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Roberto Bolaño’s dreamlike prose is something I adore – I’ve made no attempt to hide the impact his sprawling classic 2666 has left on me, along with the compelling short story collection The Return, containing some incredibly dark and saddening tales. The ‘floating’ feeling Bolaño’s words can elicit is in plentiful supply in Last Evenings on Earth, published in 1997 and translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2006.

last evenings on earth

The collection of stories written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, found within Last Evenings on Earth, are profoundly character – rather than plot – driven, focussing on the thoughts and fears of the protagonists. These narrators are often struggling poets or writers (and seem to me like imprints of Bolaño himself) and frequently speak in the first person as if confessing, or re-examining, their actions and thoughts, trapped in a paranoid and tortured void between Europe and their various (Latin American) homelands.

The titular Last Evenings on Earth is one of the highlights, in which B (presumably Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego) and his father go on vacation to a beach resort in Mexico, which ominously builds to a violent climax. Dance Card‘s narrator returns to Chile in 1973 to help rebuild socialism, is arrested and imprisoned and accused of being a terrorist, only to be released by a pair of detectives he knew from school (the class mates from Detectives, the story within The Return). 

A quote from Gómez Palacio, where a 23 year old poet takes a position teaching creative writing in the titular town, and goes on an unusual car ride with the writing director.

…at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two… And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light, that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road – a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground – but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

In Dentist, the narrator visits an old friend, a dentist, who introduces him to a poor Indian boy who is a literary genius and whom the dentist appears to be in love with. A fantastic quote from Dentist on the nature of art in one of many tequila-inspired conversations:

That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.

Bolaño is, here and throughout his body of work, evasive, elusive, transparent, but also observational, coherent, inspirational. The dreamlike quality of his texts blend surrealism, wit, political and philosophical analysis, and I will continue to study and enjoy as many of his stories as I can.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, age 50, and left behind a frenzied body of work that has embodied him as a giant of Latin American literature. He received unanimous critical praise for 2666 posthumously, despite primarily being a struggling poet for much of his life, only really turning to literature and fiction for his last ten years on Earth. The Return, translated by Chris Andrews and published in English in 2010, is a collection of short stories initally contained within Bolaño’s two Spanish collections, Llamadas Telefonicas (1997), and Putas Asesinas (2001). With much of Bolaño’s work, it is generally dark in tone but often deeply personal, with stories emerging from reminiscing friends, or reliving past and repressed memories.

the-returnbolano

The titular The Return is arguably the pick of the stories: a revolting and surreal story of a celebrity necrophiliac, with a tantalising opening line (I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.”) But in truth there are many fascinating tales within. Detectives contains no prose or description, only the speech between two detectives as they drive through the night, and which is loosely based on Bolaño’s arrest and imprisonment during the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, where he was allegedly allowed to escape by prison guards he had once attended college with). Prefiguration of Lalo Cura follows the childhood memories of a man whose mother was a pornographic actress, a deeply disturbing look into the adult film industry and Latin America as a whole. Photos and Meeting with Enrique Lihn are surreal nightmares of which nothing is truly certain.

Not every story is up to the high standards of those mentioned above but all do share that awful quality of foreboding terror and violence, while life continues to float on by in its absurd and accepted normality. A brilliant insight into the mind of Roberto Bolaño.