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Friday 8 July 2016

Distant Star - Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

I was gradually being drawn into the story of Carlos Wieder, which was also the story of something more – exactly what I couldn’t tell.

I have referred to the recent Publisher’s Weekly list of “ten essential Spanish-language books”, compiled by Daniel Saldaña Paris a few times over the last two weeks, primarily because I am working my way through the list (the books that are still in print) and secondarily as it is Spanish Literature Month (hosted by Richard and Stu) and what a great place to start your reading, with a list of somebody else’s recommendations. And what would Spanish Literature Month be without a Bolaño reading? With the, self-inflicted, pressure to consistently read and review new books via this blog, the time I would need to take off to read Bolaño’s 2666 would mean possibly a month without reviews, weighing in at over 900 pages it would take some dedication to get through it. Possibly one for July 2017, next year’s Spanish Literature Month???

I have chosen a much shorter work of Roberto Bolaño, “Distant Star” (translated by Chris Andrews), from Daniel Saldaña Paris’ list of “essential Spanish-language books” to commence a stay in Chile for a little while. Yes there will be a couple more reviews of Chilean books in the coming week.

From the first page we know we are in Bolaño’s world (only if you’ve read him before, and especially if you have read “The Savage Detectives”);

Most of us there talked a lot, not just about poetry, but politics, travel (little did we know what our travels would be like), painting, architecture, photography, revolution and the armed struggle that would usher in a new life and a new era, so we thought, but which, for most of us, was like a dream, or rather the key that would open the door into a world of dreams, the only dreams worth living for. And even though we were vaguely aware that dreams often turn into nightmares, we didn’t let that bother us.

This novel follows the plight of the mysterious autodidact Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who we know is also known as Carlos Wieder, a member of the same poetry group as our narrator and his friend Bibiano. The air of mystery around Ruiz-Tagle deepens by his living quarters; “what was missing from Ruiz-Tagle’s flat was something unnameable…as if the host had amputated parts of the interior” as well as Ruiz-Tagle’s detached reading of his own poetry. Is the poetry actually his?

As in other Bolaño works, we have long rambling discussions about the state and quality of poetry, that last pages, suddenly interrupted by the realist sentence; “A few days later the army seized power and the government collapsed”. Although very much a political novel, looking at the period after Pinochet’s rise to power and the impact that has on writers, artists, poets, this book blends the regime and the avant garde, with ancient war planes writing poetry in the sky, “experimental, quintessential” photography, film, fascist publications, pamphlets and modern poetry all in the front seat whilst the horror is reduced to short factual statements.

A book that has numerous characters fleeing Chile, constantly wandering, peoples in exile. The reality of Pinochet’s regime not far from the action;

Once upon a time in Chile, there was a poor little boy…I think the boy was called Lorenzo, I’m not sure, and I’ve forgotten his surname, but some readers may remember it, and he liked to play, and climb trees and high-tension pylons. One day he climbed up a pylon and got such a shock that he lost both his arms. They had to amputate them just below the shoulders. So Lorenzo grew up in Chile without arms, an unfortunate situation for any child, but he also grew up in Pinochet’s Chile, which turned unfortunate situations into desperate ones, on top of which he soon discovered that he was homosexual, which made his already desperate situation inconceivable and indescribable.

Half way through the novel, we have “But let us return to the beginning”, the linear being less important than the uncovering of the monster Alberto Ruiz-Tagle AKA Carlos Wieder. Even the obsession in tracking down the mysterious poet, war criminal, larger than life Wieder, by our un-named narrator’s best friend Bibiano becomes a mystery in itself. With our narrator telling us “it was the last letter I received from him”, but a short chapter or two later the letter writing and contact returns. Are we simply disoriented?

Bibiano’s account of Wieder and his poetics is faltering, as if the presence of the aviator-poet had disturbed and disoriented him.

Could our un-named narrator be the mysterious aviator-poet himself? As our narrator searches for character and meaning, not only in himself but in other writers, friends, acquaintances, teachers, and of course the aviator-poet, the lines of reality become blurred. As a reader we are at our narrator’s mercy, we are wandering, lost, in exile, like the Chilean people under Pinochet.

Suddenly the book switches to an homage to noir thrillers, and becomes a dark detective novel, taking place in the shadowy streets of Barcelona, with marginal literature and publications, pornographic films, dead starlets, all blended with a search for our missing poet/aviator/photographer/camera man.

Another wonderful work from Roberto Bolaño, described in Daniel Saldaña Paris’ article thus;

In Distant Star, a poet and a Chilean military pilot bring poetic experimentation to the threshold of horror, putting murder at the center of their aesthetic interests. The force of this book, its ethical implications, its way of obliquely addressing history: it’s Bolaño in his purest form, without ornament or excess.

Fans will have plenty to chew over here, extending their reading lists of Central and South American fiction and poetry, new readers to Bolaño will have a nice entry point into his world of writers, dingy bars, coffee shops, political exile, and imprisonment and you can do so by reading only 149 pages to see if his style takes your fancy, instead of committing to the larger “The Savage Detectives” or “2666”.

My personal book shelf at home contains a large number of Bolaño’s books and with only three reviewed at the blog here, and the enjoyable time I had reading this book, it is probably about time they made it onto the “to be read” pile, if only there were 30 hours in each day!!!

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Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This is the Bolaño I really need to read, well, this and 2666. Because it is an expansion of a story in Nazi Literature, that somehow created inertia - as if I care that I know the story! Your review does the trick - makes the book sound exciting.

Richard said...

Such a great book, Tony! A near tie for my favorite of the slimmer Bolaños along with Nazi Literature in the Americas. Your review brought back fine memories of my first time reading this novel. Hey, that list you linked to is pretty swell. I don't know Ferré or Vincens all that well (I think I've only read one short story by the former), but most of the other books or authors are among my Spanish language favorites. Solid choices!

Séamus Duggan said...

This sounds great and is clearly the Bolaño I need to read next. Like Tom, I have come across the aviator poet and intimations of this book in Nazi Literature which I enjoyed tremendously.

1streading said...

I think this remains my favourite Bolano (not that I've read them all) - the quote about it being "Bolano in his purest form" is probably why.