Home > 1990, 20th Century, Bolaño Roberto, Chilean Literature, Novel > Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño 1996. French title: Etoile distante.

Se tuer, dit-il, dans cette conjoncture sociopolitique, est absurde et redondant. Le mieux : se métamorphoser en poète secret. To commit suicide in these socio-political circumstances is absurd and redundant. The best is to turn into a secret poet, he said. (Sorry, my translation from the French)

Arturo Belano relates the story of Carlos Wieder, how he met him in Concepción, in a poetry group at the university, how he later discovered he was a serial killer, a right-wing activist and an army pilot. It was in 1972 or 1973. He and Wieder weren’t really friends but our narrator kept tabs about his life mostly through the letters of his friend Bibiano O’Ryan. Wieder had that kind of artistic glow that appealed to women and made men jealous of him. He was secretive, strange and it added to the seduction power he had upon others.

It’s difficult to sum up this novel. Wieder is the Ariadne’s clew but his life is also linked to the history of Chile, the end of democracy with Allende’s fall and the switch to dictatorship. It’s also about Art and especially poetry.

Our narrator, like Bolaño was briefly imprisoned after Pinochet’s coup and like Bolaño again, chose exile in Barcelona. I know almost nothing about Chile but I had the feeling that Wieder’s life illustrates the country’s history. When the new regime discovers his awful crimes against women, he’s already a famous pilot in the army and a famous poet well introduced in the intelligentsia. He doesn’t get arrested. If he hadn’t revealed his crimes himself in an attack of artistic happening, nobody would have known about them. After all, disappearances were common at the time and were certainly not investigated. Unpunished crimes felt like everyday life in the Chile of that time.

I imagine that these three students, Wieder, O’Ryan and our narrator, represent the three paths followed by people in Chile after 1973: active cooperation with the new regime for Wieder, low profile for Bibiano who stayed in his country and exile for our narrator.

As far as the art aspect is concerned, Bolaño lost me there. I’m not educated enough to catch all the references, the name dropping. I couldn’t figure out if they were real names or fake ones and there were too many for me to check out. Some were real ones, I recognised them. I also got lost with art concepts:

Defoe en arrivait à affirmer que la révolution liée à la littérature amènera en quelque sorte son abolition. Quand la poésie sera faite par les non-poètes et sera lue par les non-lecteurs. Defoe ended up maintaining that the revolution linked to literature will lead it to its abolition, in a way. When poetry will be written by non-poets and will be read by non-readers.

Excuse me but I thought genuinely that writing poetry is what makes of someone a poet and that reading made a reader of me. I don’t understand that kind of concepts. It’s like when people tell you they eat cholesterol-free food not to be in the statistics of heart-attacks. But they are in those statistics anyway, just on the other side, the side of the people who have not had a heart-attack.

I’m also well aware that I’m too ignorant of Latin America’s history and customs to fully understand the book. It left me a bit unsatisfied but I’m glad I read it. I haven’t read a lot of South American literature and I know from experience that it takes a good number of novels to start linking things together in your head and draw a mental picture of the country you read about. It’s a piece of a jigsaw for future reading and also the appeal of reading in translation. What doesn’t make sense now will help build the picture later.

What I enjoyed immensely was Bolaño’s style. Sometimes I wondered how he sounds in English. It’s a flow with strings of adjectives, of propositions separated by commas, things that the English language doesn’t bear as well as the French. Bolaño is incredible when it comes to describing the horror of Wieder’s or the new regime’s crimes.

Et à leur suite la nuit pénètre dans la maison des sœurs Garmendia. Et quinze minutes plus tard, peut-être dix, quand ils partent, la nuit ressort, tout de suite la nuit entre, la nuit sort, efficace et rapide. Et on ne trouvera jamais les cadavres, ou plutôt si, il y a un cadavre, un seul cadavre qui apparaîtra des années après dans une fosse commune, celui de Angélica Garmendia, mon adorable, ma sans-pareille Angélica Garmendia, mais uniquement ce cadavre, comme pour prouver que Carlos Wieder est un homme et non un dieu. And following them the night enters the house of the Garmendia sisters. And fifteen minutes later, maybe ten, when they leave, the night goes out, all at once the night enters, the night goes out, efficient and quick. And the corpses will never be found, or actually yes, one corpse will be, one single corpse will reappear years later in a common grave, Angélica Garmendia’s corpse, my lovely, my one-of-a-kind Angélica Garmendia. There will be only this corpse as if to prove that Carlos Wieder was a man and not a god. Sorry again, still my translation from the French.

