A poet writes Roberto Bolano in the short story Enrique Martin can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that is not true. There are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. But, that way lie ruin, madness and death. Thus Bolano sets the tone for the exiled, distressed poet or writer, giving the poet the role that is his or her right, and also setting no limits for this trade. Art for arts sake does not matter here, this is a difficult path, ending in ruin and madness and death.
I think that after Manuel Puig, the writings of Bolano have always excited me. Well, I mean that Bolano gives me a heartache. It sounds quite puerile, almost dilettantish twitter. Bolano gives words to the night of emotions, to a sunset he will add more fire, to parting more pain. Since he is also a poet, he writes his prose like a poet, thus becoming a prose poet. And since he writes about the past, in the past tense and gives it that favourite music of sadness, my favourite music, Bolano enters the pantheon of greatness as a writer. I have been remiss in not writing about him earlier but I am amending that mistake now.
I will write about his Savage Detectives or By Night In Chile some other time. For now, I want to share my thoughts on the collection of his short stories called Last evenings on earth. ( A good review here) .These 14 stories are generally linked together by a theme..........the theme of failure, in this case as a writer in permanent exile. Most of the characters, there stories narrated to us by another writer called B, are living away from Chile, sometimes in Spain, in Mexico or elsewhere. The common link is this desire or unfulfilled desire to write, to publish and to be known. But in one way or the other, their desires have melted into the sands of time, along with the currents of their own youth. He talks about failed writers, barely scraping a living. Bolano makes one understand their incessant attempts from their point of view, without the narrator moralising or trying to pass judgement on their work. Most of the time, B is sympathetic to the exiles and he recognizes their point of view.
Each story has its niche in this collection, though some are outstanding. My personal favourites are Sensini, Gomez Palacio, Vagabond in France and Belgium, Dentist and Dance card. Some others are sketches, equally good. B is himself a vagabond, a drifter, an artist, a writer, an activist, exiled, on the run, witness, poet, martyr, sufferer. He collects suffering, he looks for faded poets, failed writers. This is acutely visible in the vagabond story. Why..........because nobody else is. In Sensini, the older writer whose son has disappeared in Chile encourages B to send his stories to literary competitions, for the obscured writer, that is salvage. In this story there is an acute sense of loss but no sentimental melodrama.
Bolano is a literary stylist. But this seems quite natural. It seems to come without effort. The prose has menace, tightness, economy of expression and a spare beauty. The sentences are sometimes short, tight lipped, as if a detective story is being narrated. Then there is lyricism, poetry, wit, biting wit, self censure, sarcasm, irony but no sentimentalism. This is very evident in last evenings on earth and the dentist. The protagonist is always wary of something, something is bound to go wrong. This adds to the atmospheric chill and danger of his landscapes which are bare, coarse, tacky and sad. Consider this marvellous passage, when B's friend invites him to read a young Mexican Indian's stories somewhere in the middle of the night.........
from somewhere deep inside i was watching our movements, which seemed to be orchestrated with an almost supernatural precision, and although i knew that those movements were not leading us toward any physical risk, i was also aware that in another sense we were venturing into dangerous territory, from which we would not be allowed to return without having paid a toll of pain or estrangement, a toll that would eventually come to regret.
Something deep lurks in the shadows. One thinks that some secret police or informer is out to nab our poets for he has escaped, for he is exiled. This merges with supernatural descriptions, questions, doubts, like in Gomez Palacio........what color is the desert at night? a stupid rhetorical question, yet somehow i felt it held the key to my future, or perhaps not so much my future as my capacity for suffering.
In Dance Card, which is hauntingly eloquent, B ponders about Hitler, Neruda and women tortured in Mexico by fanatical regimes, saying that they eventually died of sadness, after being tortured. Is it possible to die of sadness? yes it is. it is possible to die of hunger. it is even possible to die of spleen, of morbus melancholicus.
I think of the poets who died under torture, who died of AIDS, or overdosed, all those who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell. i think of their works, which may, perhaps, show the left a way out of the pit of shame and futility.
Bolano the writer is Bolano the activist. He takes sides, suffers. The true path of literature lies in taking sides, in allowing the artist, the sad but committed artist, the path for an affirmation. In this quest, Bolano has succeeded. This is realism, not magic realism. Roberto Bolano is easily the best Latin American writer of the last 25 years.