Although the fourteen stories in Roberto Bolaño‘s superb collection Last Evenings on Earth are the result of collating and translating two previously published volumes, Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas–and therefore ostensibly have nothing to do with each other (other than being the work of a singularly gifted author)–I couldn’t help reading them, especially towards the end of the book, as a strange, fragmented novel. Beyond Bolaño’s inimitable style (more on that in a moment), the collection is unified by its protagonists, or protagonist, really, who really must be a stand-in for Bolaño himself. Tenets of New Criticism be damned! It’s impossible not to read Bolaño into these stories, whether his narrators or protagonists are young teens or middle-aged men, petulant sons or struggling writers. Scratch that last one. They’re all struggling writers; in fact, just about everyone in this book is a struggling writer, or an exile, or a vagabond, or on the run, or so enamored and wound up in Big Romantic Ideals that they make plenty of foolish decisions (one of my favorite things about this book is how easily Bolaño posits and then ironizes and the tears apart Big Romantic Ideals at the very same time he makes you feel wistful and nostalgic for those days when you believed in them yourself). Bolaño uses a character named only “B” for most of these stories; elsewhere, (anti-)hero (and obvious Bolaño stand-in) Arturo Belano of The Savage Detectives is revealed to be a narrator. In other stories the young male protagonist is simply not identified by any name, yet all of these characters are so fully realized, so psychologically real, that they must contain at least some part of Bolaño.
And these protatgonists are so very, very real, almost frighteningly so, like “B” in “A Literary Adventure,” whose paranoia over receiving a career jump-starting review from a writer–“A,” of course, who B has actually mocked in his book–poisons any enjoyment B might have had with his new success. B’s slow descent into a mild madness is perfectly drawn, the sort of thing you might see in your own life, the sort of anxiety that many of us feel but cannot communicate or explain because of the silly shame of it all. In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B (the same B? Must be) takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)
That ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism works throughout each of the stories, even ones not specifically about B (or Belano, or, let’s be honest maybe, Bolaño). “Anne Moore’s Life” is an incredible (yet thoroughly credible) portrait. The story is both journalistic and personal; Anne’s life is at once banal and bizarre–like anyone’s life, perhaps, but not. “Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva” relates the story of another Chilean exile (did I forget to mention that, in a way, this whole book is about Chilean exiles, that if Last Evenings on Earth is a fragmented novel, then it tells the fragmented story of these artists and activists fleeing from Pinochet’s coup? If I forgot to mention that, I suppose I didn’t want to over-politicize my review, or suggest that one had to have some contextual knowledge of the Chilean diaspora in order to enjoy this book, because I don’t think you have to–but where were we? “The Eye,” right), the titular Mauricio (AKA “The Eye”), a photographer whose travels take him to the depths of depravity in the poorest parts of India. What parts of India? Well, the narrator never finds a specific answer, because those don’t really exist in Bolaño’s universe. All claims are under suspicion. Things may or may not have happened, and if they did happen, they might have happened in myriad ways. But how is it then that Bolaño is never murky? How can a writer who posits so many possibilities, whose characters repeatedly aver that they don’t really remember exactly the way things happened (if they even happened at all), how can such a writer be at the same time so sharp and exacting? It’s one of Bolaño’s great gifts of course and we’re lucky to share in it.
It would be hard–impossible really–to pick the best story from the collection. They’re all great, they all demand to be reread, and they made me want to read more Roberto Bolaño. But if I had to pick one as a starting point, if I had to foist one on a friend, I suppose it would be “Enrique Martín,” the story of a failed poet that made me laugh out loud several times and then almost cry. Arturo Belano narrates this story with a wry, acerbic, deadpan humor that veers at times into unexpected and affecting poignancy. Poor Enrique only wants Belano’s respect, or at least Belano to read his poems with a modicum of dignity–a fact that Bolaño shares with his readers while still keeping his narrator in the dark. As the story plunges to its tragic end, Belano finally sees what the reader has already cottoned onto: our individual choices in relations to others might be far more impactful than we realize, and human empathy is in sorry supply in this world. “Life is mysterious as well as vulgar,” Belano nonchalantly suggests in the middle of the story, but Bolaño goes to exacting pains to show us that there can be a saving beauty and humor in all that strange visceral ugliness. One of the best stories I’ve ever read in one of the best collections I’ve ever read. Very highly recommended.