Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book Review: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño was born in Chile, raised partly in Mexico, and died in Spain in 2003 at the age of 50. He spent much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Europe, after returning to Chile in 1973 "to help build socialism," a disastrous sojourn he describes in the story "Dance Card."

Arrested during a road check and imprisoned for a few days on suspicion of being a "Mexican terrorist," he was neither tortured nor killed, as he'd expected, but "in the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn't sleep and there was nothing to read except a magazine in English that someone had left behind. The only interesting article in it was about a house that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas. I got out of that hole thanks to a pair of detectives who had been at high school with me in Los Ángeles."

By the time I'd finished the two novels, close friends and total strangers who made the mistake of asking what I'd been reading found themselves compelled to listen to a summary of "By Night in Chile," a narrative framed as the deathbed rantings of a Chilean Jesuit priest and failed poet. At a crucial point in his career, Father Urrutia is approached by two agents of Opus Dei, who inform him that he has been chosen to visit Europe to study the preservation of old churches: the perfect job for a cleric with artistic sensitivities. On his arrival, he is told that the major threat to European cathedrals is pigeon droppings, and that his Old World counterparts have devised a clever solution to the problem. They have become falconers, and in town after town he watches as the priests' hawks viciously dispatch flocks of harmless birds. Chillingly, the Jesuit's failure to protest against this bloody means of architectural preservation signals to his employers that he will serve as a passive accomplice to the predatory and brutal methods of the Pinochet regime.

The novel seamlessly blends surrealism, lyricism, wit, invention and political and psychological analysis — and the same brilliance illuminates "Last Evenings on Earth." In most of the stories, the horrors of the Pinochet years are farther from the surface, but they're always present, a minor chord thrumming beneath narratives that, like "Gómez Palacio," are told in a straightforward style suffused with an ominous disquiet, a sense of loneliness and loss.

Many concern a writer simply called B, a Chilean exile living and traveling, often aimlessly, in Mexico and Spain. B has strongly mixed feelings about the Chilean exile community, a turbulent love life and an obsession with European and Latin American literature — especially minor writers and Surrealist poets — as well as political dispossession and suicide. Occasionally, all these fascinations converge, as in the title story, in which the young hero, trapped on a doomed Acapulco vacation (and a sorry experiment in debauchery), finds distraction and consolation in the poetry of Gui Rosey, an obscure Surrealist who may have killed himself as he and his more famous friends fled the Nazis.

Bolaño manages to convince us that the deceptively disparate topics of B's fixations (bad writers, great art, suicide, dictatorship and its victims) are essentially the same subject. In "Sensini," an author who has encouraged B to enter a series of humiliatingly modest literary competitions mourns a son named Gregorio (after Kafka's Gregor Samsa) who is among the "disappeared" killed by the Argentine junta. In "Days of 1978," B finds himself at a party telling a disputatious Chilean exile the plot of Andrei Tarkovky's film about the medieval icon painter Andrei Rublov. B's version, which emphasizes the movie's depiction of the power of art and mostly ignores its scenes of torture and violence, causes his compatriot to weep. Later B hears that the man has met a fate not unlike Gui Rosey's.
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