Michael's Reviews > Last Evenings on Earth

Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño
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's review
Jul 22, 2009

it was amazing

Recommended stories: "Sensini", title story, "Dentist"

I'm going to try once more and a little harder to get at why I think he's great, though I know it's not exactly a minority opinion these days.

Take Borges, the reason you probably love him, if you do-- that he continuously tries to speak to the reason you're reading a book, his book or any book, the searching for another part of the self through the labyrinth of culture. Borges gets at it most successfully through metafictional tricks and mythologies of the book, the artist, or the intellectual. In one essay Borges tries to create a lineage for Kafka, and thus for himself, through a handful of heterogeneous source materials going back to ancient Greece. In the end, he's most interested in the fact that none of the predecessors resemble each other at all and are in fact only related through Kafka. Bolano moves forward from Borges with a style that does not remind one of Borges at all. Only the overriding concern is the same, and their shared, highly-developed ability to step back from what seems like a vital struggle between oneself and culture (where to stop and look around for a minute would mean giving an all-important inch) and simply record those dynamics with pathos and present that as worthy art, the limits of our understanding of ourselves. Most interesting, I imagine, for most of the recent American Bolano fans (myself included) is his marriage of Borges's vanguardism with the sort of conventional personal narrative (often in the first person) that writing workshops are famous for. This book convinces us that the methods we've been honing--maybe with a commercial advantage in mind, maybe because it's what we know, maybe because we sense that it would be idiotic to imitate the inimitable-- are actually capable of treating all themes, that a story doesn't have to look "postmodern" to take on the most definitionally postmodern scenario: the attempt to mature as a person through reading and thinking about modern literature.

I keep thinking about the story "Dentist," a narrative of visiting an old college friend, a dentist in a small Mexican town, who has just had a woman die on him (dentists become dentists so that they won't have to be responsible for death!), and, possibly in reaction, becomes obsessed with an Indian boy, a (he insists, non-sexual) Rimbaud type who writes amazing stories in his father's shack on the outskirts of Iraputo. Maybe it was just the cumulative effect of the book, but Bolano didn't have to do more than that, they didn't have to make the kid a publishing success or reveal him as a fraud or apologize for being kind of racist in what they need from him, the whole thing is just sort of awful and extremely true and there's enough in it for them both to hold on to at particularly trying points in their lives and that's enough.
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