Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño IV


I went to Chi-Chi’s restaurant. It is located just off the Grote Markt in the center of Antwerp’s old town. You may remember Chi-Chi’s as a third rate Mexican food chain. Chi-Chi’s went bankrupt in 2003. Later that same year, a major Hepatitis A outbreak was traced back to a Chi-Chi’s in Pittsburgh. It was, in fact, the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in US history. Four people died. Hundreds were seriously ill.

The bankruptcy and the Hepatitis outbreak were too much and the place closed down on North American shores. There are no more Chi-Chi’s to be found in the US. Chi-Chi’s, however, is alive and well in Belgium.

I ordered a vegetarian burrito, which arrived sizzling on an iron plate like you’ll sometimes see with a plate of fajitas. Onions were popping and frying on the sides, spattering bits of the barbecue sauce all over my glass of Cola Light. (They do not serve Diet Coke in Belgium, or anywhere else in Europe I can recall, they serve Cola Light or, now, Cola Zero).

When I say barbecue sauce, I mean exactly that. The burrito was covered in a hot and bubbling barbecue sauce. It was very sweet. The whole plate burned and steamed for about ten minutes before I could eat it, which I did. Inside the burrito were more onions, green peppers, and a healthy serving of broccoli.

I do not know why I went to Chi-Chi’s. I’m not sure, genuinely unsure, about the motivation. You could say that it was the desire for “comfort food.” The morning had included a disagreement with my wife, the unforeseeable Shuffy. But I wasn’t particularly angry and I do not think of Chi-Chi’s as “comfort food.” I like Mexican food, it is true. I was raised in Los Angeles where such food can be found in abundance. Chi-Chi’s, however, is not Mexican food, a fact about which I have long been aware. It is, thus, for me, the opposite of comfort food. Like many Angelenos, I find bad Mexican food particularly annoying. You could say that being in Belgium I simply longed for something familiar. Perhaps. I don’t remember feeling such a longing, and Chi-Chi’s would have been a strange choice, given my relative lack of experience with the establishment. Also, there are plenty of joints in Antwerp that promise the vague quality of Americaness. There are also a number of establishments where one can get reasonably good Mexican food. Certainly more recognizably Mexican than the food served at Belgian Chi-Chi’s.

Still, there is one fact not in dispute. I did go to Chi-Chi’s. Moreover, I did order a vegetarian burrito and I did eat it.


Literature about crime, or crime stories in general, hold their interest for one of two reasons. In the first case, exemplified by, for instance, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, we are presented with a mystery that, through various twists and turns, gets solved. This is exciting and satisfying. We didn’t know who done it, then we get to know who done it.

The second kind of crime writing is more illusive. Crimes may get solved, but the question of “why” often takes precedence over “who.” The question of who is relatively easy to answer: it was that guy. The question of why is more intractable. It tends toward a lengthy regress. OK, he did it for the money or for love, but, still, why? In the novels of James M. Cain or Georges Simenon, for instance, there are crimes and those crimes are sometimes solved. But buzzing around the Who and the What is a troublesome Why that often does little more than buzz. The novel ends and the buzzing fades away, only to reemerge in the next novel.

Once, in an interview with Giulio Nascimbeni, Georges Simenon was asked about a recurring dream. Simenon replied, “Yes, it’s true. It was night and I could see a large and calm lake, reflecting the moon. Black mountains rose around it. I arrived from between two of these mountains, I looked at the lake and the moon, and that was it, nothing else happened.”


I propose that Roberto Bolaño is a crime writer of the endless buzzing variety and that Antwerp was his first attempt to set the volume of that buzz.

By the time Bolaño wrote 2666 he had mastered the art of the buzz. The shaggy dog tale of Archimboldi and the terrible murders of Santa Teresa is a long buzz indeed. Bolaño had learned to tell stories by then. He became interested, actually, in telling stories. The stories, the specific acts, the specific motivations, they all worked together to give structure and purpose to what Bolaño had already isolated as a feeling and a mood. That mood exists already as Chapter 46 of Antwerp, “The Dance.”

On the terrace of the bar only three girls are dancing. Two are thin and have long hair. The other is fat, with shorter hair, and she’s retarded … The guy being chased by Colan Yar vanished like a mosquito in winter … Though really, I guess in the winter all that’s left are the mosquito eggs … Three happy, hardworking girls … August 7, 1980 … The guy opened the door to his room, turned on the light … There was an expression of horror on his face … He turned out the light … Don’t be afraid, though the only stories I have to tell you are sad, don’t be afraid …


Maybe that is another thing Bolaño is doing in Antwerp, stripping the structure of the crime story down to its essence, a feeling, a what, a when, a where, a who, a vague buzzing of why.

+ The Feeling: a look of horror.

+ The What: a murder, always a murder.

+ The When: August 7, 1980.

+ The Who: Colan Yar.

+ The Why: a question buzzing around.

And that’s all you need. You just keep repeating the essential elements over and over in different arrangements.

Something that drives all good writing is that we want to know something about ourselves and other people but we can’t.


One reason I went to Chi-Chi’s is because I like the name Chi-Chi’s. Maybe the spade turns right there. I can’t dig any deeper. For some reason I like the name Chi-Chi’s and so I will always carry within me the possibility that I will actually go to Chi-Chi’s. At my core somewhere, I am a potential Chi-Chi’s goer. That is one of the things that makes me, me.


One comment

  1. […] bring this up because we were talking last week about crime. We were thinking about the way that crime has the structure of all experience. We can […]

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