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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Last Words on Earth

Javier Serena

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To purchase Last Words on Earth

Title: Last Words on Earth
Author: Javier Serena
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 151 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Last Words on Earth - US
Últimas palabras en la Tierra - US
Last Words on Earth - UK
Last Words on Earth - Canada
Últimas palabras en la Tierra - España
directly from: Open Letter
  • Spanish title: Últimas palabras en la Tierra
  • Translated by Katie Whittemore

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a neatly done passionate-artist portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly A 1/6/2021 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a wonder." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Last Words on Earth opens with one of its narrators explaining, about the central figure in the novel: "I'll call him Ricardo, Ricardo Funes, although that isn't his real first name, or last". In fact, as readers surely very quickly realize -- and as the Roberto Bolaño-story-title ('Últimas atardeceres en la tierra' / 'Last Evenings on Earth')-echoing title already suggested -- 'Ricardo Funes' is closely based on, if not identical to, Roberto Bolaño
       There are some nominal differences: Ricardo is from Peru, rather than Chile, and his greatest works are titled Tráfico DF and The Aztec (rather than, say, The Savage Detectives and 2666), but, for almost all of Serena's intents and purposes, Ricardo is Bolaño. Their life paths are more or less identical, having left their politically repressive homelands for Mexico City in their youths (where they founded a literary movement, and dedicated themselves to poetry) before then moving to Spain, where they lived for the last decades of their lives. Both married and had two children, and each struggled as a (prolific) writer before finally achieving great success -- their lives then cut short by a terminal illness (liver disease in the case of Bolaño, a lung disease in the case of Ricardo).
       Serena's novel has several narrators. It first alternates between sections narrated by Fernando Vallés, "an established, prestigious novelist whose books had already been translated into several languages" who befriended Ricardo in Spain, and Ricardo's wife, Guadalupe Mora. The final section then is narrated by Ricardo Funes -- a retrospective account from the afterlife.
       Ricardo is obsessed with writing, devoting himself as much as possible and eventually essentially entirely to it, a great, constant flood flowing forth even as he struggles to get any of it published, success long limited to winning small prizes in local literary contests. Both Fernando and Guadalupe describe a man who dedicates himself practically entirely to literature, driven by a rare fire and passion -- even as he long receives little validation for his work. The persistent lack of success does wear Ricardo down at times -- so, for example, at one point he ruefully and slightly bitterly imagines himself at best recognized as a "posthumous poet".
       Ironically, it is only the diagnosis of his terminal illness -- "The dynamite that finally blew up the dam that had held back my torrents of fury and frustration and vestigial hope like nothing else" -- that proves truly liberating:

     His sickest years were his best ones. Only then was he able to rule out the possibility that he would have to succumb to a salaried job, as well as avoid the horror of municipal writing contests, that great lottery for aspiring writers that was so hard to bear.
       Now he truly writes in a frenzy -- completing The Aztec: "in scarcely twenty days, hardly stopping to shower or drink coffee, more likely to eat standing up than at a table" -- and finds himself: "the most widely-read and acclaimed author of his generation".
       Ricardo travels widely then to literary gatherings and book-events he now finds himself invited to -- though also, as it turns out, extensively to meet up with a sort of shadow-twin, the poet Domingo Pasquiano, "his closest friend from his Mexico days", whom Ricardo calls: "The world's greatest poet", even as his works are truly ephemeral -- single-use, as it were.
       The arc of Bolaño's life and career is well-known, and Serena similarly makes Ricardo's clear from the beginning, Fernando Vallés pointing out right at the start that he was now, after his death, "universally admired", despite his long early struggles to establish himself. Both Fernando and Guadalupe knew him for most of his years in Spain, including the long, hard ones where he seemed to be making no headway. The novel is a portrait of the artist -- complete then with a Bolañoesque reminiscence-story by the dead author himself.
       As another friend of Ricardo's notes about him and his work:
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.
       For all the focus on Ricardo's obsession, his writing itself is largely absent from Last Words on Earth (with the exception, of sorts, of his then telling his own posthumous story). Indeed, Serena is much more focused on the man -- and his relationships. In Pasquiano, he offers another 'ideal' writer -- one who never achieves the success Ricardo did. Unlike Ricardo, Pasquiano remained true to poetry -- and that in its most rarefied state, something that Ricardo continued to deeply appreciate; in a sense, Pasquiano continued to anchor him and his own work in the shared past that shaped him. It's a neat little idea, and Serena develops it well.
       The devoted Guadalupe and their strong union and mutual understanding are also nicely sketched out. For all his passion about literature, Ricardo is not truly single-minded: Serena presents someone who is as passionate about his wife, children, and friends as he is about his writing; indeed, Serena highlights this, and so Ricardo isn't a flat, two-dimensional character existing entirely on and for the page, but rather very convincingly human. Life feeds his art, a case Serena makes very convincingly: Ricardo is not an abstract artist but very much flesh and blood and feeling -- with his death-sentence then heightening his, and the reader's, awareness of this.
       It's a neat little trick, in a way, how Serena turns all this. Ricardo's own writing can remain absent in part because, inevitably, the reader reads Bolaño's into it; we can believe in Ricardo's achievement because it so closely mirrors the real-life figure's. Of course, tying his character so closely to Bolaño is also limiting, but on the whole the trade-off here seems worth it.
       Serena writes fluidly and well -- and manages a Bolañoesque feel not only to the character but also to his voice, not least in the second part of the novel, presented entirely as recounted by Ricardo. Some of the Bolaño echoes are particularly effective -- not least the portrayal of just how chain-smoking Ricardo is, right down to the cigarette dangling from his lips when he says his vows in one of the marriage-ceremony scenes. There's a bit of danger of the book floundering too much in all its (and especially Ricardo's) exuberance; terminal illness does help in tempering that some, but Serena never really tamps it down; Last Words on Earth is meant to be a feel-good novel, and is perhaps a little too obviously so.
       The Bolaño-connection remains something of a distraction throughout, as it's hard to know whether the reader should simply fully commit to it and take Last Words on Earth as a (barely) à clef novel, or try to see Ricardo as a separate and distinct (if obviously Bolañoesque) figure. But regardless and whichever way you take it, it's a good and well-told story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 September 2021

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Last Words on Earth: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish aithor Javier Serena was born in 1982.

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© 2021 the complete review

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