Roberto Bolaño - Last Evenings on Earth
Friendship and romance, in the short stories of Roberto Bolaño, begin suddenly and end with one or both character disappearing to some exotic territory – to France, perhaps, or Madrid, or back to Chile. In any case, they are never seen again, and life goes on. In Last Evenings on Earth characters are drawn together with magnetic force but float away like balloons, the winds of their life blowing them the narrator knows not where. Closure, a virtual requirement of the short story, is all but lost in this collection. Bolaño, like Borges, Cortazar and Chekhov before him, eschews the easy ending in favour of a more ephemeral trailing away, a sign to the reader that not every mystery is resolved.
The fourteen stories in Last Evenings on Earth come from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, short story collections published in 1997 and 2001, respectively. The stories are narrated by 'B', or Arturo Belano, or sometimes by an unnamed narrator. In Sensini, the narrator contacts the moderately well known Argentine author Luis Antonio Sensini when he discover they have both placed in a small literary competition. They begin a series of correspondence, though they have never, and will never, meet. Sensini instructs the young author on literary competitions: “Sensini's reply was prompt and extensive...He told me I should compete for as many prizes as possible, although he suggested I take the precaution of changing a story's title if I was entering it for, say, three competitions that were due to be judged around the same time.” Their correspondence ranges from the literary to the personal, when the narrator learns that Sensini's son Gregorio has vanished into the murk of Argentina's political upheavals. Later, he falls in love with the photograph of Sensini's daughter, Miranda. Later still their correspondence fades way and that, as they say, is that. 'Alone' again, the narrator muses on poetry and literature, focusing mostly on the major talent of the South American past, and the minor, upcoming talent of its future. The short story ends a few pages later with Miranda coming to visit; Sensini had died, his heart broken when his son's body was identified in a mass grave.
This collusion of literature – particularly poetry, always poetry – and the horrors of the many dictators and corrupt officials who have plagued South America throughout the twentieth century, permeate the entirety of Bolaño's oeuvre. In his twenties, Bolaño was arrested during Pinochet's coup against Salvador Allende. A few years later he helped to found infrarrealismo, a minor poetic movement in Mexico which provided the basis for the phenomenal, epoch-changing masterpiece, The Savage Detectives. During his late twenties and for much of his later life Bolaño wandered Europe and South America. It is these wanderings which allow his writing a cosmopolitan feel that is comparable with Jorge Luis Borges' writing. Like Borges, Bolaño is comfortable setting a story in Madrid, or Mexico, or Great Falls in Montana, or anywhere else. This extra-national style adds plausibility to the sometimes unbearable impression that everyone, no matter how important, is only fleeting, and that their stories may end at any time. In Enrique Martín, a great mystery is unwound involving large numbers and literary documents. But the mystery is never revealed. “I thought I'd find numbers and maps, maybe some sign that might explain his death. There were fifty A4 sheets, neatly bound. There were no maps or coded messages on any of them...” The answer, Bolaño tells us, is merely literature – nothing more, and nothing less. A Literary Adventure sees the narrator writing a series of novels directly attacking prominent authors, particularly the pompous, successful 'A'. 'A', however, is also a literary critic, and confounds 'B' by praising his work to the skies. Bolaño toys with this premise, playing with the reader's expectation of a final confrontation between 'A' and 'B' – one that never occurs.
The plots of the short stories are gossamer strings attached to nothing more tangible than the central themes inherent to Bolano's work. Writing, literature, the difficulty of poetry in the face of murderous dictators and political upheaval – these are the threads that twine his work together. Invariably his narrators, seeking solace from a confusing world, have turned to literature, seeing metaphor and simile in everything they experience and all they have. Bolaño, who died in 2003 at the age of fifty, lived to witness his star rise to meteoric heights just before he passed away. In the intervening years, his reputation has grown considerably in the English-speaking world, with his stories and novels fervently translated and just as fervently read. Last Evenings on Earth is an excellent introduction to a phenomenal writer, displaying in miniature the themes and obsessions that would go on to dominate his larger work.
Also by Bolaño:
---The Savage Detectives
List of Chilean authors under review
Wikipedia - Author
International Herald Tribune - review
The Guardian (UK) - review
Barcelona Review - review
Alex V. Cook - blog review
Leap in the Dark - blog review