Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 2006
Few writers translated into English in the past several years have generated as much excitement as Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño, who died in 2003, is one of the most popular literary authors in the Spanish-speaking world. Thus far two of his novels have been published in the United States. Two more are due out this spring, including a purported masterpiece,The Savage Detectives. Fitted between these pairs is Last Evenings on Earth, a minor yet compelling book of short stories compiled from two collections published in Spanish.
The stories generally divide into two types: first-person recollections of a writer's younger days, and third-person accounts of a writer named B. Invariably, the unnamed narrator or B is an exile from General Pinochet's Chilean regime. Historians credit Pinochet with at least three thousand murders during his time in office and perhaps ten times that many imprisoned and tortured. In these stories, Bolaño suggests a more indirect human toll from the violence, unmeasured by statistics. The provisional, frustrated life of an exile always maintains a close relationship with death.
The first story in the collection, "Sensini," can be considered typical of the work as a whole. The unnamed narrator recounts a period during the early days of his writing career. When he places in a Spanish literary competition, he notices on the list of runners-up his favorite author from the overlooked generation of Argentine authors that bridged the time between those pillars Cortazar and Puig. Sensini, who has fled an Argentina beset by generals, supplements his income, the narrator discovers, with short-story competitions that are surely beneath him. Sensini and the narrator begin a correspondence, and though both live in Spain, neither can spare the means to visit the other. After the return of Argentine democracy, Sensini returns to his native country, both because he sees no reason to linger in Spain and because he wants to search for his son, who, it is rumored, has been discovered in a mass grave. The narrator later discovers that after the confirmation of his son's murder Sensini dwindled and died. The violence of the state collects an additional victim that it never so much as arrested. Suicides and attempted suicides are also frequent in this collection.
Bolaño's ascent in critical esteem and overall popularity might be seen as ironic in terms of these stories, which are obsessed with minor, or forgotten, artists. "Henri Simon Leprince" tells the story of a marginal French poet, who contributes mightily to the Resistance during World War II. A man pursues the legacy of Henri Lefebvre-not the famous one, the other one-in "Vagabond in France and Belgium." Both stories examine what it means to be a minor artist caught in the vise of twentieth-century history. What does it mean to devote a life to artistic expression and know that all has been lost, or that it never amounted to much in the first place? Bolaño's legacy, at any rate, would appear to have safely cleared these rocks.
Alex Wenger is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia