Buy Distant Star from Amazon.comRoberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions ($14.95)

by Daniel Borzutzky

Roberto Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003, the year his first book appeared in English translation. Thirty years earlier, just as the Socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, Bolaño was imprisoned. On being released he moved to Mexico, traveled through Central America and Europe, and ended up in a small town outside of Barcelona, where he wrote about Pinochet's fascists with a directness that perhaps could only come with the distance of exile.

Bolaño was not afraid of realism, though he is certainly not a realist; his work in translation, even at its most bizarre, is rooted in the day-to-day existence of characters whose lives have been turned upside down by politics. We can see the influence of Cortazar in Bolaño's digressive narratives; and Borges's encyclopedic urges are certainly present in Bolaño's untranslated Nazi Literature in America, a novel written in the form of an imaginary catalogue of the many types of Nazi writers (e.g. science fiction writers, poets, prison writers) living in South, Central, and North America. But Bolaño sought to make a conscious break from the magical realist writers who dominated Latin American fiction for so many years. His historical scope, among other things, is much narrower; his language, especially in Distant Star, more commonplace. With his focus on exile and on the lingering effects of fascism, and with his ability to meld several stories into one, Bolaño is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, whose premature death also occurred just a few years ago. Bolaño's writing is angrier and more violent than Sebald's, his tone less consistent from book to book; nevertheless, like Sebald, Bolaño's approach to history seems new. And like Sebald, whose essays in particular offer a sharp indictment of German writers, Bolaño's fiction is also concerned with the public role of the Chilean literati, who appear in his novels as complicit participants in evil.

Distant Star, we learn in the preface, is an extension of a chapter from Nazi Literature in America. It introduces Carlos Wieder, a fascist poet whose work, we are told, "is going to revolutionize Chilean poetry." Weider writes not with pen on paper but with airplane on sky (as did the avant-garde Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who in 1982 wrote "The New Life" in the sky over New York City).

Our unnamed narrator is an insignificant poet who first meets Wieder in 1971 at a writing workshop in the Southern Chilean town of Concepciión. At this point the narrator is a college student, and Wieder, who has taken one of his many false names, is writing traditional verses that are bland and unremarkable. The milieu of the narrator and his poet-buddies is one of idealistic Socialism, but within the space of one drab sentence on page 16, "the army seized power, and the government collapsed." Our narrator is then arrested on trumped-up charges, and it is in the prison yard that he sees Wieder's first important poetic act: a string of prophetic Latin words skillfully drawn in the sky. But with the onset of the new regime, Wieder takes up a new artistic practice, murder: he kills the cutest girls in the Concepción writing workshop, the Garmendia twins, the objects of our narrator's desire.

When the narrator is released from prison without charges, he discovers that most of his friends have disappeared and he decides to leave the country. Meanwhile, Wieder is slowly becoming a national hero, known for his patriotic sky-verses, and for the aphorisms he offers to interviewing journalists: "Silence is like leprosy . . . Silence is like communism; silence is like a blank screen that must be filled. If you fill it, nothing bad can happen to you. If you are pure, nothing bad can happen to you."

Of course, bad things are happening all over the country, and thus our narrator relates the stories of poet-friends forced into exile. These chapters, in which Bolaño writes of exile's power to level and destabilize, provide some of the finest moments of the novel. Most compelling is our narrator's portrait of his former mentor in Concepción, Juan Stein, who becomes a full-time revolutionary, fighting with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, with the Cubans in Angola, and with guerillas in Guatemala, Paraguay, Columbia, Mozambique and Namibia. Stein eventually dies in El Salvador, in the end a casualty of all of Latin America's and the third world's failed revolutions.

The narrator, now in Europe, remains informed of Carlos Wieder through letters he receives from his friend Bibiano O'Ryan—who, like Bolaño himself, plans to assemble an anthology of Nazi literature of the Americas. Wieder, in his role as ombudsman between government and culture, "is called upon to undertake something spectacular to show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art were not at odds." What he comes up with is a two-pronged tribute to state-sponsored murder: poems in the sky that say ". . . Death is friendship . . . Death is responsibility . . . Death is love . . . growth . . . communion . . . Death is cleansing " along with an exhibition of photographs of mutilated bodies, presumably people he has killed.

By the end of the book, Wieder has faded into obscurity, and our narrator is now in Spain, living a lonely, uneventful life—until he is approached by a private investigator hired to track down Wieder, who has supposedly been living and writing under various pseudonyms in Europe. The novel now becomes a detective story, and soon Wieder turns up amongst the "The Barbaric Writers," who commune with master works "by defecating on the pages of Stendhal, blowing one's nose on the pages of Victor Hugo, masturbating and spreading one's semen over the pages of Gautier or Banville . . . cutting oneself with a razor blade and spattering blood over the pages of Balzac or Maupassant."

Distant Star is an amazing book, not simply for its depiction of Wieder, the outrageous star of this "literary grotesque," but for the subtle way in which our narrator drifts into the anonymity of exile. He is alone on the wrong side of the world, and his story is quietly heartbreaking.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005