Powerful, isn’t it? Few words, nothing special in appearance and still you’re chil(l)ed.

I wanted to read this for Spanish Lit Month but I couldn’t finish it on time. This was my first Bolaño and certainly not my last. I first heard of him on Richard’s blog, Caravana de Recuerdos, so thanks, Richard. You can discover his review of Estrella Distante here (in Spanish and English)

  1. August 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    I have not read this one, not exactly – the last section of Nazi Literature in the Americas is a shorter version of the same story.

    Conceptual art, particularly poetry, is Bolaño’s great subject, I now think. Everything else – the politics and history and death – circles around the art.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm

      It is mentioned in the introduction by Bolaño that this novel is a “spin-off” of Nazi Literature in the Americas.
      If conceptual poetry is in all his books then I’m not sure I can read others and understand them. Or I’d need help.

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  2. August 8, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Hello Emma:

    What does this mean: “an attack of artistic happening?”

    I read one book by this author and rather liked it, but I admit that all the homage has put me off a bit.

    As for the poetry being written by non poets and read by non-readers, I had to read that a couple of times, but does he mean something along the lines of non-exclusivity? The breaking down of barriers?

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    • August 9, 2012 at 2:04 pm

      I meant he organized an art show to reveal his crimes.
      About that poetry quote. I assume he meant that poetry will create something new when it is written by amateur poets as opposed to established poets and read by amateur readers instead of lit crit journalists or scholars.

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  3. August 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I recognize a lot in this novel which was also in the Savage Detectives but the quotes sound better, the style is much nicer but that could be due to the traslation. I read it in German and that was maybe not a good choice.
    I suppose this is rather a short book? If I ever feel like reading Bolaño again, this might be an option.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      I don’t speak as many languages as you do but I imagine that it’s easier to translate Spanish into French than into German. Why didn’t you choose a French translation?
      Yes it is a short book, I tend to pick short books when I try a new writer.
      It seems a good way to start with Bolaño but Richard may think otherwise and he’s more qualified than me to answer this question.

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      • August 9, 2012 at 5:22 pm

        Because I wanted to read it right away and German is all I can find in our book shops. They only have French authors in French…

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        • August 9, 2012 at 9:07 pm

          Ok, I understand. I thought you had a better access to books in French.

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  4. August 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Caroline, this novel is not narrated by a 17 year old hopped up on poetry and cute waitresses. The voice and style are different.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 7:25 am

      Thanks, Tom, that is good to know.

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  5. Brian Joseph
    August 9, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Chile has had such a tragic recent history. Novels set during that dark time are by nature interesting to me. The characters sound compelling and well thought out.

    laughed at your point about non poets writing poetry and non readers reading it!

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    • August 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Well America doesn’t have clean hands as far as Allende is concerned.
      Glad I made you laugh, I was trying to be funny.

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      • Brian Joseph
        August 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm

        Absolutely agreed. The American government was complacent in the coup that placed the brutal and criminal Pinochet in power. Ironically the date of that coup was September 11, 1973.

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  6. August 9, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Real, imagined… in the end, I doubt it’s really that important 😉 I had the same query with my Vila-Matas book, and I know several people felt the same about ‘Bartleby & Co.’. Spanish-language lit. can be a little different… in a good way 🙂

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    • August 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Actually, that’s why I didn’t really enjoy the few South American books I had read. I had stopped reading some but Richard’s reviews made me change my mind. After all, my vision of Spanish-language literature is narrow, I decided I hadn’t tried the right ones. (just as you encourage me to read more Japanese literature)
      PS : Too bad there isn’t a word like “hispanophone” in English.

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  7. August 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Hispanophone is a perfectly fine English word.

    I just reviewed B.’s bibliography. Nazi Literature is poets, Savage Detectives is poets. Amulet is like Distant Star, a novel blown up from a chapter in SD. It is narrated by the figurative Mother of Mexican Poets, and is about poets. By Night in Chile is a perfect companion to Distant Star; it is narrated by a poet (who is also a priest, and worse, a critic).

    I have a suggestion if you want to read a more, I don’t know, charming Bolaño. Try his short stories. Specifically, try “Sensini,” which is in Appels téléphoniques. The stories are more about Bolaño’s life, or imagined versions of his life.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      Hispanophone is neither in my kindle dictionary nor in the online one I use. I assumed it didn’t exist. Why don’t you (plural) use it then? Doesn’t it sound better than “Spanish-speaking”?

