When this translation was first published in 2004 (a year after his death), Roberto Bolano was largely unknown to an English-speaking audience; now, his two epic novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, are easily available in paperback, his back catalogue is being steadily brought into print, and he is being spoken of as “one of the greatest and most influential modern writers” (James Wood) and “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world” (Susan Sontag). Which begs the question: what is all the fuss about? Distant Star may be an early novel (1996) but it is one in which aspects of his style are already apparent.
Firstly, he writes almost obsessively about writing, particularly poetry. Most of his characters are poets and they talk and think about poetry a lot – though not, as you might expect, about writing or reading it. Poetry, instead, becomes a way of identifying individuals and their loyalties. Here is a typical introduction to a character, Juan Stein, a poet who runs the narrator’s poetry workshop:
“Like most of the poets of his generation he was influenced by Nicanor Parra and Ernesto Cardinal, but also by Jorge Tellier’s home-grown imagism, although Stein recommended we read Lihn rather than Tellier.”
This discussion of what amounts to little more than Stein’s likes and dislikes goes on for two pages, mentioning twenty-one poets. Typically, no reasons are given why one poet might be regarded as superior to another, and poems or lines of poetry are rarely quoted in his work. We can assume that these are real writers as occasionally a more widely recognised name will appear; on the other hand, this may be naïve. This is a writer, after all, who frequently uses a pseudonymous character to represent himself (Arturo B, or sometimes just B). Perhaps, for those in a know, these lists do define a character, but they also have point to make for the general reader (and here ‘general’ means anyone without a Ph.D. in Latin American poetry): poetry is a serious matter in his novels, at least for the characters – it is a life choice and a lifestyle – something that no doubt reflects the turbulent political situation Bolano experienced in Chile where writing could lead to imprisonment, torture and death.
The poetry, then, is linked to the political background, with frequent references to the “doomed revolutions” of Latin America and elsewhere. However, unlike other Latin American writers Bolano does not seek to explain or understand the continent, but simply presents it. Here is a description of Stein again, making that connection:
“He didn’t tale part in the triumphal entry into Managua…. He was rumoured to be among the members of the commando that assassinated Somaza in Paraguay.”
Again, this is part of a longer passage describing Stein’s adventures around the continent and the globe. Again, there is no concession made to the reader. Far from distancing the reader, though, this surfeit of incidental information draws the reader in by creating two illusions: firstly, that these characters exist within a very real world that therefore contains many names we do not recognise; secondly, that, in fact, we do know these names and their meaning because why else would the narrator, in such a confidential tone, use them if we were not actually part of this world?
Distant Star provides a perfect example of the way in which Bolano links the political with the poetic, and does so in both directions. The novel is about the poet and pilot Carlos Wieder (known at the beginning as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle). When Wieder joins the narrator’s poetry workshop, he doesn’t quite fit in; worse still, he gains the affection of the Garmendia sisters, identical twins and “the undisputed stars of the poetry workshop.” He is “affable but distant”, and when a member of the workshop visits his flat he feels:
“…the flat seemed to have been prepared, its contents arranged for the eye of the imminent visitor.”
And so the first chapter goes on rather inconsequentially until the government falls and the arm seizes power. The group splits up with some, including the Garmendia sisters, leaving town. Wieder goes to visit them and stays the night. What happens next is genuinely shocking as Bolano suddenly brings the brutality of politics into the lives of these young poets.
In the second chapter Bolano reverses the procedure as poetry is married to political power, initially when Wieder, an air force pilot, sky-writes poems across the sky in his Messerschmitt 109 – surely deliberately reminding us of the links between South America and Nazi Germany. This “New Poetry” culminates in an exhibition in Wieder’s flat where he shows pictures of his victims:
“The women looked like mannequins, broken, dismembered mannequins…”
It is assumed this brings to an end his career in the air force, and from this point the novel is as much about the search for Wieder as the man himself. This includes attempting to track him by identifying his work in obscure literary magazines, and involves a retired policeman aided by the narrator – linking together literary analysis with detection.
The novel is not a coherent attack on Chile after Allende, nor is it about poetry, except perhaps that it works like poetry, creating powerful images that stay with you, resonant with meaning but remote from interpretation. The British writer Bolano most reminds me of is J. G. Ballard, creating his own worlds, each an echo of what has gone before. Bolano’s are more rooted in the life he lived, but have that same quality of visionary otherness: the kind of writing that demands not just attention, but acceptance.