Roberto Bolaño has certainly become the darling of literary critics and reviewers over the past few years, so it interests me that he remains largely unread and unknown among most of the people I meet, even those who would call themselves readers. Though I recommend Bolaño often in conversation, his name is generally still unfamiliar to most people, and those who do recognize it usually respond with a kind of wariness and a remark about how “difficult” Bolaño is to read.
I had a conversation like this in a used bookstore this past spring. I was buying a hardcover copy of Bolaño’s 2666 to replace my worn paperback, and I asked the owner whether he had read it. He looked embarrassed and confessed that, yes, he had started it, but that he hadn’t been able to get very far, because it was “such a difficult read.” I responded as I usually do, by recommending that he begin with one of Bolaño’s more accessible novels, By Night in Chile perhaps, or The Skating Rink, and then go on to The Savage Detectives before giving 2666 another try.
The more of these conversations that I have, however, the more I wonder if I should introduce people to Bolaño differently, not by pointing them toward his more readable books, but by recommending that they begin with his most difficult novel, the strange and surreal Antwerp. This approach is admittedly counter-intuitive, because Antwerp is a troublesome book even to describe never mind recommend to someone. It is a collection of fifty-six highly poetic scenes that are connected only by a narrative loose enough to remain unnoticed until the reader is well into the book. It combines richly poetic passages with slang, sparse dialogue, ambiguous action, apparent non sequitur, and even a hand drawn picture, all of which makes the meaning of each scene is often unclear. It is even more unclear in most instances how the scenes are meant to integrate into the larger story, which circulates vaguely around the investigation of a murder.
All of this can make Antwerp a quite intimidating book despite its small size. It requires its readers to be patient. It makes them pause, reread phrases or sentences or whole pages, flip back to earlier sections for clarification, sift through the words for clues to its meaning, just like the detectives that Bolaño wrote about so often. Antwerp asks of its readers that they go slowly, reading its prose like poetry, immersing themselves in the sound and the sense of its words, feeling their way almost by touch and smell and taste in order to experience the novel rather than just to read it. In this sense, it pushes the genre of the detective story to its limits, making the book itself a mystery that the reader must take the time to investigate.
The reader who is willing to take this time finds that Antwerp‘s central mystery is not the obvious one of who committed the murder, or even the more immediate one of what the novel actually means at any given point. Instead, its concern is with the far vaster mystery of how literature investigates the stuff of life at all. Antwerp‘s difficult prose, read slowly and attentively, shows the struggle that words have to describe human experience — the failed life, the violent death, the banal existence, the unsettling dream, the faulty perception, and everything else — all related only by strands of meaning that we do not always understand. It is a novel that makes its readers hunt for clues, not to identify the killer, not even to comprehend the story, but to discover how tenuous and presumptuous a thing it is to make meaning through art.
This is why I think new readers of Bolaño should be fairly warned and then made to begin with Antwerp, because it shows how Bolaño’s later novels need to be read. Even if these later novels are less difficult in some ways, they have the same themes and the same concerns, the same need for a slow and careful reading. Antwerp is, in this sense, a kind of manifesto. It shows us the kinds of mysteries that Bolaño’s writing presents and the kinds of clues that his readers should be seeking. It prepares us to be patient with the ramblings of a priest on his deathbed in By Night in Chile and with the art of a fascist skywriter in Distant Star and with the litany of a police blotter in 2666. It forces us to understand that these stories all represent art as a kind of criminal investigation into the lives we live, and that this investigation is worth a little of our patience.