173. The Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
Roberto Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth (1997; translation (by Chris Andrews), 2006, NDP; 219) is a collection of 19 short stories. The stories are set in various countries including Mexico, Spain and the United States and sometimes, briefly, Chile. They are stories about Chileans in exile. Though the stories are varied on different themes, the issue of incapability, of the impotence to affect the status quo runs through all. In all of these stories, Bolano carried through to the reader the frustrations, agitations, mental breakdown and restlessness of individuals who, through political instability, have been thrown into different countries. The stories were all set during the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet and the arrests and killings that followed.
Most of these fourteen short stories are about writers struggling to survive in the exiled countries, those at the twilight of their careers and life. Another unique feature of the collection is the use of letters to represent names and mostly the use of Mr B, perhaps in reference to Bolano himself. Several narrative voices were employed; however, the first person narrative dominates the collection. Most of the stories were also written in the present tense making their effects felt strongly by the reader.
The first story Sensini is about a man who enters a short story competition and came fourth and after reading the first three stories found out that the third story was better than the first and second winning stories. A friendship developed between Sensini, the man in question, and the narrator and through exchanges Sensini told the stranger his life: of how he lives in exile and senile; of how he wishes to see his homeland; of how he looks forward to meeting his first son who is presumed death. The relationship between the two, though frank, was not an easy one. Sensini shared with the narrator not only his life's story but also techniques and tricks about entering into writing competitions. It was clear that Sensini survived solely on such competitions. Henri Simon Leprince also traces the life of a lower middle class individual who has failed as a writer and in almost everything. He ekes his living from a gutter press where he apes the writings of those he regard in high esteem. During the World War II he provided immense help to several individuals and eminent writers, yet each never regarded him more than what he is. Enrique Martin is also about a failed poet who later became a science fiction writer and who later committed suicide. Desperation, depression and frustration virtually ooze off the pages of this work of Bolano. A Literary Adventure, one of my favourites, is about a lesser-known writer, B, who parodies a well-known writer, A, but instead of the usual verbal hassle he expected, he received rave reviews from this author. Has this writer seen himself in the work? Is he pretending? B writes a second book and before the book will come out A has reviewed it. This behaviour of A creates extreme apprehension in B who is eager to meet A. I like the way this particular story went. The fear and anxiety were palpable. Anne Moore is one story which is an exception to the rule: it is not about a Chilean in exile, neither is it about a writer; however, the Anne went to and met several Spanish writers and other individuals. The story records the somewhat Bohemian and epicurean life of a young girl who, with much promise and a good beginning, almost lost it all. It traces the life of Moore (and sometimes her sister) from when she was young into adulthood. My favourite story in the collection is Dance Card which was written in the first person and has been claimed to be a chronicle of an incident in the writer's life. The narrator tells of how he was arrested by government forces only to be rescued his former classmates and even though he was not tortured he heard the cries of others being tortured. The title story Last Evenings on Earth tells of the vacation a man and his son B take at Acapulco, Mexico. The man, an ex-boxer in exile, felt freer and at home whereas his son was more calm and restrain.
There are other stories of suicide by a depressed man in exile (Days of 1978); of a traveller's discovery of how young boys are castrated and sacrificed to the gods (Mauricio ("The Eye") Silva); of a writer taking up a writers workshop in an isolated place in Mexico (Gomez Palacio); of a boy who shuns classes to read at a park and who strikes a quite odd acquaintance with "the grub" - a man who sits at one place and who seems to dream of faraway places (The Grub); and more.
Bolano, through all the stories, showed his leftist/socialist inclinations and his strong political attachments. Also, at several times, he points at the failure of a generation of writers. One thing that was clear was that Bolano didn't set out to write 'plot-moving' stories but one that captures the mood of the times they were living in. So that though some of the stories had no clear plot, they were nevertheless interesting to read and the common mental state of dejection was felt. The lucidity of the write (or of the translation) made reading this collection a joy.