Roberto Bolaño’s slim novel Distant Star begins a few months prior to Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup and continues into the mid-nineties, crossing through several countries in the process. The unnamed narrator (presumably the “Arturo B.” mentioned in a brief preface, surely Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter-ego) is so busy with the future of Chilean poetry that the violence of the coup–in which scores of students are arrested, killed, or disappeared–takes him by total surprise. He’s obsessed with a quiet and intense poet close to his age named Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who seems to be, according to all sources prior to the coup, a harbinger of a new age in Chilean writing. Ruiz-Tagle, it turns out, is actually an Air Force officer named Carlos Wieder, who writes his death-obsessed poetry in a WWII Messerschmitt airplane. Wieder’s sky-written poems cause a sensation (however illegible some are), but not one nearly as great as his magnum opus–a multimedia installation cataloging and detailing Wieder’s sadistic, ritualistic murders of students and other dissidents. His art is beyond the pale of even the new military regime, and he’s forced out of the Air Force to live a life under pseudonyms in other countries, much like the other Chilean exiles who populate this book. Bolaño’s narrator, a savage detective, takes great pains to reconstruct the lives of these escaped artists, but as time passes the truth becomes ever-murkier. He writes at one point that “the melancholy folklore of exile” is “made up of stories that, as often as not, are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened.” The narrator’s detective work, aided by old friends, attempts to reconstruct the whereabouts (or fates) of Chile’s exiles, but more often than not the trails lead to a perplexing pastiche of possibilities–not dead ends, but inconclusive answers. The story builds to a tense, sinister, and perhaps incomplete (yet satisfying) climax as a “real” detective–a former cop turned PI–enlists the narrator to track down a man who may or may not be Wieder. And I won’t spoil what happens after that.
I read most of Distant Star over the course of one afternoon, and then re-read most of it again earlier this week. It seems to me that the book is something of a trial-run for Bolaño’s opus, 2666, and when I say that, I don’t mean to diminish Distant Star at all, only to note that, more so than The Savage Detectives or By Night in Chile, this book is markedly horrific and at times profoundly violent. It is, of course, something of a companion piece for By Night in Chile (both, by the way, translated by Chris Andrews). That book is a confession from a critic-priest who had flourished under the right-wing regime; Distant Star gives us the other side of the story. Distant Star is also an investigation (by way of digression, to be sure) into the relationship between power and art and evil, and there’s a coldness at its core that almost hurts. It is both painful and beautiful. This is not the best starting place for Bolaño. I’ll continue to contend that 2666 is a fine and dandy place to jump in, or Last Evenings on Earth, if 900 pages is too much for you, but if you read those and dig them, you’ll want to read Distant Star, and its evil twin By Night in Chile. In some sense, all of Bolaño’s work (at least what I’ve read so far) composes a grand and (in)complete and sweeping collective body, like Faulkner, who provides Distant Star its epigraph: “What star falls unseen?” Highly recommended.