I first picked up By Night in Chile, which had been designated his masterpiece by various bigwigs (Susan Sontag, James Wood), and was a little disappointed. It was very readable, but I felt like it existed to make rather obvious points about political complicity -- it featured a Chilean priest on his deathbed describing various encounters with the Pinochet regime -- and also, despite its streaming prose style (there were no paragraph breaks) it didn't feel fluidly constructed; I got the impression of several short stories squeezed together.
There was one short story, however, set in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire (it is narrated to the priest) that felt like a great one. And one of the things that impresses me most about Bolaño is his extraordinary flexibility, his apparent comfort in different eras, different countries -- a quality he shares with Borges, who he greatly admired (ahem, according to my research on Wikipedia). Last Evenings on Earth features stories about Americans in the Midwest, poets in occupied France, Portuguese, Spaniards, and all variety of South Americans. And each one is told in the same completely unaffected style; there is not a sentence in the book that seems to have been labored over to create the impression of beauty. Like Tolstoy, directness of communication seems to be the only goal, and every line feels like it could be naturally spoken. It is unsurprising that his big novels are all sequences of monologues.
Despite the variety of settings, there is also a certain sameness to the stories in the book. Most of them feature a man, almost always a writer, living a fairly solitary existence in one city or another; often some person crosses his path, something happens between them -- a small incident, usually, like an insult at a party -- and then after a few more encounters the person leaves the main character's life. Perhaps years later something is heard of him. There are no revelations of any variety, or even any indication that this is necessarily a significant encounter for anyone involved.
Each story is told in a flat summary narration that isn't, however, "deadpan" -- it is both completely natural and deeply strange, strange because it is used to describe lives that have no narrative arc, where one thing follows another with nothing in particular learned, no goal in mind. To me this voice felt like new in literature; the coldness came not from any lack of humanity in either the characters or the writer, but a hard look at the shape of most lives and an unwillingness to accept the sense of artificiality that comes with the epiphanies at the end of so much modern fiction. The one story that seems to contain a life-changing encounter, probably the most traditional in the book -- Mauricio ("The Eye") Silva -- also seemed the most stilted and unnatural to me.
There is one story in the book that I think is a masterpiece, and that is "Anne Moore's Life." It simply narrates the life of a young woman, moving from partner to partner, city to city, with some good experiences and many bad ones, with almost no narrative shape, no attempt to make any one event stand out more than another. It is almost an anti-narrative, with every event flattened out so you can somehow see an entire life in front of you in what appears to be its utter terrifying pointlessness.
I read the story with growing dread, a feeling of being lost in some awful place, but even as I knew that this was not the sort of feeling I read for, that the sense of aimlessness that pervades so much modern life requires no further duplication in books, I couldn't help feeling that the story was an honest one. It was telling the truth about so much many lives -- maybe all lives, at some point or another -- and its effects were not achieved by accident or through sloppiness. Only a real artist, I think, could have brushed away so many thousand years of narrative convention to produce something like this, a narrative whose significance exists in its being completely drained of significance. Well, that's not exactly true; the significance is just displaced -- instead of being found in particular moments, it is spread out to the patterns, obvious and mysterious, that rise out of an entire life.
I think I've made Bolaño seem like a drearier writer than he is, because the ease of his style also makes for incredibly addictive reading, and he can also be tremendously funny, although it is often hard to figure out where the humor is coming from. There is a passage from the Anne Moore story that seems to get at it:
A fair few of Girona's junkies used to gather outside that bar, and the local toughs were often to be seen cruising around, but Anne would reminisce about the toughs of San Francisco, who were seriously tough, and I would reminisce about the toughs of Mexico City, and we'd laugh and laugh, although now, to be honest, I can't remember what what so funny, perhaps just the fact that we were alive.I will pick up The Savage Detectives soon and read it, and his final novel (2066) is apparently coming out next year in English. So far, it has been hard to love Bolaño books, but there is also something immensely compelling and somehow liberating about them.