What lies beneath

Stephanie Hanson is a freelance writer and a staff member with the Council on Foreign Relations website.

READING any story in the collection "Last Evenings on Earth" is like listening to a late-night confession from a stranger in a bar, but with a twist: The confession isn't his own. Typical Roberto Bolano narrators always tell someone else's story, although in the process they reveal, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly, fragments of their own private darkness.

Bolano's personal history is one of exile. Arrested during the 1973 military coup in Chile, he was released when two former classmates in the military police recognized him, after which he fled the country. Aside from a brief stay in Mexico, he lived in Spain until his 2003 death of liver failure at the age of 50. Today he is considered the best Latin American writer of his generation, but until the posthumous translation of two short novels, "Distant Star" and "By Night in Chile," his work garnered little critical attention in the English-speaking world.

Bolano regarded himself as a poet, but today he is best known abroad for his last two novels, "The Savage Detectives" and "2666," which clock in at 622 and 1,119 pages, respectively. The novels, as well as "Last Evenings on Earth," reject the magical realism of writers in the Latin American "boom" -- which includes Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- in favor of a style Bolano called "infrarealism."

Infra -- "below or beneath" -- is an apt prefix to describe the submerged violence of his prose, which has been compared to the testimony that a witness gives to a police detective. It is more accurate to say that Bolano's style encompasses both sides of such an interrogation: It can be as penetrating as a detective's or as unwilling as a guilty witness'. When B, from "Vagabond in France and Belgium," tries to remember the year 1973, "it is no use." But the narrator of "Dance Card" is more forthcoming, as he explains in his carefully ordered list: "29. For me, the eleventh of September was a comic as well as a bloody spectacle. 30. I kept watch in an empty street. I forgot my password. My comrades were fifteen years old, retired, or out of work."

Over the course of "Last Evenings," which is translated into English for the first time by Chris Andrews, many unanswered questions accrue because so little is known about Bolano's shadowy narrators -- they end up crystallizing into one narrative persona. These characters -- Chilean or Mexican, poets or novelists, often referred to simply as B, if they are named at all -- are Bolano's fictional doppelganger.

Because they have abandoned any hope of understanding their own lives, Bolano's narrators seek meaning in the stories of others. In "Dentist," the narrator's friend exhorts:

"The secret story is the one we'll never know, although we're living it from day to day, thinking we're alive, thinking we've got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn't matter. But every single damn thing matters! Only we don't realize. We just tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, and we don't realize that's a lie."

If a person can't know his own secret story, Bolano seems to say, the most he can hope for is to understand someone else's. In the collection, this hope manifests itself as paranoia, a claustrophobic fear that the smallest events or details might have significance. In the novels, Bolano's sharp humor doesn't feel so bleak, and he is free to develop a more nuanced narrative voice. Father Urrutia's voice in "By Night in Chile" is reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence's in the way it evolves a description over the course of a paragraph, as if bringing a camera into focus. And the careful repetition of enigmatic phrases and images echoes a technique employed by Spanish novelist Javier Marias.

But Bolano is most reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, another writer who blurred the line between autobiography and fiction in an attempt to cope with the arbitrary weight of historical events. Sebald's characters are obsessed with memories of a period before World War II, and Bolano's characters yearn for amnesia as well as for the ability to connect to someone or something in the present. If Bolano's work has a harder, more violent undercurrent, perhaps it is because the ongoing political upheaval in Chile reminded him that his "secret story," in which life and art redeem one another, would forever elude him.

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