Thursday, 4 July 2013

'Distant Star' by Roberto Bolaño (Review)

After enjoying The Savage Detectives recently, I was keen to try more of Roberto Bolaño's work (preferably something a little shorter, to begin with).  Of course, my wonderful library was able to come to my aid, presenting me with several choices.  In the end though, one stood out - mainly because of its connection with Bolaño's longer novel...

Distant Star (translated by Chris Andrews) is an early Bolaño novella, but one that immediately evokes tones of The Savage Detectives.  The story begins in Chile in the early seventies, where our young narrator (Arturo B., whom many of you will recognise as Arturo Belano, the shadowy figure at the centre of The Savage Detectives) attends poetry workshops with his wonderfully-named friend, Bibiano O'Ryan.  At one of these gatherings, they first encounter Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, an enigmatic, handsome poet, who makes an impression on the few beautiful women in attendance.

However, Alberto is not what he seems.  Turbulent times are ahead for Chile, and Alberto (or his alter-ego, Carlos Wieder) will be in the thick of them.  A military coup ousts the government, and anyone considered a leftist dissident, including many of Belano's poet friends, is in big trouble.  Years later, Belano and O'Ryan still think of Wieder and their lost friends, but they're not the only ones.  That's right - it's another hunt for a lost poet...

Already, after reading just two works from Bolaño's back catalogue, it's clear that this is a writer whose books form a whole oeuvre, an interconnected series of writings which need to read as a whole, rather than individually.  While The Savage Detectives looked at Belano's life in Mexico, and the events that unfolded as a consequence, Distant Star takes you back to his home country to show us the poet-wanderer's beginnings.  When he talks, later in the book, about his time in Paris and Barcelona, it brings back flashes of scenes from The Savage Detectives, adding to the richness of the story.

While Belano narrates this story though, the main focus is on Carlos Wieder, a very nasty piece of work.  By hanging out in the leftist poet scene, he discovers who the big names are, and when the coup comes, he decides to act (possibly without authority).  He then disappears, only to reemerge as a poet with a difference - one who (as shown on the cover of the book) writes his poems, and manifesto, across the sky:
"This time it wrote only one word, in larger letters, over what must have been the center of the city: LEARN.  Then, for a moment, it seemed to hesitate and lose altitude, as if it were about to plummet into the roof of a building, as if the pilot had switched off the motor and were giving us a practical demonstration, a first example from which to learn.  But only for a moment, the time it took for night and wind to blur the letters of the last word.  Then the plane vanished."
p.29 (New Directions, 2004)

Feted by the military and the common people alike, Wieder gets bolder and bolder, using his popularity to experiment with his flying and his art.  One day, however, he overreaches, and people get to see his true face.  He produces a small photographic exhibition, one which is too much even for the unscrupulous regime he works for:
"Less than a minute after going in, Tatiana von Beck emerged from the room.  She was pale and shaken - everyone noticed.  She stared at Wieder as if she were going to say something to him but couldn't find the word.  Then she tried to get to the bathroom, unsuccessfully.  After vomiting in the passage, Miss von Beck staggered to the front door with the help of an officer who gallantly offered to take her home, although she kept saying she would prefer to go alone." (pp.86/7)
What was in the room?  Something rather... unpleasant.  Still, it'll take a lot to bring a man like this to justice...

Distant Star is a quick and easy read, another dazzling display of meta-fiction and reality-blurring quasi-biographical writing.  Again, the Borgesian inheritance is palpable, with hosts of poets and publications - some real, some invented - littering the pages.  To add another layer to the meta-fictional qualities, Distant Star is actually an expansion (and rewriting) of the final twenty pages of an earlier work, Nazi Literature in the Americas.  In fact, the first page of Distant Star has Bolaño explaining how Belano (his alter-ego) was unsatisfied with the first, brief attempt, and insisted on dictating the real story to the author.  Got that?

As interesting as it is to learn more about Belano though, the book is more about the events in his homeland, and the way in which monsters like Wieder were able to take advantage of political events to satisfy their lusts and desires.  Early in the book, O'Ryan looks at Wieder's name, analysing the etymology and coming up with variants involving 'wieder' (again) and the related word 'wider' (against).  One he doesn't mention is the one which is most apt, 'widerlich'.  It's a word which can mean (amongst other things) obnoxious, repellent, disgusting and gross.  While the flying poet may appear suave and noble, his soul is most definitely widerlich...

Distant Star is not a patch on The Savage Detectives, but that's not really the point.  It's a great, quick read and a story which shades in more of Bolaño's fictional canvas, showing the elusive Belano in a new light.  I'll certainly be going back for more - I suppose I should really check out Nazi Literature in the Americas and see how the story originally looked.  I suspect that I'll find the signpost to the next choice there as well ;)