Thursday, 10 November 2011

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño

Another foray into South American literature, this time to Chile, and writer in exile Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño’s magnum opus is 2666, which has been eyeballing me from the bookshelf of the local library for a while now. At over 900 pages in translation, however, I have shied away from it in favour of one of his shorter pieces, Distant Star, the story of a poet-aviator Carlos Wieder, and his part in the murderous regime that took over in the 1973 coup.

Known to the book’s unnamed author as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle in the period running up to Pinochet’s takeover, Wieder is first encountered in various university poetry groups. A little older than his fellow students, he is an accomplished poet who claims to be an autodidact. More infuriatingly, to the author and his friend Bibiano O’Ryan, he is adored by the two stunningly beautiful Garmendia sisters, who fail to notice Bibiano or the writer at all.

After the fall of Allende, the writer is in a prison camp, when one afternoon he looks up to see a Messerchmitt sky-writing poetry. The pilot is Ruiz-Tagle, now know by the name Carlos Wieder. Following his release, finding himself expelled from university and unable to get a job in the country, the author leaves Chile, but on his travels he continues to hear about the poet-aviator Wieder and his exploits.

After a reckless display in which Wieder flies into a thunderstorm while writing a poem about death, the pilot invites a party of friends, fellow officers and socialites back a rented apartment where he has set up a photography exhibition. No one has seen the content, which is in a locked spare room that Wieder promises to open at midnight. The party goes pretty well, at first:

The first guests arrived at 9.00 in the evening. Most of them were old school friends who hadn’t seen each other for some time. At 11.00, twenty people were present, all of the moderately drunk. No-one had yet entered the spare bedroom, occupied by Wieder, on the walls of which were displayed the photos he was planning to submit to the judgment of his friends. Lieutenant Julio César Muñoz Cano, who years later was to publish a self-denunciatory memoir entitled Neck in a Noose relating his activities during the early years of the military regime, informs us that Carlos Wieder behaved normally (or perhaps abnormally: he was much quieter than usual, to the point of meekness, and throughout the night his face had a freshly washed look). He attended to the guests as if he were in his own home (everyone was getting along splendidly, too well, in fact, writes Muñoz Cano).

Come pumpkin time, Wieder assembles the guests and opens the door, ordering them in one at a time:

The room was lit in the usual way. There were no extra lamps or spotlights to heighten the visual effect of the photos. It was not meant to be like an art gallery, but simply a room, a spare bedroom temporarily occupied by a young visitor. There is, of course, no truth to the story that there were coloured lights or drum beats coming from a cassette player hidden under the bed. The ambience was meant to be everyday, normal, low-key. Outside the party continued. The young men drank as young men do, like the victors they were, and they held their drink like Chileans. The laughter, recalls Muñoz Cano, was contagious, without the slightest hint of menace or anything sinister.

The reaction of the first visitor to the exhibition, the beautiful and confident Tatiana von Beck, is memorable, to say the least:

Less than a minute after going in, Tatiana von Beck emerged from the room. She was pale and shaken – everyone noticed. She stared at Wieder as if she were going to say something to him but couldn’t find the words. Then she tried to get to the bathroom, unsuccessfully. After vomiting in the passage, Miss von Beck staggered to the front door with the help of an officer who gallantly offered to take her home, although she kept saying she would prefer to go alone.

A room full of half-cut officers looks on, unsure what to do next:

Wieder’s father broke the spell. He made his way forward politely, addressing each officer by name as he excused himself, then went into the room. The owner of the flat followed him in. Almost immediately he came out again, went up to Wieder, seized him by the lapels, and for a moment it looked as if he would hit him, but then he turned away and stormed off to the living room in search of a drink.

He’ll need it. Wieder has printed out photographs of dozens of atrocities committed by himself on behalf of the military regime, including the murders of the Garmendia sisters. They cover every inch of wall in the room.

Now disgraced, Wieder sinks into obscurity. His writings appear occasionally under pseudonyms in small journals in Europe and South America. The author thinks he has disappeared, until a private detective arrives on his doorstop in Barcelona and demands that they confront Wieder...


  1. I enjoyed this book, although my favourite is the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, also 2666 is a great read but you need the time, it wouldn't make a good commuting read, I was lucky? That I was recovering from a RTA when I got to read it, which turned out to be perfect for it.
    PS. Have you read Lee Rourke's Everyday, it's a short story collection that you couldn't cram any more booze into if you tried

  2. I'll definitely return to his work and I reckon I'd enjoy his short stories, so I'll look out for those.

    I'm reminded of the comment that you needed to break a leg to get round to reading Proust... I also know someone who finished Frank Herbert's Dune novels while in hospital.

    Lee Rourke sounds interesting as well, thanks for the recommend!