Saturday, 26 November 2011

Distant Star – Roberto Bolano (1996, 2004 English translation)

Novelist and poet Roberto Bolano died in 2003 at the age 50. Before his death he had became known as an important writer in the Spanish-speaking world. His two huge novels, The Savage Detectives (1998, 2007 English translation) and 2666 (2004) were particularly acclaimed. Since his death the majority of his works have been translated into English and he’s become the not so obscure cult literary name to drop. His last novel – 2666 was completed in a frenzy of writing before his death and emerged in English in 2008.

After reading The Savage Detectives because it was recommended to me by an acquaintance that worked at Planet Books I immediately bought 2666. No doubt I was partly lured by the beautiful edition split into three parts with large red typography and arcane artwork. I’m yet to read it, but it sits ominously on my bookshelf, creating tension amongst my other unread books. The Savage Detectives totally enthralled me and it sits at the centre of my blog’s main picture - literature staring back at you, daring you to take up the challenge.

Distant Star is one of many novellas Bolano wrote in Spain whilst in exile from Chile. Like many Chileans with something to lose he fled the country after a brief period of imprisonment in 1973 after Pinochet’s coup. After leading an itinerant life he finally settled in Spain and undertook numerous menial jobs whilst writing at night. Distant Star is linked with another work - History of Nazi Literature in Latin America (1996, English translation 2008). Bolano refers to it in a forward to Distant Star, stating that:

“In the final chapter of my novel…I recounted in less than twenty pages and perhaps too schematically, the story of Lieutenant Ramirez Hoffman of the Chilean air force, which I heard from fellow Chilean, Arturo B…He was not satisfied with my version.”

Humorously Bolano claimed that he and Arturo shut themselves up in his house and that during the writing of this extended version his role mainly consisted of “preparing refreshments” and “consulting a few books.” As good a clue as any that Arturo is based on Bolano himself. Although the narrator of Distant Star is not revealed I believe that it is Arturo (therefore Bolano) recounting how he and his fellow poets interacted with the enigmatic Alberto Ruiz Tagle. Tagle both attracts and repulses his fellow young poets and as the book moves on his story becomes macabre and sinister. Tagle disappears and later emerges as a pilot in the Chilean air force going under the name of Weider. The narrative recounts how he attempts to create the ‘New Chilean Poetry’ by writing poetry in the sky using an old German WWII fighter plane. He goes on to become famous throughout Chile due to his sky writing exploits.

This is a deceptive book with layers of meaning and humour so black that it seems to be forged from the dark matter that holds the galaxies together. The tales of Weider spin their web and become surreal and bleakly farcical in nature. However, the book has serious intentions, although they are not immediately obvious - the mark of a quality writer. The prose is subtly compelling and I found myself drawn into the narrator’s obsession with Weider. The last part of the book becomes like a detective narrative, with the narrator himself drawn into a manhunt for Weider. 

As the book drew to its conclusion I strongly felt that I was being lead towards a certain understanding or insight. I did eventually get there, although I’m not going to elaborate simply because I don’t want to give the game away. Distant Star is one of those books that you find yourself thinking about for days and weeks later - thoughts emerging uninvited to spark ideas and then finally understanding. This is the kind of rare book that I always look for, providing an interaction that goes far beyond actually finishing the book. The Savage Detectives also had this effect on me. I felt like I lived with its characters and it stayed with me for months after.

Bolano’s critical status may be a bit over the top, but reading Distant Star has reinforced the notion that he is a significant writer. If you attempt to read Bolano and falter, bear in mind that he is worth persevering with through the tangents, the obscure concepts and his obsession with poets and poetry. He has something important to say about humanity and what he has to say is open to interpretation without suffering from being too diffuse.

It’s also worth remembering that Bolano was predominately a poet, only turning to prose to provide a more secure future for his family. As he was slowly dying from a diseased liver he invested his remaining energy into longer works and he succeeded in creating a unique body of work. Invest some time yourself, buy his books and go out on a limb. You will not regret it.

1 comment:

  1. "This is a deceptive book with layers of meaning and humour so black that it seems to be forged from the dark matter that holds the galaxies together."

    High praise indeed! Your post has certainly inspired me to grab some Bolano and broaden my horizons. Thank you.