Like most English speaking North Americans, South America – or more truthfully, Spanish speaking America – is somewhat of a mystery to me. I’m sure for us up in Canada, where we sometimes forget that Mexico is even part of North America, it’s even more of a closed book than for Americans who have a sizable Spanish speaking population. Like most of us, my introduction to South American literature came through One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, deservedly one of the most celebrated books that came out of that continent.
As good as Marquez is, he’s not the only – or even the best – voice to come out of Latin America. While I’ve read the work of a few other authors, I can’t pretend to be in any sort of position to be making generalities about South American literature. Yet I think it would be remiss if we didn’t keep in mind (when reading the work of authors born from the 1950s onward) the violent and volatile political situation of that continent.
Nearly every country south of Mexico has had one form of violence or another shape the political landscape of the country. From American backed insurrections and coups in Nicaragua and Chile to the military juntas of Argentina and drug wars of Columbia, you would have been hard pressed growing up in South America during that period to live a life that wasn’t impacted on by violence in some form or another. When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize for literature in the 1950s, he talked about American writers having their prose affected by living under the shadow of the threat of nuclear war. In South America, writers of the same generation have lived under the shadow of writers, academics, school teachers, trade unionists, and artists being rounded up and shot by their governments.
The author of Last Evenings On Earth, a collection of short stories just released by Random House Canada, Roberto Bolano was imprisoned in the early days of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, freed after a year, and spent the rest of his life in exile. Prior to this collection of stories, only two of his novels had been translated into English, so don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. I think once you have read him, you won’t easily forget him.
It’s not that he writes about spectacular subjects or that his characters are what you’d call the shakers and movers of the worlds they inhabit, but there is something about their mundaneness that makes them fascinating. Some of them have aspirations to being poets, in spite of their obvious lack of talent, while others drift through their lives looking for somewhere or something they can call their own. Their struggle to find identity makes them easy for most of us to identify with, but there’s an undertone of desperation or melancholy that marks their lives in such a way as to remove them from the ordinary.
The stories are deceptively simple. A young expatriate South American writer living in Spain corresponds with an older expatriate writer about entering into short story contests around the country, a young man on a trip to Acapulco with his father reads a book about French surrealist poets trying to obtain visas out of Vichy, France to America in a bid to escape the Nazis, a Chilean poet recounts the strange life of an acquaintance who is a mediocre poet and gives up poetry to write about UFO sightings for a tabloid magazine, and a young woman from the American Midwest born in the the early 1950s drifts aimlessly around the world from country to country and partner to partner.
What’s amazing about Roberto Bolano’s writing is what he accomplishes while writing about the seemingly inconsequential activities of people of little or no importance. Why should we care about the fortunes of a failed poet, or the wanderings of the aimless middle class? Somehow though, Bolano is able to draw us into their lives and make them important to us. It wasn’t until I took a break from reading, after the third or fourth story, that I realized the impact they were having on me. I kept flashing back onto images from each of the stories; pictures that Bolano had drawn with words that made certain scenes so powerful, I could see them in my mind’s eye as if they were stills captured from a movie.
In the title story, “Last Evenings On Earth,” the young man and his father travel from Mexico City to Acapulco and stop on the road for a meal in a rundown restaurant, where they serve iguana that is slaughtered on the premises. Bolano describes a scene where they are seated outside in the rain under a canvass tarpaulin, the only seating available, eating their meal, where just his description of them eating and their surroundings speaks volumes about the emotional divide between the two men. The scene is so powerfully written that the heaviness of the humid environment and the claustrophobia it implies about the relationship between the two men, I have a clear image of the men sitting under the canvass, with rain dripping from the sides and the dampness rising around them in the form of moist humid air that clings to them like a second skin.
Last Evenings On Earth is as haunting a collection of short stories that you’re liable to read today. Underneath their deceptively ordinary appearance lies a sensibility that has been shaped by years of exile and exposure to violence. Whether deliberate or not, Roberto Bolano has drawn upon his own experiences as a political prisoner and exile, and imbued each of his stories with the sense of longing and loss that can’t help but ensue as a result. In spite of this underlying melancholy, there is an inherent beauty to each story that makes them a joy to read.
I don’t know if Roberto Bolano is indicative of his generation of South American writers, but I do know that if this collection of stories is an indication of his talents, he is a writer whose work deserves the spotlight as much as his illustrious predecessors. You can order a copy of Last Evenings On Earth directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.