Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last Evenings On Earth - Roberto Bolano

Somewhere lost/ignored in the midst of Bolano's novels is his short story collection 'Last Evenings On Earth', one of the most melancholic book titles ever. As with the novels, the collection too touches upon the major themes of Bolano's works, writers, theirs works, struggling writers waiting for the publication of their works, the pain of getting out a literary magazine that is ready by minimal amount of people, the relationship between the critic/writer, between two writers, most of all being young, restless writers who are in a hurry to remake the literary landscape, with the youthful assumption that they are going to rewrite the entire literary canon and the pain that comes with the realization that maybe one is not good enough. Undercurrent to all is the state of exile of most of the characters in these stories, who are displaced from the country of their birth.

The story 'A Literary Adventure' is about the relationship that develops between a budding writer (B) and an established writer/critic (A). The budding writer detests the critic and writes a novel in which he has a character which is a spoof of the critic. To his astonishment, the critic praises the novel to high heavens and also his next works. B becomes obsessed and almost paranoid with why A is praising his works. At the end of the story he reads a novel by 'A' and finds it to be good better than his own works. (Interesting to think about why this happens). The story ends on an intriguing note with B meeting A with the prospect to both reconciliation and violence. The story in someways has the resonance of a small part in 'Savage Detectives' where a writer challenges a critic to a duel just based on the assumption that the critic will savage his works. This is a story that is universal, after all the relationship between the two is at best an uneasy kind of truce and at worst a savage all out war.

'Henri Simon Leprince' is the story of Henri, a writer whose works have all been a failure in that they have not been recognized by the literary giants of France. Set in the period just before, during and after the occupation of France during World War II, Henri joins the partisan resistance group France and does some small work in helping the resistance. He does not join with the collaborators even if it would have meant more publications and visibility. He comes into contact with the same writers who ignored him earlier. But it does not do him any good as they tend to ignore him even then, treating him as a conduit as he takes them from once place to another. In fact they tend to see his participation in the resistance as a kind of reverse revenge by him for ignoring his works earlier in that they feel that Henri is trying to make them beholden to him. The war ends and Henri goes back to his old life, living in obscurity and finally he thinks that maybe he is indeed a bad writer. The story intrigued me on two counts, one on the actual reason as to why Henri joined the resistance and the sad but essential fact of separating the person's personal life from his works. Henri though he comes across as an essentially decent man, is doomed to obscurity because apparently the quality of his works is not up to the mark. It may be cruel but it's a way of life.

'Sensini' tells the relationship that develops between a young writer and more established one (Sensini) due to a writing competition in which both win. The established writer's advice to the younger one is not to persevere with writing, but to persevere with participating in writing competitions to get as much money as possible. Sensini comes across as a bounty hunter of literary prizes. What could have become a farce becomes a rather sad tale of a writer's attempt to make a living which is impossible to do with only publishing books and so has to resort to prize-hunting.  This is again a story with an universal appeal.

'Mauricio The Eye Siva' was interesting to me mainly because the Mauricio (The Eye) travels to India and a lot of the story happens there. There is a description of a practice where young buys are dedicated to a deity for one year and are treated as an incarnation of the God. At the end of one year, they lose this privilege. They cannot go back to their parents and finally end up in brothels and are castrated. Now, I have heard about young girls being dedicated to a deity, but this was new to me. Any information on this would be appreciated. 

Along with the stories in this vein, there are a few stories that deal with the non-writing part of the writers life. Perhaps, not surprisingly these are not as good as the parts that deal with the writing side, as Bolano seems to revel in the latter more. 'The Grub' is a story of the relationship that forms between an old man and a teen-aged student more interesting in books and movies than studies. The title story 'Last Evenings on Earth' is sort of self explanatory from the title and the first page of the story itself, but Bolano keeps stringing you along till the end. These set of stories are good, but their trajectory is one that can be guessed beforehand by readers. 

It's a dicey thing to read a writers work when one is sort of obsessed with his entire body of works as it could give a distorted impression to the reader. You tend to feel that everything is good. Reading it after sometime could give a different picture. But it didn't happen to me with this work when I re-read it now after 3 years. Then as now, this is a book that I would readily recommend, but there is no single story which I would recommend separately. This is not a negative reaction, but I was not sure why I felt that way when I first read it, but now with the hindsight of reading some more of his works (particularly 'Nazi Literature in the Americas'), I have a thought as to why I feel so. When you read Bolano's novels (even his shorter ones) you can notice that the narration is driven by polyphonic voices which narrate various aspects of the novel and which in the end forms the 'Bolañoverse' as it is being referred to. This works perfectly well in novels, but the short story by its very nature and form is probably not suited to it. That's why I like the collection as a whole instead of any single story. Like 'Nazi Literature in the Americas' which is a collection about Nazi sympathizers/writers in Latin America where no single story stands out (it doesn't need to actually, the impact of the entire book is the whole point), this book too could be looked as vignettes from any writers life and much as I like it's title, some other thing like 'The Writers Lot - A Manual', or 'The exiled Life' could actually be better suited to it (after removing some stories which may not fall in this category). It is being said that if Borges had written novels, it would be like Bolono's which is fair enough considering the base material both handle and since we do not have any reference point for novels of Borges. But we cannot say the Bolano's short stories are like Borges outside of the fact that both reference real/imaginary books/writers. This is not a critique, but just an observation that Bolono's natural inclination seems to have been towards the novel always (as Borges was probably inclined towards the shorter stuff) and the short story was an afterthought, maybe when he could not fit these ideas into his novels. 

Readers who are reading Bolano for the first time with this book may wonder about the fuss on his works, think of this book as an appetizer for the main course that are his novels. For those who have read his novels already, this collection is a dessert where you can assimilate his novels.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad we are now mutual followers-I read a few months ago Nazi Literature of The Americas and enjoyed it a lot