I agree with the views C. Richards expresses in the lead Customer Review, above. Antwerp differs categorically from Bolaño's mature novelistic output -- the fully-formed tales such as "By Night in Chile" and "The Savage Detectives" that build story lines rich enough to communicate the author's considered view of the world. Antwerp, with its frustrating fragmentation and hallucinations, never manages fully to dislodge the impression that it is a cobbled assemblage of pages. There is no journey, only a seeming lack of intention. Yes, there is textual inventiveness in the series of vignettes. But if Bolaño meant this as an experiment in metafiction, I join in saying it cannot be called a success.
To avoid disappointment a reader must alter her or his expectations before delving into Antwerp. In fact, as Richards advises, it may be best if you take a pass on Antwerp unless you count yourself among the hardy crew of Bolaño aficionados. To those souls I offer these words.
One way to prepare for the book is to adopt the manner of a detective. Treat Antwerp as a sheaf of papers you've seized from the drawer of a prospective master, your own Poe-like discovery. The author's preface -- the most interesting pages in the book -- reveals that Bolaño, revisiting the unpublished material 22 years after its creation, viewed the pages with a quizzical eye. Abetting your adopted role of detective are the physical contours of the book. It is a strangely slight object, jacketless, black in color, an intimate notebook, divorced from any larger context, as if casually set aside. In his fiction Bolaño often foregrounds the work of detectives, their search for connections, for meaning. And so, in mimicry, the reader will profit by entering that frame of mind while thumbing through Antwerp's pages. As many of Bolaño protagonists come to learn, your detective work will yield false leads, confusion, drudgery, and uncertain revelations. Principal payoffs in this instance are occasional poetic passages, mordant observations ("Nothing lasts, the purely loving gestures of children tumble into the void" (p. 51)), and points of humor ("Some people choose the worst moments to think about their mothers" (p. 71)). You know not to expect answers, or (in this book) a sustainable melody.
Another way to approach Antwerp is to imagine it as a derivative of a fully-formed novel that doesn't exist. If you are one of those readers so in love with an author, or a particular book, that you search for illumination in the author's notebooks, journals, log-books, flotsam and jetsam, then here is another occasion to indulge your passion. I had a sense while reading Antwerp that it was not so much a novel as a preparation for a novel, notes toward a novel. But is it even a novel? Because it contains a record of Bolaño's own emotional crises and features his dreams and autobiographical nuggets, the work resists the label of fiction. Some critics say it is a collection of prose poems. However viewed, the text contains signs that Bolaño, by reputation an author proudly meticulous when it came to the fabrication of his books, felt Antwerp was slipping from his grasp: "No work could justify the slowness of movements and obstacles" (p. 62); "There's something obscene about this" (p. 64); "Poor Bolaño, writing at a pit stop" (p. 66); and a dangling reference to "undisciplined writing" (p. 51). Yet Bolaño needed to write.
When the day comes that a full-scale biography of Roberto Bolaño is published, the pages of Antwerp will contribute heavily to the analysis of his early years of residence in Europe, beginning in 1977. On the evidence of the book's distressing fragments and multiple references to illness, these impoverished years were a difficult period of transition in the author's life: "My innocence is mostly gone and I'm not crazy yet" (p. 52); "I no longer ask for all the solitude in the world, but for time" (p. 62); "Nervous collapse in cheap rooms" (p. 32); "But you write ... and you'll get through this" (p. 44). It sounds strange, but the rueful voice I heard throughout Antwerp was that of someone still confident that greatness awaited.
Antwerp is, in my view, an appurtenance to Bolaño's legacy -- an unsolid outbuilding located on a sprawling literary estate, far from the main mansion. It is a necessary stop only for the most devoted visitors. Ready for an afternoon meander?