Javier Serena : Últimas palabras en la Tierra (Last Words on Earth)
Roberto Bolaño was one of the great novelists of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. He died young, at the age of fifty. Before he became famous, he had lead something of a bohemian life. Javier Serena’s novel is a factionalised account of a writer called Ricardo Funes, a thinly disguised Bolaño. It is the second in a trilogy (but the first translated into English). The first, called Atila was about a writer even more maudit than Bolaño, Aliocha Coll, whose novel Atila has been reviewed by the Untranslated.
Ricardo Funes is, as I said, based on Bolaño. However there are differences. Funes is Peruvian, Bolaño Chilean. Hs wife, his children, his friends and his books all have different names. Other details differ, as we shall see, but the story of Funes is more or less the story of Bolaño.
The narrator is a professorial/writer friend called Fernando Vallés. He may or may not be based, at least in part, on Enrique Vila-Matas. Though we get Vallés’ account, we also get two other accounts – the account of his wife, called Guadalupe here though Bolaño’s wife was called Carolina and Funes’ own account. They do very much overlap though, of course, give a different perspective.
The other key character is Domingo Pasquiano, based on Mario Santiago Papasquiaro and one of Bolaño’s fellow Infrarealists when he lived in Mexico though, in this novel Infrarealism is called Negativism, which is actually a pretty good name for it. Funes and Pasquiano remain on good terms throughout, with Funes admiring his poetry and occasionally seeing him, as Pasquiano frequently visit Europe. The two stick together as their fellow negativists either die or sell their souls to the establishment. The two mourn their ever dwindling group till they are the only two left.
Funes, when he comes to Spain,lives rough. Both in Spain and in Mexico he had spent an inordinate amount of time in libraries, reading books, and seems to have read everything worthwhile. When he could not find books in libraries, he would either get them from second-hand bookshops or steal them. Accordingly, he has very dogmatic views on what is good and what is not.
As for making a living he struggled. Initially he helps his mother, who travels around selling notions, lotions and potions. When he meets and marries Guadalupe, she gets a full-time job while he tries to earn money by entering literary competitions all over Spain and earns some money that way, though is bitter when he does not win.
Guadalupe and Ricardo eventually move to Lloret de Mar and Funes loves the seaside atmosphere, swimming, boating and fishing. They have two children – a boy and a girl, like Bolaño – and his family seems very important to him, even if he regularly cheats on Guadalupe. He warns his son against becoming a writer. (Bolaño’s son became a film director.)
Ultimately, this is the story of a man who struggles for recognition, while determinedly sticking to his literary principles, whatever the cost.
His friend Rodolfo García Huertas said He talks about what he writes as if it had really happened, and he writes what actually happened as if it were made up: he stirs it all together until there’s not an uncontaminated ingredient in the pot. He himself says I wanted life to be a story composed of thrilling chapters for me to relish in some future moment, to recall from the rocking chair of old age. Guadalupe does have doubts about her choice. I would be lying if I said it never occurred to me that I had chosen wrong. I imagined another life with a more conventional man, funny and exuberant but without the insistent martyrdom. But she sticks with him to the end. Both of them, however, wondered if he would ever find success.
Eventually success comes but it might be too late. Bolaño died of liver problems, while Funes, like Bolaño a chain smoker, has lung cancer and this get steadily worse. His success means conferences, interviews and the like which he goes to but not always enthusiastically.
And the title? This comes from Pasquiano’s posthumous poem of that title: a flight of fancy that foretold a journey, a state of bereavement, of solitary navigation through the infinite expanse of the universe.
While clearly it helps to be a Bolaño fan to appreciate this work, you can enjoy it as a novel of an imaginary writer and his struggles to stick to his principles in his search for success. The success came and he remains one of the great novelists of the era but sadly only saw a short period of his success.
First published in 2017 by Gadir
First English translation in 2021 by Open Letter
Translated by Katie Whittemore