Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño


On the back of my copy of Robert Bolaño’s novel Antwerp is the following quotation from the man himself, “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” I assume he was speaking only of the novels he wrote, but maybe not. Maybe he meant all the novels, every single one.


There is nothing sexier than a book you haven’t read yet. Especially if it has a nice cover and nice fonts. Especially if it is by someone with an aura. The volumes of Kierkegaard’s writings put out by Princeton University Press used to drive me crazy. The block of color on top and the pure black underneath. The line drawing of Kierkegaard’s profile in an oval in the middle of the book.

I had a few of those volumes for years. I never read a single word. I was scared that the content could never live up to the promise. In that way, books are tiny lessons in the disappointment of life. You’d think that we would never open a really important book again. Never do it. It hurts.

Maybe Bolaño was never embarrassed about Antwerp because it is a story that isn’t really a story in a book that isn’t really a book. It is literature that reveals so few of its secrets that it can never be less than its promise, never be dumb. That’s one thing I think Bolaño could never have accepted, that he be obvious, that he be dumb.


Bolaño could have called his novel Antwerp for the same reason that I am in Antwerp. Because it is on the river Scheldt. Because the river Scheldt was silted up for years and years during the wars of reformation and counter reformation. Because Rubens roamed around the dead city of Antwerp for years and years, and then painted his massive Baroque canvasses. Because Antwerp looks good as a word, physically on the page, but it is a little bit hard to say. Because Antwerp isn’t the first city people think of.


The go-to quote when it comes to Antwerp is what Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor once said. He called Antwerp the Big Bang, the tiny explosion from which the entire universe of Bolaño’s literature emerged.

That is an intriguing possibility. We want it to be right Plus, Antwerp is a book of clues, a detective story whose central crime is literature itself. When you follow the threads in Antwerp you make your way into the infernal realm, Bolaño’s mind.

I’m not reading Antwerp anymore as a text in itself, but as a clue-book. The next task, then, is to figure out what the riddle is to which the book is providing clues. Or maybe not. Maybe the riddle is just; What can literature be?, or What should literature be?


Soon, then, we have to find out more about Sophie Podolski. She appears in Chapter 7 of Antwerp. “The hell to come … Sophie Podolski killed herself years ago … She would’ve been twenty-seven now, like me.”

We know this, she wrote poems in her own handwriting like William Blake. And, “She attempted suicide in Brussels on December 19, 1974 and died 10 days later as a result.” The wikipedia entry is two paragraphs long.


And one more thing to look at before next we go exploring. Javier Moreno’s explanation, in The Quarterly Conversation, of the great triangle of Bolaño’s work.


Read Morgan Meis’ previous Doodling from Antwerp here >>



  1. I think this Kierkegaard cover tops the one you have from “Either/Or”:


  2. […] Read Part I of Morgan’s Meis’ notes on Antwerp here >> […]

  3. OY, I wish you hadn’t shown me that, Cynthia….


  4. […] Bridge | Kinds of Light Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño III 03/08/2010 Read Parts I (here) and II (here) of Morgan Meis’ unfolding essay on the novel […]

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