Title: Distant Star
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Chris Andrews
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2004)
Last weekend eight or ten books by Roberto Bolaño fell off a bookstore shelf and landed on my head. Fortunately they were paperbacks. But the not so subtle point was made that it was way past time for me to read Bolaño. And so I picked-up a copy of Distant Star, shelved the rest and went home to read. The following weekend I went back for Nazi Literature In the Americas.
Distant Star began life as the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño, in a short introductory note, explains how his friend Arturo B. was unsatisfied with the story. Arturo felt it should be longer and less dependent on the other stories in the collection; that “rather than mirror and explode the others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion”. And so the two men spent “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 paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Menard.” The joke for those in the know: Arturo B. is Bolaño’s alter-ego. Pierre Menard is a reference to the Borges short story – “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“.
Primarily set in Chile and beginning in the year 1971 – two years before the military coup which unseated then President Allende and put General Augusto Pinochet in power for the next twenty-five years – Bolaño renders a tumultuous period in Chilean history for readers. Events are described by a first person narrator; a struggling Chilean poet* who recalls how he spent the years leading up to the coup attending poetry workshops with his best friend Bibiano. In one of these workshops, led by the Bolshevik poet Juan Stein, our narrator and Bibiano meet the lovely and talented Garmendia twins. It is in Stein’s workshop that they also first encounter Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, the man who we are told will “revolutionize Chilean poetry”. Ruiz-Tagle, we eventually learn his real name is Carlos Wieder, becomes a life-long obsession for our narrator. He is the bogeyman at the center of the novel – tied to random acts of terror perpetrated by the Pinochet regime. Even after our narrator becomes an expat living in France he continues collecting information on Wieder, as well as the other poets he left behind (the poetry professor Stein and his rival workshop leader Soto, Bibiano and the doomed Garmendia twins). He makes only a token effort to sort fact from rumor. Most of the information comes to him incomplete, in bits and pieces. You get the feeling he’s filling in the gaps, himself, as he goes.
What happened next is uncertain. Soto lost himself in the cathedral or cosmic transmitter that is the Perpignan railway station. Because of the time and the weather (it was winter), the station was almost empty despite the fact that the 1:00 a.m. train for Paris was about to leave. Most people were in the bar or the main waiting room. Soto, for some reason, perhaps he heard voices, went to look in another room, some way off.There he found three young neo-Nazis and a bundle on the ground. The youths were diligently kicking the bundle. Soto froze on the threshold until he realized that the bundle was moving, when he saw first a hand and then an incredibly dirty arm emerging from the rags. The tramp shouted, Stop hitting me. It was a woman’s voice. But no one was listening, no one except the Chilean writer. Perhaps his eyes filled with tears, tears of self-pity, because something told him he had met his destiny. Now he wouldn’t have to chose between Tel Quel and the OuLiPo. For him, life had chosen the crime reports. In any case, he dropped his bag and the books at the door and approached the youths. Before the fight began he insulted them in Spanish. The harsh Spanish of southern Chile. The youths stabbed Soto and ran away.
There was a brief article in the Catalonian newspaper, but Bibiano told me all about it, in a very detailed letter, almost like a detective’s report. It was the last letter I received from him.
Then one day, without warning, a detective arrives at our narrator’s apartment and asks for his help in tracking down Wieder. Bibiano had sent him. He, of course, agrees to help.
Distant Star is a small book, barely 149 pages. A quick comparison turned up few significant differences between it and the original, “The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman”, the name of the final chapter from Nazi Literature In the Americas. Some names have changed; more time is spent on the fates of Stein, Bibiano, the Garmendia twins and a few other characters who only receive passing reference (if any) in “The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman”. Obviously the novel is longer (the original is only about 25 pages). Some of the additions are better than others. What the book does a wonderful job at is conveying Chile under Pinochet, and what that experience was for those who remained and those who fled. I’ve read other books about the period – The Days of the Rainbow by Antonio Skarmeta and, more recently, A Man of His Own by Edgard Telles Ribeiro. Sergio Chejfec touches on a similar theme, though set during Argentina’s Dirty Wars, in his novel The Planets. It’s difficult to conceive – what it feels like when friends and loved ones disappear without a trace. Years could pass before families learned the truth about what happened. Sometimes the missing were released from prison; or (happily) it’s revealed that they joined the revolution and went underground; or their remains are discovered in a mass grave. Or they just remain among the missing – no news, no closure. In the absence of facts it is inevitable that rumors fill the void. Mythologies spring up around individuals – good and evil – like Carlos Weider. The case Bolaño’s narrator builds against Weider is entirely out of circumstantial evidence. I am not arguing the story’s veracity, just its malleability. Distant Star tests the limits of how much an author reveals and how much he leaves to his reader’s imagination.
The epigraph of Distant Star is a quote from Faulkner: “What stars fall unseen?” I’m not sure which Faulkner novel or short story the quote appears in, but it’s easy to see similarities between Bolaño’s Distant Star and, for example, Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom.** Both authors use one person’s obsession with the life and history of another as a way to structure their novels. Both stories are told through a mixture of rumor, innuendo, bits of information gleaned from interviews, imperfect memories and a willingness to extrapolate of the facts. For both narrators – Bolaño’s alter-ego and the doomed Quentin Compson – the focus of their investigations takes on a stature far beyond that of simple men – Carlos Wieder and Thomas Sutpen come to embody all that these narrators cannot accept or reconcile in themselves or in the society/country where they live(d). Bolaño’s sometimes difficult relationship to Chile and Faulkner’s torturous love-hate relationship to the American South.
When I hear people talk about Roberto Bolaño By Night In Chile and 2666 (again, neither of which I’ve read yet) are the two books that generally get mentioned. Where exactly does Distant Star rank against them? I would guess it would fall somewhere in the middle of his entire body of work, but that would only be a guess. It is a beautifully ambitious work. As for the translation: Chris Andrews, much like Edith Grossman (though the two couldn’t be more different in style), could translate the back of a cereal box from Spanish into English and the result would be eloquent, thoughtful and profoundly moving. Andrews is one of the best contemporary translators writing today – defining this new crop of Latin American Neo-Realists for English readers as Grossman did the prior generation of Magical Realists.
Chris Andrews’ name on a book is a better endorsement, to my mind, than an author blurb.
But there’s more to Distant Star than a prose style marked by its brutal clarity or a challenging and engaging plot. There is the author. Bolaño develops his ideas in unusual ways and does so without pretension. All indications point to his having been well read – obviously a fan of American lit (if Savage Detectives isn’t an homage to Kerouac’s On the Road I don’t know what is) – and he assumed that his readers were too. He fearlessly (and famously) mined his own life, frequently including autobiographical references in his books. The man is as complicated and fascinating as his work – a rebel poet who didn’t begin publishing novels until age 40; a Chilean who may or may not have missed the revolution; a writer tragically dying just as his work received the recognition it deserved. Roberto Bolaño’s life is as conducive to discussion and speculation as his books. In short – a literary rock star. Perhaps the rarest thing of all.
Publisher: New Directions Books, New York (2004)
ISBN: 978 0 8113 1586 2
*In the original short story a character calls the narrator Bolaño. “It was a Messerchmidt Bolaño, I swear to God” (page 185, NDP1137)
**My favorite of all Faulkner’s novels by a very narrow margin. Absalom, Absalom is neck-and-neck with the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) which is in my opinion grossly underrated. Probably due to the sheer size of that work, something Faulkner may have realized as he made an effort to condense it for the Modern Library Edition.