Monday, October 8, 2012

Distant Star

by Roberto Bolaño

Sometimes, reading Bolaño, I begin to suspect that he really only ever wrote one book, but published all of its chapters separately.

Distant Star takes its start from Nazi Literature in the Americas, wherein Bolaño profiles a variety of invented fascist and right-wing writers, who interact with the real literary world of North and South America.  It's an interesting book, but it's ultimately a fictionalized encyclopedia.  That book's shining moment is the entry on Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, a poet/pilot who wrote his poems in the sky and who was also a vicious killer.

It would seem that these twenty-five pages resonated with Bolaño, because he revisits the story, expanding it into a complete, if somewhat disjointed novel.

In this book, the character of Hoffman is given a different name - Alberto Ruiz-Tagle.  He, the narrator, and a third young poet, Bibiano O'Ryan are the only poets to attend two weekly workshops, run by two of Chile's better poets, who, while being friends, were ideological and stylistic opposites.  Ruiz-Tagle, the self-professed autodidact, is a bit of a mystery to the two young poets, and they make a point of following his non-existant career.

After the military coup, Ruiz-Tagle becomes involved with people in the Pinochet regime, and uses his new position to exact a gruesome revenge on the beautiful Garmendia sisters.  After that, he is never heard from again under that name, but does resurface as Carlos Wieder, the skywriting poet.  Wieder becomes an object of fixation in Chilean literary society, both for his page-defying poetic practice, and his disturbing art exhibition.

This book splinters and fragments all over the place, much as Chile's exiled literati did, as Wieder becomes an object of fascination for the narrator and O'Ryan.  As is typical in a Bolaño book, however, many chapters are not about Wieder at all, as we get short biographies of some of the other writers in the book.  Later, an ex-police officer goes looking for Wieder, and presses the narrator into his service.

This book presents many of Bolaño's usual themes - the search for a missing writer, and the invention of an entire literary scene.  As is usual, the narrator is living in the moments when these things happen, but they never really affect him, even on the rare occasions when he becomes personally involved.

Bolaño is always a fascinating writer, and I found this novel to be among his more accessible.

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