Exile, alienation and a fatalistic sense of the impermanence of human connections and relations dominate this collection of 14 stories written by the late (1953–2003), brilliant Chilean author.
Bolaño (who sometimes appears in the stories, identified as “B.”) was a leftist intellectual haunted by lingering fallout from his country’s political catastrophes (notably, a 1973 military coup), including destroyed marriages and families, betrayed ideals and unrealized dreams. His stories—which echo the allegorical terseness of his recently translated novels By Night in Chile (2003) and Distant Star (2004)—phlegmatically record such unconsummated or indistinct experiences as an unnamed writer’s friendship through correspondence with an older writer whose burden of hardships is too complex to be shared (“Sensini”); a failed poet’s compensation for his artistic ineptness in an imaginative escape from reality (“Enrique Martin”); a Chilean exile’s gradually revelatory encounter with a countryman unmanned and enervated by the annihilation of his hopes for a more just society (“Days of 1978”); and a minor writer’s small triumph when he acts as “secretary, messenger, or valet” to more accomplished contemporaries during the perilous days of the French Resistance (“Henri Simon Leprince”). A few stories (“Phone Calls,” “Anne Moore’s Life”) misfire or fail to play to Bolaño’s strengths (the uncharacteristically comic “Gómez Palacio,” the fragmentary autobiographical piece “Dance Card”). But at his best, he echoes the elliptical precision of Borges, Kafka, Mexican surrealist Juan Rulfo and the great prestidigitator Julio Cortázar—notably, in the superb title story, which portrays a young intellectual’s Acapulco vacation with his father as a slowly dawning apprehension of approaching death; and the subtly exfoliating “Dentist,” in which exchanges of stories and a vision of how they’re made confirms for its narrator (what he has already intuited) that “We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain.”
Read Bolaño, and you’ll understand what he means.