Poets, artists and other lost souls: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

The individuals that populate the stories collected in Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth tend to be poets, writers, artists, and dreamers. Typically they are oddly groundless, restless beings who seem to drift through not only their own lives but through the lives of those they encounter. Most are either exiles or products of the Chilean diaspora, loosely set down or wandering between Mexico or Europe. As a result, their existences carry a ghostly aura, they are haunted by an otherness that is indefinable to themselves and obscures their relationships with others. The narrators or protagonists are unsure of their own memories, sometimes anxious and paranoid, sometimes bored and aloof–unwilling to trust, to fully engage with those around them.

eveningsIn this, my first encounter with Bolaño’s work, I found myself captivated by the misty melancholic mood, the affecting prose, and the characters, who are commonly struggling with the vagaries of what it means to be creative and to find value in life. Yet there is an underlying ambivalence, anxiety, and insecurity that lends the collection an atmosphere that can be unnerving and faintly depressing. And it can also tend to contribute to blurring of the edges of many of the stories so that a reader may, at the end, be left with a sense of appreciating the journey but losing track of the details that set many of the tales apart.

That is not to imply though that there are not stories that stand out. In my reading, my favourites were the ones that happened to strike me as especially sad, but then I read this book at the bedside of a dying parent. Sadness was the order of the day.

The title story follows a young man and his father on an ill fated holiday to Acapulco. Their days pass in relative calm, though a strain can be felt in the relationship between the two. The father wants to go out, have fun, while the son prefers more solitary outings and spends much of his time reading a book about surrealist poets and contemplating the fate of one particular poet, a minor writer who disappeared and was essentially forgotten by his peers. Father and son engage in aimless conversations that highlight their differing temperaments while the latter is haunted by a feeling of impending doom. For a time the imagined threat is held at bay:

Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase that appears to be normal but is ruled by the deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he certainly would not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.

As the threat becomes real, the son’s passive reaction to all of the warnings that come his way add to a tension built on the very human ability to fail to act on one’s better instincts. Bolaño is a master at exploiting the ambivalence that erodes relationships. Again and again his characters prefer to observe rather than engage, things are left thought but unsaid until, very often, it is too late.

Another especially poignant story is ‘Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva’. Here the narrator recounts the experiences of a fellow Chilean exile he meets in Mexico City. The Eye is described as a sensitive man, one who always tried to avoid violence, “even at the risk of being considered a coward.” He eventually finds work as a photographer and as his modest fortunes improve he develops a style of dress that sets him apart from other Chilean exiles and likely leads to the intimation that he is a homosexual–a designation received with considerable derision, even fear, by his fellow countrymen at that time.

One night the narrator encounters The Eye in a cafe. The description of his friend is striking. Bolaño’s characters seem to pay particular attention to the appearances of their friends and acquaintances, almost as if they are looking to read something lurking beneath the surface, an understanding, a message or an ulterior motive:

I sat down next to him and we talked for a while. He seemed translucent. That was the impression I had. The Eye seemed to be made of some vitreous material. His face and the glass of white coffee in front of him seemed to be exchanging signals: two incomprehensible phenomena whose paths had just crossed at that point in the vast universe, making valiant but probably vain attempts to find a common language.

On this evening, The Eye not only confirms his sexuality, but announces that he will be moving to Paris where he can live more openly and pursue the kind of photographic work he has always dreamed of. It will be years before they meet again. The narrator, now married with a child and published books to his credit, crosses paths with The Eye in Berlin and learns of the life altering, disturbing experiences his friend had in India. It seems that the man who had always tried to avoid violence has discovered, like other Latin Americans of his generation born in the 1950’s, that violence would ultimately find him, even on a distant continent.

The fourteen stories that comprise Last Evenings on Earth are imbued with a wistfulness that captures the spirit of dislocation of the exiled. But with his evocative, evenly paced prose Bolaño speaks to a borderlessness that many of us feel when we don’t fit in wherever we happen to be. It is, perhaps, the writer’s soul that responds, I don’t know. I feel at a loss to define it, in this, my first experience with his work, but I do know I will return for more.

Last Evenings on Earth is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

12 thoughts on “Poets, artists and other lost souls: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

  1. I really enjoyed your review. You capture something not only of the mood of the writing but the mood of reading it! I’ve not read this book but am keen to do so now. I think from reviews of others that Bolano is a bit hit and miss for some people – I’ve really liked what I’ve read so far – though oddly as I think on it now I don’t think the word is ‘enjoyed’. Somehow it wasn’t that kind of feeling – but I find his writing absorbing I think. Anyway if you get chance to read more of his books I thought Savage Detectives and 2666 in particular were both really impressive!

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    • I gather that his work can vary in quality, perhaps due to the push to publish everything when he dies so young. The sheer size of 2666 has me scared, that’s where a suggestion of a few shorter Bolaño books came into play. I started with By Night in Chile which I was enjoying but recent events in my life (the loss of both parents in less than two weeks) made it very difficult to concentrate on a single paragraph piece while sitting in the hospital. Feels good to be getting back into reading/reviewing now.

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      • Sorry to hear of family bereavement. I know a little of the difficulty as my father is terminally ill at present. I’m not finding concentration difficult per se but I’m being pretty careful about my reading choices I think. If you get around to 2666 some day I hope you’ll enjoy it – it’s a bit like War and Peace – you need to stick with it for first couple of hundred pages before it takes hold!!!

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    • Thanks Scott. It should be interesting to hear how the shorter form works for you. As someone who needs a really compelling reason to pick up a book that extends beyond 500 pages, I still stand to be convinced to venture into 2666 though it comes highly praised by many readers I know. 🙂

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  2. Great review. Like Col, I really enjoyed your take on these stories. Oddly enough, I read this collection myself about 3 or 4 years ago (not long before the start of my blogging days) but have not followed it up with any of Bolano’s other work since then. I had somewhat mixed feelings about it as a collection – some stories I loved while others left me a little cold. You’re right though about the slightly ghostly aura and the groundless, restless nature of several of the characters. That captures my memory of them very nicely.

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    • Thanks Jacqui, I am glad to know that others share that impression. It’s not a bad thing, but ! should imagine one would have to be in the mood for Bolaño. The sadness of these stories sat well for me over the past few difficult weeks. I am curious to see how a longer piece works, but when the time comes my next Bolaño will be a novella (By Night in Chile).

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  3. Great to have your reviews back! I agree, I think you capture the atmosphere of the stories perfectly. Bolano seems to be a writer where there is a cumulative effect to reading his work, with lots of echoes, shadows, and, yes, ghosts.

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    • It is good to be back Grant. I did write one review over the past week or so but it will not be out until the fall Quarterly Conversation (as a belated WIT read). Now trying to catch up with all the unfinished books I have had to put aside when my concentration was not at its best. Hope to get a few more Spanish titles in too.

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  4. I read 2666 last summer and it was too much, the many, many pages and accounts of the murder of women started to affect me, its a reminder of the many that have actually happened there, but I don’t understand why it was necessary to pad out the book with all of that. I’d read Jennifer Clement’s Prayers of the Stolen which also dealt with a similar subject, and while it too was difficult to digest, I could more easily understand its purpose in doing so.

    This collection sounds much more like something I might relate to, thanks for the thoughtful review.

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