Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Reading group: Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

John has read several of Bolaño's door-stopper novels but the book of his he suggested for the group is short, a novella, and in fact an amplification - or correction, as the somewhat fictive 'author's note' has it - of the last chapter of a longer work, Nazi Literature in America. It consists of the reminiscences of narrator Artruro B (whom we can read as an alter ego for the author - in the 'author's note' the 'author' says that the whole thing was recounted to him by Artruro B), along with reports he has heard from others down the years, concerning an enigmatic figure, Carlos Wieder. Artruro's first encounter with Wieder was as a student poet in Chile in the early 70s. At that time Wieder goes under a different name, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, and though clearly not a student - he calls himself an 'autodidact' - arrives on the student-dominated left-wing poetry scene. He stands out for his difference, his expensive clothes and accommodation and his somewhat distant manner, and immediately captures the hearts of the Garmendia sisters - the most accomplished poets in the group, with whom the other male members are unrequitedly in love. When the army takes power under Pinochet in 1973, the left-wing students are scattered, either arrested or gone into hiding or disappeared, and by the end of the first chapter, which began with wry depictions of student poetic and romantic passions, it is clear that 'Ruiz-Tagle' has been an informer of a most vicious kind.

The narrator's next encounter with Ruiz-Tagle, now known as Carlos Wieder, comes when the narrator is a prisoner arrested by the Pinochet regime as a suspected terrorist. The prisoners are exercising in the yard when Wieder, now a pilot in the Chilean airforce, appears on the horizon in a WW2 Messerschmitt (a 'distant star' - the motto of the Chilean airforce refers to the stars). Directly above the prison he writes in the sky the beginning of the Vulgate version of the Bible, which mesmerises and spooks those watching below. This is the first of his patriotic and repressive sky writings and part of his fascistic avant-garde performance-poetry project, for which he becomes generally feted and enamoured of the regime.

At this point Wieder drops out of Artruro's narration as Artruro recounts the subsequent fates of some of his fellow poets, including a heroic tale about their former poetry professor Julian Stein, which when Artruro's friend Bibiano O'Ryan tried to track Stein down, turned out to be probably not true. Inevitably, however, Wieder pops up once again in the narration, and in Artruro's life, like a bad penny: after his release (without charge) from prison, Artruro, like so many, left Chile and wandered in Europe, and he tells now of then hearing occasionally of Wieder's exploits, in particular of a photographic exhibition of the worst atrocities of the regime, a graphic representation that so offended its officials that Wieder was subsequently sidelined and disappeared from public view.

Artruro narrates how he was finally settled in Barcelona when he was approached by a Chilean private detective, Abel Romero, and we are now treated to Romero's story - inevitably entangled with the country's recent history - and it seems as if Wieder once again has dropped from the focus of the novel just as he dropped from public consciousness. But guess what, Romero turns out to have been employed by an unidentified avenger to find Wieder, and he has come to Artruro bearing various neo-fascist avant-garde magazines in which he would like Artruro, with his poet's eye, to look for possible pseudonymous writing by Wieder. After some searching, Artruro does identify Wieder's writing in one magazine, after which Romero is able to track him down living under his new pseudonym surprisingly close by. The two set off there by train and Wieder is finally 'dealt with' by Romero.

John and I had thoroughly enjoyed and admired this novel, and were surprised by the reactions of some of the group -  those of Jenny, Doug and, most especially, Mark. Mark had found it tedious, lacking in narrative drive and all over the place with its stops and starts and changes of focus. John had indeed begun the discussion by saying that the book was 'all over the place', but that this was deliberate, and artistically interesting. The novel doesn't so much centre on Wieder as circle him, and the way he drops out of the narrative (making it seem to switch periodically to a new focus) is a formal representation of the way Wieder drops in and out of things with his dissemblings and changes of persona, as well as the switches and uncertainties of life under a totalitarian regime. I said I found very satisfying (and horrifying) the sense it gives of the impossibilty of escaping the sinister forces of such a regime, the way they underpin and connect everything even when they seem to disappear from view. I said too that the uncertainty about Juan Stein's fate, which others, in particular I think Jenny, had found unsatisfying, was surely instructive, illustrative of those horrifying uncertainties. 

Basically, though, Mark's opinion was that this wasn't a book with an easy entry for an uninitiated audience. He and the others had said that they were bored by the early pages concerning the poetry workshops - nothing happens, they said, until the atrocity at the end of the first chapter and the revelation of Wieder's true role. If you guess from the start that Ruiz-Tagle/Wieder is an informer in the student camp - as did Ann, who had lived as a child under a similar regime, and as did I with my personal experience of political organisations - then those early pages are charged with tension, but this was sadly lacking for them who, with no familiarity with the experience, did not. I'm thinking now, as I write this, that perhaps one difficulty for an uninitiated readership is that at this point the narrative takes the viewpoint (though ironically) of the unsuspecting students, an irony to which an audience familiar with the experience would be much more readily attuned. Mark also really disliked the long lists of poets, which for me and John graphically signalled the tragedy of a regime that suppressed poets - they are a kind of memorial - (and the irony of the fact that in our own country poets would never be considered so important as to need to be suppressed). As a result of this difficulty in engaging with the book, Doug (agreed with by Mark) said he had not been at all able during the reading to get to grips with the point of Wieder's so-called artistic exploits, the sky-writing and the photographic exhibition, and he didn't seem immediately convinced by our explications - that they were illustrative of the fascist avant-garde, and the way that art, including poetry, can be subverted for immoral and political ends. Jenny agreed with them both. She didn't like the lack of clarity or the lack of a decent narrative arc, and was unimpressed when I said that I felt that these were functions of the postmodern aspects of the book, the fact that it was about the unreality and uncertainty of both life and literature.

It was left to John and Ann and me to praise the book. I said that it had shocked me with the gut reality of something that I had only heard about at the time on the news in the corner of a suburban living room. Ann said how the book opened one's eyes to the multinational nature of Chile, as marked in the multinational names of the characters. John was very affected by the links you can make between elements of the book and our present day political situation - Wieder's religious sky writing and the religious fundamentalism embraced by the contemporary right, the way that the regime embraces a popular figure and the way politicians do so now, and the link that occurred to him between the regime's obsession with Wieder's aerial career and Trump's obsession with appearing everywhere with Air Force One in the background. And by the end of the meeting both Mark and Doug were saying that they would go away and look at the novel again and reassess.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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