Sunday, October 28, 2007

Life Stories

A lightly edited version of a review that appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


One of the characters in this collection of stories asserts that art comes from life stories: “That’s what art is, he said, the story of life in all its particularity”. This, it seems clear, was the aesthetic credo of Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolano, the most ebullient among the so-called post-boom crop of Latin American writers. His polyphonic novels – such as The Savage Detectives or 2066 -- feature peripatetic protagonists encountering a dizzying variety of characters, mainly failed litterateurs in exile filling their melancholy lives with literary debate, philosophical speculation and unhappy relationships.

Last Evenings on Earth comprises stories drawn from two of his earlier books and now felicitously translated by Chris Andrews. Many of the tales here turn on the ambiguous relationship between a younger and an older writer. In ‘Sensini’, a 60-year-old Argentine novelist in exile in Mexico corresponds with a 28-year-old fledgling author, offering sly tips on how to enter and win provincial literary competitions. In ‘Enrique Martin’, the narrator, named Arturo Belano (a stand-in for Bolano, as in his novels) tries to make sense of the eccentric behaviour of a senior magazine editor and science fiction fan. And in ‘A Literary Adventure’ and its later echo, ‘Days of 1978’, younger narrators both simply named “B” share uneasy love-hate relationships over the years with more experienced and successful writers. Such Oedipal fancies are carried to their extreme in ‘Dance Card’, the most playfully inventive story here, in which Bolano presents 69 reasons for poets to dance with Pablo Neruda – or not.

Other tales simply capture the messy ups and downs of life. In ‘Anne Moore’s Life’, set in the United States and Mexico, a young American woman goes through a string of failed relationships across cities over the years. The narrative contains a multitude of detail and incident – but is consciously without an overt defining moment to give it shape.

Some of the tales radiate eccentricity, with the best example being the one that gives the collection its name. It deals with a vacation that the narrator takes with his father to Acapulco, a trip that slowly takes on the quality of a dream that turns threatening without ever clearly spelling out the reason why.

No, these aren't your garden-variety, conventionally-fashioned short stories that sit primly in the corner hoping to attract attention; these, instead, are sprawling, rambunctious narratives spilling over with the raw material of life and demanding, in all their organic and apparent artlessness, to be paid attention to.

Worth your while? Yes: this volume is the perfect introduction to Bolano's art.

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