Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 3, 2010

Bolaño’s Chile

Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño (1996), tr. Chris Andrews, New Directions, 149 pp.

I’ve been curious about Bolaño since his death in 2003, and finally one of his books came into my hands. (My problem at book stores is that I can’t always remember which writers I’m curious about; I have lists, but they’re not helpful if I don’t have them with me when I’m out on the town.)

Anyway, if this book is a fair sample of his writing, Bolaño deserves all the ballyhoo. Distant Star borders on magical realism (a villain who sky-writes his poems), but is also so mundane that you’re not surprised by the oddities–they seem normal. Yet Chile in the 1970s was not a normal world.

Disguise, alter-egos and noms de plume, secrets, averted eyes–it all adds up to create an unsettling sense that nothing can be trusted. Even when the narrator (a Chilean poet) was safe in Spain, I worried about him.

The book is about the early years of Pinochet’s rule in Chile. Poets gather in apartments to share their work and discuss the new directions in Chilean literature, and this is where we meet the villain. But this young man, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, is too demure, definitely up to something. Like the guy at a party who sits off to the side, quietly observing everyone else’s shenanigans while he chain-smokes. You have to worry if he’s imagining everyone’s funeral.

The mood doesn’t lighten–this is, after all, Pinochet we’re talking about here. Remember the Junta? The disappeared? The tortured? (And the CIA helped put him in power! Go USA! Really, go. Just go.)

Bolaño invents some literary stars and styles (the chapter on “barbaric writing” is a real stab at literary silliness), but also includes real people–a photo of General Ivan Chernyakhovsky (WWII hero of the Soviet army) comes into play, and references to important Chilean writers appear throughout. An annotated version of this book would add a lot to my understanding, since I know nothing about Chilean writers, and next to nothing about Pinochet’s years in power. Perhaps these are all writers who suffered under Pinochet, but a quick Wiki search showed that the ones I checked survived the horrors.

Since this is a translation, it’s difficult to discuss Bolaño’s style, but I’ll assume that Andrews tried his best to reproduce it. Lots of long sentences, but not the periodic 18th century type. More like the rambling,digressive ones you get in a conversation with a good friend. Here’s an example, about William Carlos Williams:

In the photo he was carrying a black leather bag and there was a stethoscope, like a two-headed snake, emerging, in fact almost falling, from the pocket of his old jacket, which was showing its years, but comfortable and still warm in the cold weather, and the footpath he was walking down was long and tranquil, edged with picet fences painted white or green or red, behind which you could glimpse little patios or strips of lawn (and a mower left out by someone who had been called away, perhaps).

I think I’ve seen the photo–but it’s also possible that Bolaño’s power as a writer makes me believe this to be so.

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