phrases just appeared, literally, like glowing ads in the middle of the empty waiting room…like news on an electronic ticker”—could have been influenced from Philip K. Dick

Elsewhere, the fractured dialogue and disembodied character descriptions seem extraneous. The author is talking to himself while conducting an experiment. A line from a plainclothes polieceman, “Destroy your stray phrases,” reads like advice the author could have followed more closely. But he makes it pretty clear in the preface, "Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later," written in 2002 when the book was finally published from a collection of old notes, that he wasn’t worried about what readers would think: “I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can’t be sure about.” He writes of having read antithetical writers, science fiction, pornography, Greek poets and Cervantes, and draws a parallel to Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I was drawn to [these writers] as if the cave and the electric light were mutually exclusive.” The narrative comes and goes, and the gaps in between are filled in with stray lyricism. Bolaño seems to have been anxious that something was missing—“what poems lack is characters who lie in wait for the reader,” he writes in a later passage—but unfortunately he didn’t make up for it.

Why did Bolaño say that “the only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp”? Perhaps because the book is less revealing, and also less constructed, than his later fiction. Perhaps he was hedging his bets on poetry. There’s the Frost adage that Dan Chiasson resurrected recently: “We dance around in a ring and suppose,/But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” Did Bolaño think we’d be happy to keep guessing? In this case, it doesn’t seem to work. I went through the book a second time, armed with clues to crack the narrative, and found the same false starts and loose ends. There doesn’t seem to be enough here to make it worth the effort, but perhaps other readers will find more. Me, I’m waiting for The Return.

Published Jun 4, 2010   Copyright 2010 David Varno

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