At the time of his death at age 50 in 2003, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was already considered one of the great talents of his generation, and since then his reputation has only increased. With the posthumous publication of the novel "2666," his place within Latin American letters is indisputable. But Bolaño has until fairly recently remained somewhat obscure outside the Spanish-speaking world. Thankfully, this is changing: New Directions (the same visionary house that introduced W.G. Sebald to the United States.) has published two Bolaño novels to date: "By Night in Chile" in 2003 and the stunning "Distant Star," last year. His work has begun appearing in some of the United States' better literary journals, and the prestigious publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is preparing the release of "2666" for next year.
Now New Directions is offering Bolaño's short fictions, and for those who are unfamiliar with this author, "Last Evenings on Earth" is a fine place to begin. It is a powerful introduction to the exquisite sadness of Bolaño's world, gathering texts from his two story collections, "Llamadas Telefonicas" ("Phone Calls," 1997) and "Putas Asesinas" ("Murderous Whores," 2001). Both were published to wide acclaim, and neither has been translated in full: "Last Evenings on Earth," despite being a sort of greatest hits compilation, comes together remarkably well, with 14 mostly autobiographical tales, all imbued with a helpless devotion to writing as the only potential means of redemption.
The finest pieces here come from Bolaño's second collection, "Putas Asesinas." "Gomez Palacio" and the title story, both of which first appeared in the New Yorker, are masterpieces of restraint: the latter, ostensibly about a father-son vacation in Acapulco, tackles the psychological aftermath of Chile's traumatic recent political history. The protagonist, identified only as B, has survived the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power and cannot bring himself to explain to his father what it was like. The two men talk past each other, each impossibly isolated in his own world. "Dentist," the penultimate story, exists as if on the edge of an unsettling dream: 15 pages in, after a few false starts, the narrator and a friend wind up in a shack at the edge of a provincial Mexican city, reading the hallucinatory fiction of an unlikely 16-year-old prodigy. This moment, when it arrives, is wondrous, strange, dizzying, and no one-sentence explanation can do it justice. The final piece, "Dance Card," is a perfect summation of Bolaño and his literary ethic: a harrowing mash-up of fact and fiction, biography and fantasy, with appearances by the ghosts of Adolf Hitler and Pablo Neruda, nods to Zen meditation, a recognition of the inevitability of smoking, and the specter of political failure -- shot through with the memory of "those who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell."
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