We All Just Want To Be Literary Rock Stars: Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star

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. Continue reading “We All Just Want To Be Literary Rock Stars: Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star”

Top 10 Books (Mostly Fiction) Which Have Influenced My View of the World

William Faulkner

Time to play The Influential Book Game here at BookSexy.  I’ll try to keep it brief – but these are the books which have changed my life!  It’s kinda’ hard to encapsulate something that monumental into 50 words or less.

1.  Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway – I read it once, in high school no less, and wasn’t impressed at the time.  All I recall is a man coming back from war and going fishing.  Yet  the mood of that story has stuck with me as if it were one of my own memories.  The complete silence.  The disconnect between Nick Adams and his surroundings.  I didn’t realize in high school what it was about.  But Hemingway’s writing was powerful enough that years later, without picking up the book again, I remembered and finally understood.

2.  Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – He is the greatest Southern writer, living or dead  (sorry Cormac!)  and remains to this day my favorite author of all time.  Flannery O’Connor put it best:

The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

3.  Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger – Is it pretentious to quote yourself?  Probably. “If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.”

4.  A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro – This book is a Japanese watercolor in literary form, and is in my opinion his most thoughtful novel.  Ishiguro’s  continuous exploration of three themes – our choices, the resulting regrets and how/what we remember – is an incredibly accurate portrayal of a character processing the life she has led.

Steinbeck & Charlie

5.  Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – If in my 20’s I wanted to grow up to be Franny Glass, up until my tweens my role model was Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There’s something about finding an empty piece of land, building a house and making everything from scratch – that kind of survivalist lifestyle has always appealed to me.  Well, in theory at least.

6.  Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck – Kerouac may have crisscrossed the country on Route 66, but Steinbeck actually stopped to look around.

7.  A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Defoe’s chronicle of the bubonic plague in 17th century London captured my imagination.  Because of it, there is an entire shelf in my library devoted to epidemics.  His language is startlingly modern.  In a way, A Journal of the Plague Year is the prequel to every Zombie movie (and book)  ever made.

8.  Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional:  to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge… Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point in time.  Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses,  and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.

9.  Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver opened up an entire continent and began a fascination with African culture and history that I still holds me to this day.  It has led me to Peter Forbath’s  The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration & Exploitation of the World’s Most Dramatic River, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alexander McCall Smith and countless others.  For years I’ve been slowly working my way across a continent I’ve never set foot on.   The gift of secondhand experiences.

And finally…..

(drumroll, please)….

Lucky Numbers 11!

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence:  Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich and Writings by Agnes Martin – These books have so much to say that they’ll eventually get their own reviews.  But I couldn’t have a list of books that had influenced my world view and not include them.  Consider this a teaser.

Yeah, I know.  I cheated.

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Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!