Friday, January 12, 2007

Distant Star - Five Easy Pieces

Manuel Ramos

I confess my frustration when I read something by Roberto Bolaño. Last year I wrote about his collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth (New Directions, 2006); check out the October 6, 2006, La Bloga archives here. I thought the anthology was good, obviously worth reading, but even in that post I mentioned Bolaño’s puzzling creativity, what I now refer to as his "style" – sorry, I cannot come up with a better word although I understand that style in the context of writing does not mean all that much; but Bolaño’s writing strikes me as very stylized, even self-conscious – and the reader’s responsibility to contribute to the narrative. My latest excursion with Bolaño, Distant Star (originally published by Editorial Anagrama as Estrella distante in 1996; published in English by New Directions in 2004, translation by Chris Andrews) confirmed my first impressions and added to my level of exasperation, but did not lessen my admiration for this writer.

Distant Star is a novel centered on the unraveling of the mystery of Carlos Weider: Chilean poet, officer in Pinochet’s air force, torturer, serial killer. Weider’s first claim to fame, garnered when he was a university student using the name Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, is the assumption made by the Chilean literary scene that he will "revolutionize Chilean poetry" despite the lack of any meaningful poetry produced by Weider. Eventually, he "writes" poetry with his airplane. Here is how Bolaño describes the narrator’s first witnessing of such poetry, observed as the narrator waits in prison, a victim of the Pinochet roundups of suspected threats to the new regime:

There, high above the city, it began to write a poem in the sky. At first I thought the pilot had gone mad and I wasn’t surprised. Madness was not exceptional at the time. I thought he was looping around in a fit of desperation and would crash into a building or a square in the city. But then, suddenly, the letters appeared, as if the sky itself had secreted them. Perfectly formed letters of grey-black smoke on the sky’s enormous screen of rose-tinged blue, chilling the eyes of those who saw them.

Weider becomes the darling of the intelligentsia, that is, the darling of the academics, writers, and other artists who survive the early years of Pinochet.

The narrator is exiled from Chile as Weider’s star rises. However, that star dims drastically when Weider exhibits a collection of photographs (the "art of the future") that embarrasses the leaders. Although the photographs document the brutality and corruption of the regime, and Weider’s own insanity, nothing comes of the revelation except that he slips away, also in exile, to continue to do whatever it is that he does, including contributing poetry and articles to various neo-Nazi and fascist magazines and journals. Inevitably, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding Weider, and the novel ends with an ambiguous but symbolic closure to that search.

Bolaño’s book dares to suggest that there is a direct connection between Pinochet’s destruction of the Allende government and society, and the fascination of Chilean writers – poets in particular – with the superficial trappings of art for art’s sake, of artistic expression nurtured in a social and political vacuum. Weider’s first victims are his fellow poets, and that is no accident. They are students who fell in love with his image, with his "potential," with his mysterious attitude, but who did not really know him or his poetry. As it turns out, Weider is unknowable. His lack of humanity makes him a shadowless enigma, a deadly and terrible ghost who found himself in a society where he was tolerated, then worshiped, much to the agony of the Chilean people.

Bolaño says in a preface that he initially wrote a short piece in another book about Nazi Literature in the Americas, then he realized that he had much more to say. And, indeed, there is much more in Distant Star about far right poetics and art. But there also is considerable information about numerous poets (left and right) who were admired or ignored; and about the generation of Chileans who came of age when the Allende fairy tale ended violently. Bolaño includes several anecdotes about such people. In the same vein as the characters in Last Evenings on Earth, these exiles, for the most part, are adrift in guilt and despair. They are constantly searching but do not always know what it is they search for. The poet Soto is a good example. And the Soto chapter is a good example of why Bolaño’s writing is frustrating for me. In the middle of the Weider story, the reader is taken into Soto’s world in exile. I had to wonder, "where is Bolaño going with this?" Pero, sabes qué, I kept reading. I could not stop even though I wanted Bolaño to get back to the main story line. As I read the story of the doomed Soto I shook my head when Bolaño described Soto as "happy" and, yet, when he met his destiny, Soto’s eyes filled with tears of self-pity. That contradiction explains much about Bolaño’s writing.

