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Roberto Bolaño: Estrella distante (Distant Star)

It may only be a short work but, as ever, Bolaño packs a lot into it. As with several other of his novels, the history of Chilean poetry is key, including quite a bit of fictitious history. The distant star is Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, also known as Carlos Wieder. He is literally distant. No-one seems to be able to get close to him and, when they do, they feel that he is far away. He is a star – a literary star. Our unnamed narrator and the narrator’s friend, Bibiano O’Ryan, live in Concepción, in Southern Chile. There they attend poetry classes given by two of the leading contemporary Chilean poets (in their opinion), Juan Stein and Diego Soto, as students in the local university. First at Stein’s class and then, later, at Soto’s class, Ruiz-Tagle, as they then know him, is also a student. However, he is unlike the others. He has his own flat, he is expensively dressed and the girls, particularly the lovely Garmendia twins, fall for him. Indeed, he seems only to make friends with the women and not with the men. But this is 1973 and suddenly Pinochet has seized power. Our narrator is sent to prison, though later released without charge. But he and Bibiano are not allowed to return to university. Bibiano works in a shoe shop while the narrator flees to Spain.

Ruiz-Tagle, however, has now emerged as Carlos Wieder, a pilot in the Chilean Air Force who makes a speciality of sky-writing poetry. The narrator first sees this display in the prison camp when Wieder writes out in the sky the creation story from the Bible in Latin. Bibiano and the narrator follow Wieder’s creativity – it is the new Chilean poetry (more tongue-in-cheek from Bolaño) – over the years. However, we also learn a darker side. It seems – and this is later confirmed – that Wieder is responsible for the murders of various of the women at the University, including the Garmendia twins and their aunt, who they lived with. After following Juan Stein’s somewhat peripatetic and erratic career, primarily as a freedom fighter in various Latin American countries, and the more mundane career of Diego Soto (killed defending a tramp from being beaten up by right-wing thugs), we turn back to Wieder.

Wieder’s great moment occurs one day when he performs an exemplary sky-writing feat in a thunderstorm and then invites various people back to his room for a photo exhibition, which mainly consists of photos of the women (or bits of them) that he has assassinated. After that he disappears and Bibiano and the narrator track him down through a series of odd poetry magazines and peculiar writer groups (including the (fictitious) French écrivains barbares [barbarian writers], who have to serve an apprenticeship by destroying great works of literature. He is finally tracked down to Lloret.

What makes this novel is the sheer improbability of the relentless hunt for Wieder but also for Stein and Soto and their often improbable lives. At the same time, Bolaño is quick to attack the Pinochet regime, from which he too fled. Not only is it all improbable, it is also done with considerable tongue in cheek and a undertone of violence that will prefigure Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives). Bolaño barely gives you time to breathe as his love for literature becomes infectious and the mysterious, evil but attractive Wieder is a masterful creation.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
First English translation 2004 by New Directions