Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño (Estrella distante, 1996) translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2004) New Directions (2004) 150 pp
It’s been a few months since I read anything by Bolaño, but every time I finish a book my first urge is to pick up another of his. The only reason I don’t is for the sake of variety and to make sure I can have some Bolaño left for the future. This month Monsieur Pain comes out, and in the Spring Antwerp comes out, both from New Directions here in the U.S. And I still have a few of his already published books to read, so I thought it was safe to pull out Distant Star.
You probably don’t remember, but when I reviewed Nazi Literature in the Americas I said in my last paragraph that “his conclusion is its own reward,” meaning that the conclusion was so outstanding that reading the book was worth the conclusion alone. Well, here’s the introductory paragraph in Distant Star:
In the final chapter of my novel Nazi Literature in the Americas I recounted, in less that twenty pages and perhaps too schematically, the story of Lieutenant Ramírez Hoffman of the Chilean Air Force, which I heard from a fellow Chilean, Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America’s doomed revolutions, who tried to get himself killed in Africa. He was not satisfied with my version. It was meant to counterbalance the preceding excursions into the literary grotesque, or perhaps to come as an anticlimax, and Arturo would have preferred a longer story that, rather than mirror or explode others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion. So we took that final chapter and shut ourselves up for a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel. My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the reuse of numerous paragraph with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Ménard.
Besides being an exhilerating paragraph in its own right, the paragraph explains that Distant Star is basically a stand-alone expansion to that final, brilliant (anti-climactic??) chapter in Nazi Literature in the Americas. That’s both true and misleading, which I think was Bolaño’s intent. Distant Star is not a rewrite of that last chapter; rather, it is an expansion on the ideas, on the horror, we witnessed in that last chapter. It is also another perspective to the horror of the Pinochet regime and the failed revolution shown to us in what is still my favorite Bolaño: By Night in Chile. So, where The Skating Rink was a diversion from all of this, Distant Star took me back to familiar ground. That’s not to suggest that there are no similarities to The Skating Rink; in some ways, this is a literary detective novel too. I really can’t wait to read all of Bolaño so I can get a better picture of how his work ties itself together.
Here is how the book begins; we meet the demon himself, Carlos Wieder:
I saw Carlos Wieder for the first time in 1971, or perhaps in 1972, when Salvador Allende was President of Chile.
At that stage Wieder was calling himself Alberto Ruiz-Tagle and occasionally attended Juan Stein’s poetry workshop in Concepción, the so-called capital of the South. I can’t say I knew him well. I saw him once or twice a week at the workshop. He wasn’t particularly talkative. I was. 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.
At this time the narrator is a young eighteen-year-old, and Wieder is probably twenty-three, or close to that. Augusto Pinochet is looming on the horizon, but this group of young poets continues in its youthful pursuit of the ideal, never knowing that in their midst is a monster. When Pinochet takes power, and Chile is a very dangerous place for these young idealists. “In the current socio-political climate, he said to himself, committing suicide is absurd and redundant. Better to become an undercover poet.”
Wieder disappears, but in the clues the narrator realizes that Wieder has become something truly terrible and has even murdered some of their friends. Another of their friends, Fat Marta, is so afraid of disappearing herself that she becomes manic, almost insane:
The main thing was to keep active (any kind of activity would do, like moving a flower pot five times in half an hour, to stop herself going mad) and to look on the bright side, tackling problems one by one, instead of all at the same time, the way she used to do before.
They don’t know where Wieder is (at this point, they really don’t know who he is), but bits keep linking together until we find that he is probably the man responsible for writing poetry in the air. Indeed, this pilot becomes famous for his new art. “[H]e was called upon to undertake something grand in the capital, something spectacular to show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art were not at odds, quite the contrary.” The art show is Bolaño at his horrific best.
In Distant Starwe also see Bolaño at his darkly comic best. Here is a story from within this story:
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.
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Lorenzo became an artist. (What else could he do?) But it’s hard to be an artist in the third world if you are poor, have no arms and are gay to boot.
Distant Star is, to me, not as good as By Night in Chile, but it is a brilliant work, another look at Pinochet’s Chile. Bolaño’s writing, translated fluently by Chris Andrews, is wonderfully paced, always running right off the page. I feel I am now ready to read The Savage Detectives; after all, here we have a strange detective story of poets seeking poets, and I can hardly wait. Before we move on, though, it is no spoiler to allow everyone to savor the last lines in this novel:
We stood there for a while on the edge of the pavement waiting for a taxi, not knowing what to say. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, I confessed. That’s not true, said Romero very gently. Worse things have happened to us, thing about it. You could be right, I admitted, but this really has been a dreadful business. Dreadful, repeated Romero, as if he were savouring the word. Then he laughed quietly, grinning like a rabbit, and said, Well, what else could it have been? I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but I laughed all the same.