Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1928
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 Nazi occupation. Bolaño writes, “In his heart, Leprince has finally accepted his lot as a bad writer, but he has also come to understand and accept that good writers need bad writers if only to serve as readers and stewards.”
The plight of writers like Leprince, who dwell in the literary world’s backwater because of their lack of creative abilities or who are unrecognized despite their considerable talents, drives many of the stories in Last Evenings on Earth, including “Gómez Palacio.” In this tale, the unnamed narrator, due to his lack of literary fame, is teaching a free, government-sponsored poetry workshop in a remote rural town in northern Mexico named Gómez Palacio, a place nearly devoid of culture. The workshop is held in a featureless building “swarming with zombie-like adolescents who were studying painting, music, or literature.” The narrator claims that the building’s “only redeeming feature was an unpaved yard with a grand total of three trees and an abandoned or unfinished garden.” He goes on to say that the yard “made me shudder.”
The director of Gómez Palacio’s arts council is a “plump, middle-aged woman with bulging eyes, wearing a large print dress featuring almost all of the state’s flowers.” Along with her clownish appearance, she is a rather amateurish poet, and at first the narrator does not take her seriously. Then, one night she drives him to a desert hillside outside of town and shows him a mysterious phenomenona green light, sparked by automobile headlights three miles away, “a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth.” To the narrator, this light is “a dream or a miracle.” He leaves for Mexico City the next day still haunted by this strange, unexplained vision brought to him by this woman he once dismissed as aesthetically challenged.
Bolaño again explores this theme of transcendent beauty emerging from a wasteland in “Dentist.” In this story, the narrator and the dentist of the title are old college friends. After graduating, the latter returns home to the rural city of Irapuato, where he practices dentistry. Years later, the narrator, a journalist living in Mexico City, goes to Irapuato for a visit. The dentist, distraught over a patient who has died from jaw cancer, takes the narrator out drinking. As they wend their way from bar to bar, the narrator finds himself being led to Irapuato’s slums, where they down tequila at a cheap restaurant.
At the height of this revelry, a sixteen-year-old youthshort, handsome, and poorstrides into the restaurant. He comes over to the dentist, and the two, it turns out, are close friends. The youth’s name is José Ramírez, and after the dentist buys him a simple meal of tortillas and chili, José and the dentist discuss art, much to the narrator’s surprise. The narrator, mystified by this friendship, speculates that José is the dentist’s lover. On another night out, the dentist reveals that José Ramírez, instead, is one of the finest authors alive, that Mexico’s other writers are like “babes in arms” in comparison. Naturally, the narrator is skeptical, and the dentist decides to prove his claim by threading the maze of outer Irapuatoa realm of darkness, refuse, and houses held together with scrap wood and wireto reach José’s home, where the narrator reluctantly begins to read José’s stories.
With the first piece, the narrator is stunned. The experience he has of reading José’s stories is nothing short of transcendental. It is as if he has discovered fiction’s Holy Grail. Later, when he is back at the dentist’s home, the narrator dreams of José and his writings and believes that with the encounter he has “understood the mystery of art and its secret nature.” However, despite the intensity of their belief in José’s brilliance, there is no indication at the story’s conclusion that either the dentist or the narrator are going to reveal José’s writing to the world at large. It is as if nothing had taken place, that it was instead an elaborate vision.
The themes of poverty and homosexuality also emerge in the story “Mauricio (’The Eye’) Silva,” a story about political exiles from Pinochet’s Chile living in Mexico. The title character, Mauricio, and the story’s narrator are close friends, and during a night of drinking Mauricio confesses that he is indeed a homosexual, as is rumored in the exile community. Soon afterward, Mauricio leaves abruptly for Europe.
Years later, the narrator also leaves Mexico, and he encounters Mauricio in Berlin. There, in the winter darkness of a public park, Mauricio relates an experience that has left him deeply shaken. A photojournalist, Mauricio one day took an assignment to photograph the prostitutes’ district of a city in India, to illustrate an article by an investigative reporter. One night, while Mauricio was shooting, a pimp offered the services of one of his women. When Mauricio refused, the pimp realized that the Chilean was homosexual and took him to a brothel with boys. It was there that events turned strange.
One of the male prostitutes suggested that Mauricio might enjoy a sexual experience of a different nature and guided him through a labyrinth of streets and chambers to a temple where boys who had been castrated during a Hindu ceremony were prostituted. Mauricio was even shown a young boy, slightly drugged, being prepared for the service. Horrified, Mauricio tried to bribe the temple officials to let him take the boy away. When that failed, he struck out at the officials, seized the boy and a nearby eunuch, and fled. They escaped to a remote Indian village, where they hid, afraid of the police and the temple priests. After a year and a half, the boys died from a deadly epidemic. When Mauricio returned to the temple, he found it transformed into an ordinary apartment building, as though none of the events had happened. For Mauricio, the eunuchs represent the victims of the Pinochet coup, and he cries for all the lost soulsfrom those slain in the overthrow of Allende to the castrated boys of the Indian temple.
Bolaño called his style of writing “infrarealism,” and its reportorial tone and viewpoint were a conscious rejection of the Magical Realism of the previous generation of Latin American authors like Gabriel Garciá Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. Before Bolaño’s untimely death from liver failure at the age of fifty, his approach resulted in seventeen books of prose and poetry that are widely read and highly praised in the Spanish-speaking world. While some of the stories in this collection can become frustrating in the obliqueness of their technique and plotting, Last Evenings on Earth, the third of Bolaño’s books to be translated into English, supports the claim that he is the greatest Latin American author of his generation.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 16, 2006, p. 10.
The Nation 282, no. 21 (May 29, 2006): 11-12.
The New York Sun, Arts & Letters, May 3, 2006, p. 16.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 9, 2006): 9.
The New Yorker 81, no. 42 (December 26, 2005): 80-95.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 13 (March 27, 2006): 57-58.
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