My Continuing Quest to find Roberto Bolano

“Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolano (1997, 2001) stories –  219 pages  Translated by Chris Andrews

 Among my many reading goals is a strong desire to understand and appreciate the fiction of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.  I’ve read quite a few reviews of Bolano’s work where the critics fall all over themselves in praising his work and calling him an important author, and I’ve been trying to figure this phenomenon out for a long time.

 I have been a huge fan of Latin American literature starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’ and going from there to Mario Vargas Llosa to Manuel Puig to Julio Cortazar to Isabel Allende to Jorge Amado to many other writers.   I also reached back in time to the early writings of Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis and Ciro Alegria which were both excellent .  I’ve been on the lookout for new Latin American writers for quite some time.  When I first read the high praise for Roberto Bolano, I was all ready to jump into his work.

 When I saw that the Complete Review had given an A- to “The Savage Detectives”, I jumped right in and started reading that novel, even though it was 577 pages.  However after reading 143 pages, I gave up in frustration, annoyed by the seemingly endless repetition of the young Mexican writers hanging around and talking about whatever.  Later I was told that it gets better after that.  

I waited a couple of years before my next excursion into Bolano territory which was ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas”.  This novel is a totally imaginary encyclopedia of Nazi writers in North and South America.  I had a much better experience with this book, actually enjoyed reading it.  However this book seemed to me a one-off humorous pastiche rather than a novel of any sort of depth.

This time I thought it would be best to turn to shorter works by Bolano.  His collected stories are available in two books, “Last Evenings on Earth” and ‘The Return”.  Since ‘Last Evenings on Earth’ was published first I selected this book figuring the other might be leftovers. 

I enjoyed most of the stories in this book.  Probably my favorite is ‘Anne Moore’s Life’ which is the most traditional story in the collection.  Not that this story is all that traditional, since it follows the entire life and travels of this woman until middle age and then ends with ‘and then I never saw her again’. 

Bolano does not make it easy for the reader to like his work.  In several of the stories in “Last Evenings on Earth”, the characters are called by the first letter of their names such as K, U, V, and of course B who is a stand-in for the author himself.  Even with this obstacle to empathy, I was able to get involved in these stories.  Another difficult modern feature of Bolano’s writing is that many of these stories leave the reader with no closure.   The story just stops.

Many of the stories in this collection are about writers.  One gets the sense that for Bolano reading and writing was everything there is to life.       

At the beginning of this article I mentioned all these South American writers.    Even though there were dictators back in the old days, there was still an underlying sunny optimism in these writers’ writing. Roberto Bolano is a more ‘modern’ type of writer. Bolano is writing after the brutal Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the ruthless dictatorships in Argentina. The writing of Roberto Bolano reflects these darker times often referring to the tortures and terrors associated with these governments. 

“In order to get free from boredom, to escape the dead zone, all we have at hand….. is horror, that’s to say evil.”  

One additional roadblock for me with Bolano’s work for me is that Jorge Luis Borges was his favorite writer.  Borges happens to be the one Latin American writer that I have not successfully been able to much value so far.   Both Bolano and Borges share an almost religious devotion to literature that does not necessarily make their writing easy for the reader to follow or understand.            

 Despite everything, I liked the majority of the stories in “Last Evenings on Earth”, and would give the collection a B grade.  This is still a long way from adoration, so I will return to Roberto Bolano in a couple of years probably with “By Night in Chile”.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. My husband says (and he won’t sign in): “I, too, have been in search of other South American writers beyond Bolano. He’s not South American but Spanish: I recommend Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and The Speed of Light.”

    I personally haven’t read Bolano.

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    • Hi Frisbee,
      Thanks, I had not previously heard of Javier Cercas. I try to keep up on Spanish writing as well.my favorite modern being Javier Marias and favorite classic being Benito Perez Galdos. (besides Cervantes).

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  2. Posted by yodcha on November 23, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    If you have not yet read him, you might like Horacio Quiroga (Uruguay 1878 to 1957) Bolano greatly admired him. He is often called “The Edgar Alan Poe” of the Amazon”- his best short stories like “The Decapitated Chicken” are masters of horror.

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    • Hi yodcha,
      I did read Quiroga a long time ago in the 1980s when I was reading a lot of South American fiction. His fiction didn’t leave a lasting impression on me at that time.

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