"...there's no point adding to the pain, or adding our own little mysteries to it. As if the pain itself were not enough of a mystery, as if the pain were not the (mysterious) answer to all mysteries." --Roberto Bolano
So concludes Bolano at the conclusion of one of the more engimatic stories in his collection, "Last Evenings on Earth." Ive been a big Bolano fan since reading his sprawling, loosely connected 3-part epic "2666." My regard for him only increased after I read "The Savage Detectives." I knew these two books were regarded as his highest achievement in fiction, so I was prepared that whatever else I might read in his relatively short career (he died at 50) would likely not raise the bar any higher.
Indeed, his short stories are wonderful; eschewing magical realism, they nevertheless manage to evoke something of that particular blend of personal passion, political violence, and phenomenolical alchemy that one has come to expect from Latin American literature, post Garcia Marquez. Bolano, however, is more of a skeptic, a realist, an existential tragedian. His stories depict lives--mostly those of writers and artists--lived on the outside of love, success, and easy contentment. There is, as Wayne Koestenbaum noted on the back of the book, a kind of "haze that floats above Bolano's fiction" that is addictive and that reminds me of the haze that fills Camus's "The Stranger." One senses that something bad will happen, that the characters know it (often they come right out and acknowledge their foreboding) and yet there is nothing they can do to alter the course of events towards the catastrophe.
But what is, perhaps, most unsettling of all, is that Bolano's stories often don't encompass the catastrophe itself; they end, sometimes abruptly, almost always enigmatically, before the worst of a series of increasingly bad things happen. But that offers very little, if any, comfort. What comfort there may be is that one doesn't have to be there to see the worst when it inevitably happens--and therefore one might even convince themselves that it isn't inevitable.
Bolano's stories typically end short of any final revelation of the mystery. They don't offer answers or balm for the pain and price of living. What they do better than most is to present the mystery as it is and ask, "isnt that enough?" To draw in breath is to draw in both the wonder and pain of the world in equal measure. There is no cure that doesnt do violence to the mystery or increase the wound. Neither is necessary. In Bolano's art, truth is stranger than fiction and fiction is a way to put forth the truth.
"Last Evenings on Earth" presents us with a series of lives that may be described as failures, acted out as they are by characters who ought to be described as anything but--at least insofar as one believes that the only true measure of a "successful" life is to experience the mystery and pain of existence as acutely as possible without lies or rationalization. In this sense, in this endeavor, Bolano's characters, and Bolano's vision in these stories succeed and do so memorably.