You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last Evenings on Earth

I've heard a lot about Roberto Bolaño lately so I looked forward to reading his short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth. The stories are mostly first person narratives, and the narrators seem to be in some sort of limbo, like a transition or waiting position. Bolaño was a Chilean exile, and many of these stories involve the exile community or have a sense of violence in the background.

The title story is about a young man and his father going on a vacation from Mexico City to Acapulco. The young man spends most of his time reading poetry--most of Bolaño's protagonists are poets or writers or at least readers of poetry. The father is more interested in going out and having a good time. The father takes his son out for the evenings, and a new acquaintance leads them to a dubious club. The father gambles while the son enjoys the women and gets drunk, and all the time a feeling of foreboding grows. The son realizes that the father is not going to be allowed to leave with all his winnings, but they narrowly escape. Yet in the final notes of the story we see that this is just the beginning of a rift between father and son.

In "Days of 1978", a young man, B, becomes obsessed with another man, U, after a disagreement at a party. He runs into U and his wife, and later has a fling with one of U's wife's friends. Eventually he runs into U at a mutual friends' house and realizes that everyone is trying to deal with U's suicide attempt. After being prompted by a woman, B narrates the plot of a movie he had seen. He is touched by the effect on U. In the end, he hears about U's suicide. This is a best example of these stories that is about one person's point of view of another. It's like the story is about the relationship of the narrator to the object of his obsession. It's a filtered view of the object. The protagonist is living his life as a ghost or reflection of his obsession.

The story "Anne Moore's Life" is told by a friend and lover of hers. It's like he was reading her diaries and exposing the ugly pieces that make up her life. The story starts when her sister's boyfriend is jailed for murdering his parents. She spends the next several years bouncing between lovers and jobs, with half-assed attempts at building a life. The story is not so much in the plot as in how her character is built out of her haphazard choices. Yet she cannot bring her life together. Bolaño's style is simple yet powerful.

"Sensini" is about the narrator's relationship via mail with another exiled Chilean author and their discussions about writing, writing competitions, and family. "A Literary Adventure" tells about a writer's attempt to poke fun at a popular author in a novel and how he tries to figure out whether the author's glowing praise is honest or ironic. In "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva", the narrator runs into an old friend to tells him how he rescued Indian boys from a brutal cult.

The stories seem to have more in them than the simple narratives would indicate. The inside cover describes the stories as "haunting", and I think that description is accurate. Many of the characters are haunted or obsessed with another person. There is often the hint of violence behind the scene, as with the beginnings of Anne Moore's story. Bolaño's use of letters as placeholders for names, as in U and B in "Days of 1978", gives the stories an analytical, almost police report style, yet makes them more universal and personal at the same time. The characters seem lost or in a between state. They were enjoyable to read about. This line from "Vagabond in France and Belgium" struck me as memorable: "B shuts his eyes but can still see the silhouettes of the machines, persisting like the pain in his chest, although perhaps they are not machines but bewildering figures, the human race suffering and laughing as it marches toward the void." A-


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