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”