It is entirely possible that I could make another list featuring my comfort-reading and that list would include every story in Bolaño’s much-revered collection Last Evenings on Earth.
The titular story, on the other hand, made me want to give it up a number of times when I first read it. There was this narrative voice, monotonously broadcasting B and his father’s lives in the hotel, day in, day out, like an old radio. Is this story ever going to end? I asked myself while trying not to skip to the last page.
Yet this is proven to be one of the stories whose landscape is totally transformed by its ground-shifting ending. Imperceptibly, we are led to a place where the stake suddenly multiplies and skyrockets. Petrified with disbelief, we watch, via the slightly removed narrative voice, B and his father walking into a calamity that cannot be averted and then we realise that all the previous banality and tedium were so invaluable, their meanings etched in our memories like the names on the gravestones.
For a long while, whenever I think of this story, tears well up in my eyes. “And then the fight begins.”
First published in Spanish as ‘Últimos atardeceres en la tierra’ in Putas asesinas, Anagrama, 2001. First published in English in ‘Last Evenings on Earth, New Directions, 2006
I wouldn’t try to imitate Bolaño, and he’s difficult to teach because he does lot of things you’re not supposed to. But I love his short work, and the way the stories all bleed into each other. Shadowed as it is by exile, his short fiction contains a loneliness and a cinematic spareness, as in this story set in the Mexican desert, where people watch each other from hotel rooms or lay-bys. He’s often funny, too, and never fails to provide a strange, stark image. In another story in this collection, Last Evenings on Earth, a father and grown-up son eat Iguana and chilli sauce at a roadside cafe. I think about that scene all the time.
First published in Spanish in Putas asesinas, Anagrama, 2001. First published in translation in The New Yorker, July 2005 and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Last Evenings on Earth, New Directions, 2006
‘Police Rat’ is a Kafkaesque tale that has stayed with me, almost a decade after I first came across it. Bolaño’s Pepe the Cop is a regular police rat, dealing with a disturbing phenomenon he’s never before come across: a rat who kills other rats for pleasure.
Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.
Pepe is also the nephew of the famous ‘Josephine the Singer’ of the Kafka story, which you can read here. The Bolaño story is, like Kafka’s original, a profound meditation on what makes us human, despite its setting in the underground sewers of rat world.
Published in The Insufferable Gaucho, New Directions, 2010
Bolaño, a Chilean, has been described by The New Yorker as the greatest Latin American writer of his generation, but he spent more than half of his life in Barcelona, having endured torture and imprisonment under the Pinochet regime. It was in Barcelona that he wrote his monumental novel 2666, while awaiting a liver transplant. Unfortunately he died before its publication – in 2003, at the age of fifty – and before an avalanche of acclaim and accolades came his way.
Bolaño, who once said, “I could live under a table reading Borges”, has elements in common with other Borges-inspired novelists such as Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías, except that there is also a sad awareness of the reality of life in Chile, of exile and violence, in his writing. In ‘A Literary Adventure’, a writer, B, is envious of A, his more successful contemporary: “he longs to plant his fist in A’s increasingly prudish face, oozing self-assurance and righteous anger, as if he thought he were the reincarnation of Unamuno or something.” Instead of violence, B takes a more cowardly, writerlyrevenge: he includes an unflattering portrait of A in his novel. To his consternation, though, A writes a flattering review of the novel. More and more fulsome praise from A follows, including of a book that is not yet officially available to reviewers. How did he get it, and what’s he playing at? B becomes obsessed with A, cancels all other plans in order to spend his days stalking A and ends up fearing for his sanity and even his life. A delicious tale of literary paranoia.
First published in Llamadas telefónicas, Anagrama, 1997, translation in Last Evenings on Earth, Harvill Secker, 2007
“They call me Pepe the cop because that’s exactly what I am; it’s a job like any other, but few people are prepared to take it on.”
I love this story so much it hurts. Like Kafka’s ‘Josephine the Mouse Singer’ (a story that ‘Police Rat’ is deliberately linked to), ‘Police Rat’ was written near the end of Bolaño’s life, when Bolaño (like Kafka) was extremely sick. Themes in ‘Police Rat’ include the role of the artist in society, violence, and what point there is, if any, to anything. “I know how to move in the dark,” Pepe stubbornly insists at the end, a mantra for writing if there ever was one. Despite all signs to the contrary, Pepe keeps working till the very end, like Bolaño himself. I don’t know if that’s the best way to face death. But for Bolaño and Pepe, it seemed to be consolation enough.
In The Insufferable Gaucho, Picador, 2015
“A poet can endure anything”, Bolaño’s story begins, but one of the two poets at its centre, Enrique Martín, fails first at poetry, and then at life. Along the way, as Bolaño’s alter ego Arturo Belano relates in this mysterious, melancholy story, we get UFOs, paranoia, squabbles over appearances in small literary magazines, and a Frank O’Hara namecheck. Martín, despised by Belano, is a pathetic figure, a man who “wanted to be a poet, and…threw himself into this endeavour with all his energy and willpower” (which nods back to Walser’s line about Kleist: “he wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet” – a line that reminds me of O’Hara, and so round and round it goes).
Another association. Something about Belano and Martín’s relationship makes me think of ‘William Wilson’, my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story. Wilson is antagonised by his doppelgänger, and for Belano also, Martín represents an unwelcome reflection, a reminder of the possibility and misery of failure: Belano’s success could easily have resembled Martín’s lack of it.
Bolaño loved Poe, writing in his ‘Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories’ that “The honest truth is that with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good material to read”, a statement I rank alongside his ridiculous and beautiful claim that “I could live under a table reading Borges”.
From Last Evenings on Earth, Harvill Secker 2007
I have an enormous soft spot for Bolaño. Indeed, I spent several years trying to write like him. In part this is because, if you aspire to be a writer, he seems so desirable to imitate; his subject, especially in the short stories, is you, yourself — or him, as you would want yourself to be. He’s no mean imitator himself, of course. Intone the opening paragraphs of this in a darkened room and you could be listening to the opening of a Borges story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ say. Despite its satiric possibilities, I can’t help clinging to this quickly delivered story — of a bad writer who ascends to a kind of heroic status — as a form of consolation, (rather than the warning it claims to be).
In Last Evenings on Earth (trans. Chris Andrews, Harvill Secker, 2007) and available online here