Once, he thinks, long ago, she must have been pretty, but now she is a jumble of flesh and twitchy sinews. B doesn’t dare ask who the ‘friend’ is. He nods, assures her he will go down immediately, but doesn’t move. The Countess doesn’t move either and for a moment they both stand there in silence, looking into each others eyes as if they had known each other (or loved and hated each other) in another life.
Slow, sad, mesmerising, Bolano captivates in this collection of shorts, narrated as it is by his cast of vagabond and exiled writers and failed or mediocre poets. Almost all of them are a long way from home, meeting with other exiles, begrudgingly accepting them in their new surroundings, as they recount stories from their past, almost all of them surreal and shot through with all the melancholy of dusk. The characters search others out or push them away, or seemingly collide with different people almost by accident, yet the collision leaves an imprint on their memory and their life, which they recount on the page. Some are full tales, others are but a snapshot or something that happened, someone they meet as they wander aimlessly from one day to the next, all the while 1973 in Chile looms in the background, remembered, a shadow that follows the narrators throughout their lives.
The tales are simply told, little embellished and packed full of characters that range from listless to enigmatic. Enrique Martin and The Grub are two great examples of this, while Anne Moore’s life is a recollection of what seems an extraordinary life, but which Bolano crafts as such that it could be completely normal. And that is the magic of this collection, while reading at times the stories seem too fantastical, too out of the ordinary to be believable, they are suffused with inertia and melancholy, with such plain yet gripping narration, that afterwards you leave believing everything that happened.
Arturo Belano (Bolano’s fictiional alter ego) makes an appearance, and it was only after the second reading that I thought about connecting the dots, the number of stories about B, was it the same B, was it Belano narrating them all? If so you will struggle to find a more eventful and literary life anywhere in or out of fiction.
A literary adventure builds beautifully before a clever, thought provoking ending. Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva and Days of 1978 are perhaps the darkest, while Sensini tells of an unexpected friendship and it’s aftermath. There is a sense of foreboding, or impending disaster that courses through the entire collection, which never quite happens, or at least as far as we read. The last story, Dance Card is somewhat different, a fragmented tribute to Neruda that borders on the crazy.
It was, however, Last Evenings on Earth that captured me last time, that stayed with me long after I finished the collection, despite being so completely different from reality as to be in another dimension, I seemed to see elements of me and my own father in this, but I couldn’t tell you why. We are nothing like the son and father in the book, we would never take such a holiday, yet despite the almost otherworldlyness (that is clearly not a real word I’m afraid) of the story, it resonated with me. Reading it again, there is a great deal out of the story that I had forgotten, but I still couldn’t tell you what it is about it that gripped me, and that for me, explains the magic of this collection.
I remember we ended up railing against the Chilean left, and at one point I proposed a toast to the ‘wandering warriors of Chile’, a substantial subset of the ‘wandering warriors of Latin America’, a legion of orphans, who, as the name suggests, wander the face of the earth offering their services to the highest bidder, who is almost always the lowest as well.