Review: Last Evenings On Earth by Roberto Bolaño

I’ve never read any of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s raved-about novels (2666 or The Savage Detectives) and yet I had already formed an opinion of what to expect from his writing.  I was anticipating heavy prose, full of political talk and a call-to-arms to rebel against authority.  However, having raced through this collection of his short stories, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case at all.

His writing focuses on the smaller details and issues – I would say mundane, but an exile’s version of mundane is not the same as that shared by most people – of daily life, yet the reader senses a lot more simmering below the surface.  His references to the political troubles of Chile in the 1970s are scattered through his stories, but are not preachy and are just a part of his characters’ identities, whether they like it or not.  And the rebellion against the powers-that-be?  There seems to be more of a silent rebellion against his fellow Chileans, whom his characters always appear to despise, rather than against anyone in authority.  A very common theme seems to be the feeling of being an outsider amongst outsiders: a sense of separateness even from his fellow exiles.

His stories all seem to drift along, building to a point where something is just about to happen… and then they stop.  My favourite ending from the collection has to be from the title story, ‘Last Evenings On Earth’, which has built slowly from the start on the narrator’s paranoia that something terrible might happen to his father and mar their holiday.  Just when we feel that the tension must be released with a burst of action, the final line concludes the story with: “And then the fight begins.”

This is typical in this collection.  Funnily enough, rather than annoying me I actually enjoyed this device.  It did leave me wanting more, but in a good way, making me eager to read the next story.  These endings somehow seem wistful, as if the characters’ lives are full of boredom and frustration; as if they are never quite able to achieve either progression or closure.

Every story also feels very personal, as if they were all autobiographical.  Perhaps that’s the secret of a good story – there’s no reason why fiction has to be based on reality… but it could be.  Engaging with what feels like a real or ‘true’ experience encourages the reader to trust the narrator, as he appears to be confiding in us.

This is especially true when Bolaño calls his characters ‘B’ or ‘X’, rather than properly naming them, as he does in many of these stories.  The best examples of this include ‘A Literary Adventure’ – where B writes a novel satirising another writer, A, who in turn writes a glowing review of B’s book, leading to B’s increasing guilt and paranoia – and ‘Phone Calls’ – in which: “B is in love with X.  Unhappily, of course.”  It’s as if Bolaño is putting a part of himself into his stories, even if they are not actually his own real-life experiences.

Temporary homes and temporary lovers also feature heavily in the stories, as do bouts of insomnia, depression, suicide attempts, and passive contemplations of life, art and poetry.  The stories are tinged with sadness and loneliness, and I’m sure some people would find reading them all at once a bit heavy-going.  I’ll admit that I wouldn’t recommend the collection to everyone, but I was unexpectedly impressed with the understated writing and I would definitely be interested in seeking out one of his longer novels for more of the same.

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