      Many thanks for the research and the advice. The short stories should be good.

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  8. August 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Glad you got a chance to read this, Emma, and that you enjoyed Bolaño’s style. His writing, in spite of or maybe because of its conversational qualities, can be quite hypnotic at times, belying the apparent simplicity of the prose. I think Distant Star is a fine place to start with Bolaño for people scared off by the size or the storytelling innovations of The Savage Detectives. Distant Star was the second novel I ever read by the guy, and it’s probably my second favorite short novel by Bolaño in a near-tie with my favorite short novel of his Nazi Literature in the Americas. However, there are things about the way the latter work is structured that will turn off some tradition-bound readers not amused by the Borges and Marcel Schwob school of fake biographies.

    As far as the “art aspect” is concerned, I think there’s a method to the madness: Bolaño is a namedropper in part because he was a voracious reader, of course, but the democratization of poetry you touch on in your post also has to do with a larger context or contexts: the availability of poetry to the (occasionally) unlettered masses in the revolutionary and then dictatorial Latin American ’60s and ’70s and–within Chilean poetry itself–the disputes between followers of Nicanor Parra (a simplified everyman’s poetry so to speak) and the more cultured, hermetic poetry of Pablo Neruda (poetry for the elites) before Neruda returned to a more elemental style. This is an extremely simplified explanation of why I think these themes were important to Bolaño more generally, but Distant Star and By Night in Chile also zero in on main characters who posed as artists and poets to infiltrate these “left wing” gatherings to root out “subversives” for “right wing” agendas. Unfortunately, we know all too well what happened to Latin American subversives in the Lat Am 1970s.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks for all the explanations, Richard. It’s very helpful. I’ll try the short stories, not sure I should try The Savage Detectives right away.

      I’m not a great reader of poetry. I’ve heard of Neruda, of course but I’ve never read him. I read a lot of books in translation but I’m not so sure about poetry. It seems I miss too much or rather that I rely too much on the translator’s skills.

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      • August 10, 2012 at 1:56 am

        I’m not as big a fan of Bolaño’s short stories as I am of his novels, but I know that other people prefer him in the short story format. Some of them are excellent (i.e. “The Insufferable Gaucho”); others are just so so in my opinion. All a matter of taste, of course. Cheers!

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  9. August 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    This was my first Bolaño and I recall its being especially difficult for me to read, though this was most certainly largely due to my reading it in French (none of his work was available in English at the time). My French is far better now, as is my appreciation of Bolaño, though The Savage Detectives – the sixth book of his I read – is where I finally came to fully appreciate him.

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    • August 9, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      Congrats for reading this in French, it’s not easy.
      I know what it is to read in another language, sometimes you concentrate so much on understanding the meaning that you forget to enjoy the style or the story.

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  10. August 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    This sounds incredibly interesting. I read my first Bolaño a couple of months ago – Monsieur Pain and it was too tricky to write about! I think I had a similar feeling to you when I finished it, that I was glad to have read it, and would read more. I haven’t heard of Distant Star so will look out for it.

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    • August 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm

      Hello,
      Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile) reviewed Monsieur Pain recently.
      According to her review, I’d say Distant Star seems easier.

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  11. August 13, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I remain somewhat untempted by Bolano, though your quotes do make the prose sound good, and prose is key. I think it’s the hype putting me off as much as anything else.

    Distant Star Richard? I’ll look into that one. Nazi Literature in the Americas sounds like it might be more fun though.

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    • August 14, 2012 at 5:52 am

      Both are fine choices, Max. Distant Star is more “typical” of Bolaño’s other work if that matters to you at all while Nazi Literature in the Americas is more idiosyncratic. Nazi Literature is also more satiric while Distant Star is more dramatic. Choices, choices…

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      • August 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

        What do you think of Monsieur Pain, Richard?

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    • August 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      You’d probably like it and I’d love to read your thoughts about it.

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      • August 15, 2012 at 12:18 am

        I haven’t read that one yet, Emma, but it’s not supposed to be one of his top books. I hope to get to it eventually, though, so thanks for the extra motivation. 😀

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  12. August 14, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Reading the review again it certainly doesn’t sound an easy book, but partly due to the remoteness of the references (like Emma I know little of Chilean history). It does have the advantage though that I could compare notes with Emma.

    Distant Star it is then, though I’ve no idea when I’ll get to it.

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    • August 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      It’s a short book, Max.

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