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First of the Last

Robert Bolaño's short stories collected

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Author Roberto Bolaño was born in 1953 and died in 2003. He's been called the most important South American voice of his generation. In his lifetime, he wrote 10 novels, two story collections, and a few volumes of poetry. New Directions, the publishing house responsible for bringing W.G. Sebald to America, published the story collection Last Evenings on Earth last June and has plans to bring out nine more of his books over the next two years.

The backdrop to Last Evenings on Earth is the 1973 Chilean coup. The stories' characters, like Bolaño in real life, live in the limbo of exile. As a result of the coup, they've moved to Mexico, Honduras and on into Europe. They've started lives. They are dentists, students, lawyers, and sometimes, young writers. And they are all stuck in an emotional and geographic no-man's land, lacking the ability to commit to life while the possibility of returning home still exists. Although these are stories by a South American author originally writing for a South American audience, perhaps they will speak to people here who can relate to the circumstances of exile and limbo, even though the particulars here and in Bolaño's world are very different. Either way, these stories are universally sad, funny and beautiful.

In the title story, a father and son go on a trip to Acapulco. They eat iguana. They eat turtle eggs. The father drinks, gambles and goes after women. The son naps, swims, walks around in a daze and wonders about surrealist poet Gui Rosey, who went missing during World War II under suspicious circumstances. The story ends as the father is getting the family unit into a bar fight.

"The Eye" follows two Chilean exiles, a photographer and a writer, as their lives intersect over the course of 20 years. The photographer is gay, the writer straight. They call themselves the Wandering Revolutionaries, but as the narrator points out most of the exiles were "phantasmal revolutionaries." At the last meeting of their lives, the photographer recounts a practice he came across while he was taking pictures in the slums of India, where young boys become gods by getting castrated.

In "Anne Moore's Life" we are given the story of a young woman from Great Falls, Montana, as told by a Chilean exile living in Spain.

"Gomez Palacio," which also appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year, is a hilarious yet sad account of a young poet who gets a job teaching writing workshops for the Arts Council in the backwaters of Mexico. The director of the Arts Council, "a plump middle-aged woman with bulging eyes," is also a poet. The narrator can't drive so the director taxis him about while talking non-stop of "her life in that northern town, her poetry, which had been published by a small local press subsidized by the Arts Council, and her husband, who didn't understand the poet's calling or the suffering it entailed."

These stories are funny, but in each one, something heartbreaking lurks just below the surface. Bolaño, who had been called a master of restraint, managed to juggle irony and sentimentality perfectly. And when he hit his stride, the results left us in that perfect and delicious state of glee and tears.