Last Evenings on Earth
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño was twenty when a violent coup ousted Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile. A supporter of Allende, Bolaño was arrested soon after the president’s murder on September 11, 1973. The young Socialist was one of the fortunate prisoners of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship: Saved by an old high school friend working for Pinochet’s police, Bolaño was neither killed nor tortured. However, he spent the rest of his life in restless exile, living primarily in Mexico, Spain, and France.
To judge from the stories in Last Evenings on Earth, that exile left him deeply cynical and melancholy, the years of living as an alien on society’s fringes replacing the fervent Marxist with a man obsessed by the meaninglessness of life in the postmodern era. As the narrator states in one story, “Days of 1978,” after he nearly comes to blows with a fellow banished Chilean leftist over political doctrine, “Once again reality has proven that no particular group has a monopoly over demagogy, dogmatism, and ignorance.”
Upon reading a Bolaño story, one enters a world of indeterminacy. Details, even ones central to the story, are frequently left in doubt. For instance, in “Anne Moore’s Life,” the narrator, one of Moore’s lovers, declares, “I was too busy working and dealing with my own problems to do anything about Anne Moore. I think I even got married.” This is in response to Moore’s ominous claims that a former husband has threatened her life. The narrator never hears from Moore again, yet inexplicably the story ends with the narrator meeting one of Moore’s other friends, an elderly Russian living in Spain, who knows no more about Moore’s ultimate fate than the narrator. Thus, the reader never learns if Moore has indeed died by violence.
As with “Anne Moore’s Life,” Bolaño often thwarts the classical story arc. The pieces in Last Evenings on Earth rarely possess rising action or a climax, and they often end unresolved. When Bolaño does construct a story with conflict and rising action, he usually ends it before the climax, as in the title story, “Last Evenings on Earth.” This piece builds to a savage bar fight, but instead of describing the battle and its aftermath, Bolaño closes the tale with the line, “And then the fight begins.”
Despite this unorthodox approach, the stories in Last Evenings on Earth possess a strange and compelling power. Noir fiction has influenced Bolaño, and he makes excellent use of the tropes of the detective story, while the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship often lurk beneath the surface like dangerous sharks. Events do take placebanal or surprising, disturbing or delightfulall told in a detached, almost reportorial voice. Those events, and their frequently mysterious causes, draw one into Bolaño’s stories, making the reader care deeply for the characters journeying helplessly to their fates. This is because Bolaño’s stories, by denying fiction’s artificial forms, accurately reflect life in all its uncertainty. As the main character of “Dentist,” an aficionado of fiction, states: “We just tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, and we don’t realize that’s a lie.” The best stories in Last Evenings on Earth nicely demonstrate this concept.
Among these is “Henri Simon Leprince,” the only piece not told from an autobiographical point of view. Leprince is a mediocre French author, largely ignored or despised by the literary world. When France falls to Nazi Germany in 1940, the writers there divide into two categoriesthose who will resist occupation and those who will collaboratea clear reference to Bolaño’s own experience in the Pinochet coup of 1973. The writers take sides for complex reasons, but one of the clear advantages in joining the collaborationists is to settle literary scores, as this group will not only control French publishing but also even arrange the arrests of old rivals.
Leprince, being a literary outcast, should be attracted to the collaborationists. However, against his own self-interest, he rejects an offer to become an important editor on a collaborationist newspaper. Bolaño, however, does not allow the reader to view Leprince in an entirely heroic light. Instead, he states that Leprince “happened to choose the right side, as unconsciously as bacteria infect a host.” Nonetheless, at great danger to himself, Leprince helps many of the literary greats in the Resistance escape France. He survives the war and returns to his life of literary mediocrity, never receiving the acknowledgment he deserves for his actions against...
(The entire section is 1928 words.)