The book is fiction and, as far as I know, the Weider character is not based on any one specific person. Certainly, though, the book provides revealing insight about the mind-set of the Chilean people during the Pinochet years. In the simplest terms, Weider is those people, and those people are the ones who love then revile Weider, who praise then condemn him. Near the end of the book, an elderly witness to one of Weider’s crimes gives the following testimony:

In her memory, the night of the crime was one episode in a long history of killing and injustice. Her account of the events was swept up in a cyclical, epic poem, which, as her dumbfounded listeners came to realize, was partly her story ... and partly the story of the Chilean nation. A story of terror. When she spoke of Weider, she seemed to be talking about several different people: an invader, a lover, a warrior, a demon. When she spoke of [the victims], she likened them to the air, to garden plants or puppies. Remembering the black night of the crime, she said she had heard the music of the Spanish. When asked to clarify what she meant by "the music of the Spanish," she replied, "Rage, sir, sheer, futile rage."

1. Now Appearing -- On The Road

Jack Kerouac's connection to Denver is celebrated by the Denver Public Library with an exhibition of the original rolled scroll of teletype paper on which he wrote On The Road. This book is an acknowledged American classic, written in three weeks in1951 and published in 1957, and I have to say that looking at the original manuscript was a gas. Denver is all over the book and Kerouac spent a lot of time in the city, diggin' the vibe. The 120-foot scroll is on display until March 31, 2007. I had the pleasure on opening night of the exhibit of listening to readings from the book by students and professors, as well as by Carolyn and John Cassady, wife and son of Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty, the novel's central character. Westword has a large spread in its January 4th issue on Kerouac and his ties to Denver, including excerpts from several writers who have also used Denver in their work. If you look closely you can find a quote from one of my books, Brown-on-Brown, that pays homage to Chubby's on West 38th.

2. Another Denver Classic
El Chapultepec is a 50-year old bar on Larimer in Denver, famous for live jazz and standing room only ambience. I've seen many great musicians in that bar, on the stage and in the booths. The Pec is the last real bar in downtown Denver. Now, right here in my own neighborhood (West 38th again), the historic club opens Chapultepec Too with a weekend of jazz celebrations beginning January 19. Chapultepec Too can be found at 3930 W. 38th in Denver.

3. A Land Full of Stories
The Story Circle Network, in conjunction with the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, is sponsoring a writers conference with the theme A Land Full of Stories, June 8-9, 2007. The conference is now accepting workshop proposals on topics related to writing about place (January 22 deadline). Full information about the conference, including a page where workshop proposals may be submitted, is available here.

4. Klail City Death Trip Series
Giuliana Arcidiacono from the University of Catania (Italy) recently wrote to Rolando Hinjosa announcing the completion of her Ph.D. thesis on The Klail City Death Trip Series. Cool.

I've seen an announcement for a "Proposal" for a National Latino Writers' Association. Could this be the beginning of something? For more info, contact Valerie Martinez: valmatz AT comcast DOT net.



msedano said...

thanks for an interesting column. i'll have to check out bolaño to see what this stylistic perplex looks like. chalk it up to la bloga synchronicity, i'm reading something out of peru right now. wonder what the italian conecta is with hinojosa's frontera tales? not complaining, understand, after all, we (the getty) is stealing their art, why can't italian scholarship dig into our lit?


Daniel A. Olivas said...

and i'm reading daniel alarcon's new novel...he's from peru. synchronicity is right.

Manuel Ramos said...

Remember the Van Morrison song, Wavelength? La Bloga synchronicity -- I like it.

Anonymous said...

glad you're back - seems you haven't posted in a good long while and I always appreciate your view on things - the Bolano books seem too challenging for a literary wimp like me - the Keroac thing sounds interesting; I thought he only hung out in California - learn something new every time I read La Bloga

Manuel Ramos said...

Thanks, anonymous, very nice to hear that folks appreciate what we try to do here on La Bloga.

Anonymous said...

Aqui esta invitacion para los Poetas de alla,

Tijuana Cultural Center


Acanto y Laurel



Women poets from Tijuana & San Diego

A bilingual collective reading

Thursday February 8th 2007

Reading hall of the Tijuana Cultural Center

7 pm

Free admission


Paseo de los héroes #9350

Zona Río Tijuana BC México

For more information email: