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Last Words on Earth by Javier Seren
Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson

Last Words on Earth
Javier Serena
translated by Katie Whittemore 

Open Letter, Sept. 21, 2021

review by Rachel Ballenger

Like many, I discovered Roberto Bolaño after he was gone. By chance I came upon The Third Reich, then quickly consumed his books one after another while I read whatever I could about his life. By then Bolaño’s posthumous career had exploded and much had been written about him. His biography was distorted by the public imagination which had elevated him to myth: The Bolaño who opted to forgo a liver transplant that would have saved his life in order to keep working on his last novel; the Bolaño who was imprisoned in the early days of Chile’s homicidal Pinochet dictatorship. Later, I learned that facts I had believed for years weren’t true (Bolaño’s name was third on the transplant list when he died, not first, and close associations have doubted his jail time). And Bolaño himself contributed by exaggerating his uncertain biography and proliferating alter-egos of himself in his fiction. But what made him a literary hero after death was also the great, well-documented tragedy of his life: Bolaño wrote anonymously for years and only achieved the recognition worthy of his talent after he died.

Bolaño’s tragedy is the inspiration for Javier Serena’s gripping novel, Last Words on Earth. The book tells the story of Ricardo Funes, an eccentric, fiercely opinionated, self-educated Peruvian writer, whose knowledge of Latin American literature trumps that of any Ph.D. We meet Funes when he is at the end of his “nomadic period” and quickly settles in Lloret del Mar, a beach town north of Barcelona, where he lives with his wife and young son. She supports the family by working a job at town hall while Funes writes feverishly, accumulating “so many dreams and desires in his desk drawer he [is] like a dam ready to burst,” and his books continue to go unread.  At home, Funes is blessed. He is a loving father and his wife lets him have all the adventures (including amorous) he needs to supplement his fiction, handling his writerly genius, and eccentricities, with kid gloves.  

The novel is narrated by three distinct voices: Funes’s friend and fellow writer, Fernando Vallés; his wife, Guadalupe Mora; and Funes himself, who, in the novel’s final and most powerful section, narrates from the grave. Each is positioned to give readers a unique perspective of Funes’s struggle during the period of his life that the novel is primarily interested in: when Funes’s career finally takes off right as he begins a losing battle with lung cancer. That is, the years leading up to his untimely death and posthumous explosion to fame.

The novel’s references to Roberto Bolaño are invisible or glaring, depending on your knowledge, but he and Ricardo Funes are virtually one in the same. Funes has Bolaño’s curly dark hair, wears his round wire-rimmed glasses, and, for the most part, they share the same past. Take Funes’s glorified youth in Mexico City. As a young man in his late-teens and early twenties, Funes founded a poetic movement, Negacionismo (Denialism, in English), whose mission was to tear down the national canon. Years later, and an ocean between them, every month Funes still receives a poem from his old Mexican friend Domingo Pasquiano, another founding negacionista, who, like Funes, still clings to the “vernal oaths” they made as young poets in Mexico. What the oaths are is never stated, but they include writing heroically for writing’s sake and never, ever selling out. If you know Bolaño this sentiment will ring familiar, and make you smile.

And fans of Bolaño will also know that he came of age in Mexico City, and that, there, along with his friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, he founded the avant-garde poetic movement, Infrarrealismo (Infrarealism). Bolaño fictionalizes this experiences in his novel The Savage Detectives. The book features his alter-ego, Arturo Belano, and Ulises Lima, two founding  members of the Visceral Realists, an underground gang of poets who roam the streets of Mexico City.

If you are getting confused by all this repetition, that’s because not only does Last Words on Earth draw from Bolaño’s life but, interestingly, from his oeuvre, as well. The book is quite explicit about this at times, such as in this encounter narrated by Fernando Vallés, which alludes to Bolaño’s love of games as it recalls scenes from The Third Reich, his novel centered around a war game:

One day I visited him in his cellar-studio while he was working on Tráfico DF,  the novel in which he and Pasquiano had their literary alter egos, and whose plotting served as an excuse to indulge his passion for war strategy: a large map was spread on a table, its geography occupied by toy soldiers—stand-ins for his characters.

This intricate network of Bolaño allusions and references formed a kind of surface tension over the novel that, at times, kept me from unconsciously immersing myself in what is overall a beautifully crafted, powerful story about the pitfalls of artistic pursuit. It felt like a puzzle I had to solve, as if Serena were winking at me, testing my fan’s knowledge. Other times it seemed the book wanted me to forget what I knew. Like when Guadalupe Mora (who is an unambiguous alter ego of Bolaño’s widow Carolina López) asserts, “Guadalupe is my real name, but I don’t mind calling the man who was my husband Ricardo Funes,” adding, somewhat uncertainly, “his name isn’t really important. It’s his story that matters most.” Serena so faithfully reproduces specific details of Bolaño’s life that when he strays from them (deciding to make Funes Peruvian rather than Chilean, to give another example) they read like subterfuge. To what end I wasn’t exactly sure. So, I spent a good deal of reading time trying to figure out what Serena was up to, wondering why he chose to honor this detail but not that.

But if I’ve suggested the novel reads clumsily, that was a mistake. It does not. Javier Serena is a gifted writer. The book moves quickly and the prose flows beautifully. And if my questioning sometimes pulled me out of the story, the novel’s vividly-drawn scenes quite forcefully wrenched me back. Funes is not a gimmick or stand-in, but a fully realized character who Serena handles with sensitivity and love. My heart broke for him again and again. The three narrators’ accounts of Funes continually overlap, filling in what was left out, deepening Funes’s complexity and our understanding of his plight by way of a structure that I found exciting and admirable.

The novel’s greatest strength is its eloquent, nuanced rendering of the existential crisis Funes experiences when confronted by death. In the book’s second half, as Funes’s star begins to rise and his death is approaching, he agonizes over whether by writing books he wasted his life. Maybe he should have done something in the world, been a sea captain. A job that is truly heroic. The questions Funes asks and his suffering over his immortality are universal and will resonate with any reader, be they a Bolaño fan or not. RB

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews



Barcelona Dreaming
Rupert Thomson
Other Press, U.S., 2021

It is always exciting to encounter a new work by British author Rupert Thomson (The Insult, The Book of Revelation) and what a delight that this one is set in Barcelona, where the author lived for many years. What we have are three distinct novellas, each superb in its own right, with intricate connecting threads:  characters we meet in the first story pop up in the second and likewise the third pulls in even more. Set on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008, while Barcelona was still riding on a high, we see the city at its best. 

In the first, The Giant of Sarrià, our protagonist is an English woman in her early forties, divorced (from a Catalan), who owns a small gift shop called Trinkets.  One night she hears crying from the parking garage and goes to investigate.  There she finds a distraught young man whom she offers to help by inviting him to her home for tea. He speaks French and some Spanish.  She speaks Spanish and some French; hence, they are able to communicate. He is a Moroccan immigrant, as it turns out—though this information comes later on—and the two strike up a relationship despite the age difference.  Unfortunately, a cantankerous neighbor disapproves, not hesitating to let her know; thus, underlying racist sentiment, especially toward Moroccans, which runs through a small but vocal segment of the population, is put on full display. The great class divide between neighborhoods is also highlighted as we see the conservative, upper-class area of Sarrià as compared to the end of the metro red line at Fondo with its shabbiness and poverty on view and its immigrant community playing cards in the street.

 The second story, The King of Catelledefels, is set in that city, half an hour southwest of Barcelona.  “Part dormitory town, part beach resort, Castelledefels has always had its own unique atmosphere, especially at night—a low-level buzz, a foxiness, a slightly sleazy cool.” Our narrator here is sixty-four year old Nacho, a local, divorced (ex-wife we got to know in the first story), well off from some good business dealings, with a nice home and pool, which he shares with his young Brazilian girlfriend and her son. The story begins with Nacho, an alcoholic, lying on his back in someone’s garden, wearing trousers he’s never seen before, without a clue where he is or what happened. We leave him there as we jump to his story and we believe him when he recounts standing on a street corner when the renowned Barça player, Ronaldinho, passed by in his SUV, flashed a smile and gave a thumbs-up when Nacho called out. But as Ronaldinho enters more and more into his life, his narrative becomes increasingly shaky, with large chunks apparently edited out.  This disassociation is classic Thomson (Martin in The Insult). The cool, detached and easy manner of the prose gives way to a growing unease experienced by the reader as they are left to “edit in” those blackouts. 

In the last story, The Carpenter of Montjuïc, a young-ish Catalan translator, Jaume, relays the problems he is having with a French novel, as well as with an unrequited love affair, while acquainting us with his forty-something English neighbor, Vic Drago, whose life hints at dark dealings, which become clear when we learn he drives a Lexis which links him to some nasty business in the first story. I loved the passage where Vic takes Jaume to bar Mirador on Tibidabo “with its seventies wood paneling, its red banquettes, and its small dance floor, [which] had a seedy Saturday Night Fever feel to it.” And to a bar in El Born “with no name and no sign.” The carpenter of Montjuïc has sold Vic a chest of drawers, which takes on quite a story of its own.  As we see characters we know from before popping up here and there, we gain a sense of how we’re all connected in this great spinning world, adding richness to the whole that could not be achieved by any other format.

If the book begins on solid footing, it slowly drifts here and there into something “other.”  It is much like the carpenter’s workshop we encounter where the customer feels there is something “unearthly” about the place the further he walks into the shop. You begin to feel hypnotized; even as the stories swing to the unbelievable, you can’t help being completely caught up in them.  Because first and foremost Thomson is a storyteller extraordinaire, luring you deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of time and place, never once losing his grip on the reader.  As one of the characters in the last story says of a preposterous happening:  “But he had told the story so vividly—so persuasively—that I’d found myself believing it.”

Barcelona Dreaming made me nostalgic for the time before the crisis, when it was a free-wheeling city where all things seemed possible.  It hardened after that, first with all the austerity and job loss and foreclosures, then with the raging battle between the Catalan independents  and Spanish nationalists, and lastly with the onslaught of Covid. So what a delight to look back, even if personal lives, as always, had their share of trauma. Of course, memory is dreamlike and dreams are slippery; we “edit in,” we “edit out,” the past can seem surreal, we question it. As one of the characters speaks of an experience:  “There will come a time when you won’t believe it happened.”  

Barcelona Dreaming is the perfect title for this amazing book, full of insight and intrigue, which pays homage to this most magical of cities.  J.A.

© 2021 tbr

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