Last Evenings On Earth by Roberto Bolaño, 2001
The magic trick:
Building a subtle but persistent mood of looming anger
Our man B is having a rough vacation with his father. It’s a slow burn, though. Nothing explicitly bad happens. This being Bolaño, it’s more about tone and mood. And what a mood. Things here in Acapulco sure don’t feel like paradise. It’s all anxiety and ennui. Several times B and his father disagree and appear on the brink of an actual fight. Again, nothing quite happens. It’s always on the cusp of happening. Finally, when something bad does happen – a fight over cards in a seedy bar, the story abruptly ends. Very cheeky. The final sentence seems to mock the reader: “Tomorrow we’ll leave, tomorrow we’ll go back to Mexico City, thinks B joyfully. And then the fight begins.” I waited 25 pages for that? the reader complains. No, no. That’s not the fight that matters. The fight of note here is the one that’s been looming all story between B and his father. It’s the buildup that was the whole point. And that’s quite a trick on Bolaño’s part.
It is very hot, B whispers. There could be a storm coming, the woman says. There is something very definite about her tone. At this point, B looks up: he can’t see a single star. But he can see lights in the hotel. And, at the window of his room, the shape of someone watching them makes him start, as if he had just been struck by the first, sudden drops of a tropical downpour.
For a moment, he is bewildered.
It is his father, on the other side of the glass, wrapped in a blue bathrobe that he must have brought with him (B hasn’t seen it before and it certainly doesn’t belong to the hotel), staring at them, although when B notices him his father steps back, recoiling as if bitten by a snake, lifts his hand in a shy wave, and disappears behind the curtains.
The Song of Hiawatha, the woman says. B looks at her. The Song of Hiawatha, the poem by Longfellow. Ah, yes, B says.
Then the woman says good night, again, and makes a gradual exit: first she goes up the stairs to reception, where she spends a few moments chatting with someone B can’t see, then she sets off across the hotel lobby, her slim figure framed by successive windows, until she turns into the corridor that leads to the inside stairs.
Half an hour later, B goes to their room and finds his father asleep again. For a few seconds, before going to the bathroom to brush his teeth, B stands very straight at the foot of the bed, gazing at him, as if steeling himself for a fight. Good night, Dad, he says. His father gives not the slightest indication that he has heard.
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This is certainly a well-crafted story that never wavers from its tone or intention. I’ve a few comments on my blog about it as well. http://www.ann-graham.com/search/label/Bolaño