Friday, February 22, 2013

On Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth”

Lately, I’ve found it difficult to post my usual amount of book reviews and literary essays. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that I’m busy in school this semester. My “Readings in Global Fact and Fiction” class at Johns Hopkins University sops up a lot of my free time. (We’ve been reading Borges for two weeks, and my literary brain is still recovering.)

I’ve developed some opinions about Borges, but I’ll leave the Borges criticism to the pros. I’ve developed far more coherent thoughts about the book I just finished: “Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolaño. This collection of stories was first published in 1997, and this Spanish-to-English translation from Chris Andrews came out in 2006. Bolaño’s world is much different than the world of Borges’ — or the world of any other writer, for that matter.

In Bolaño’s world, narrators have no names. If Bolaño is generous, he’ll refer to narrators and other characters as “B” or “A.” Writers — and there are many of them in these stories — live in obscurity, and they die in the same manner. Narrators thrash around in endless nightmares. Lovers leave and lovers die. People move around the globe, and when they try to go home — wherever that is — they can’t find it.

The best writers have an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the mind and body of a character from an entirely time and place. Truly great writers make the transition from reality to the mind of a character subtle and unnoticed, which means the reader is disarmed and vulnerable to the designs of the author. In this sense, Bolaño is a master seducer of the mind. His style is conversational, yet poetic. His stories flow smoothly, but they’re intensly literary and inctricarely designed. Bolaño finds value in the mundane aspects of life. He hones in on events that are not necessarily the most shocking or exciting, but he’s able to imbue them with richness and meaning. Like Hemingway, Bolaño uses brief, assertive language to convey deep and profound themes.

Soft-spoken, full of complex thoughts and inspirations, Bolaño’s characters are real people, the kind of people you want drink cervezas with and listen to long into the night. The settings in these 14 stories span much of the Spanish-speaking world: Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Spain. The characters are always crossing borders. They are natives of one place, vagabonds in another, trying desperately to get somewhere else.

One of the many elements of Bolaño’s writing that I enjoyed was the pervasiveness of insomnia in his stories. I’ve struggled with insomnia for years and am fully aware of the way it can distort your perception of reality. I’ve always appreciated writers who, when creating a narrator, attempt to enter an altered state of consciousness. Insomnia is perhaps one of the most difficult states of mind to convey through the written word, but Bolaño pulls it off. He makes you feel the tension and the burning red in your eyes, makes you see the way colors and light bleed together.

Roberto Bolaño
The narrator in the story “Gomez Palacio” is a great example. I’m no psychiatrist, but I’m willing to bet a shrink would diagnose the narrator with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. He describes himself as a nervous wreck and he fears others will harm him somehow, although the reader never gets a rational explanation of how or why this would happen. Early on in the story, the narrator talks about his insomnia and his compulsive behavior. He gets up to drink water, not because he needs it, but because he feels it is the only thing that will satisfy the burn of his anxiety. Once he’s up, he becomes anxious about all the little things around him. It’s clear the narrator has been going through his days under intense and constant pressure, and this pressure doesn't have a specific, identifiable source. It's a cycle of movement and distraction that he goes through because he doesn't know what else to do. 

“Anne Moore’s Life” is one of the most heart-wrenching and intensely moving stories I’ve read in a very long time. Obviously, the story focuses on Anne Moore, a free-spirited woman who cannot bear the chains of normalcy. She would rather die than suffer the sedentary life. The story is told from the perspective of a male narrator who divulges his identity bit by bit over the course of 20-something pages. As the narrator rehashes Anne Moore’s love affairs, the reader begins to see the way Anne has impacted his life. The man was indeed in love with Anne Moore. But unlike the others, this man has additional insight into Anne’s personality and history. Where she kept most men at a distance, Anne opened up with the narrator, at least a little bit. The narrator doesn’t hear from Anne for months, and is unable to track her down. He goes through life’s motions, but nothing he does seems as meaningful or real as his time with Anne Moore: “I was too busy working and dealing with my own problems to do anything about Anne Moore. I think I even got married.”

Violence may not enter into every story, but Bolaño’s characters are never too far removed from the horrors of state repression in 20th Century Latin America. One of the stories with a named protagonist, “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” is something of a spy tale. It has one hell of an opening: “Mauricio Silva, also known as ‘The Eye,’ always tried to avoid violence, even at the risk of being considered a considered a coward, but violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the fifties and were about twenty years old at the time of Salvador Allende’s death. That’s just the way it goes.” The Eye, a homosexual Chilean exile living in Mexico, fled the right wing dictatorship of Pinochet after the democratically-elected Salvador Allende was overthrown. “He was the ideal Chilean,” Bolaño writes, “stoic and amiable, a type that has never been very numerous in Chile but cannot be found anywhere else.”

This collection of stories was my first experience with Bolaño’s work, but it won’t be my last.

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