( Slight Spoiler Alert ! )
This novel started as about a twenty page story in Bolano’s “Nazi Literature in the America’s”* concerning one of the right wing writers (Carlos Ramirez Hoffman) of that faux anthology. Roberto Bolano decided that this tale could be worked on and more fully developed into “a mirror and an explosion”.
Carlos Ramirez Hoffman starts “Distant Star” as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, and is considered a bit of a dandy by the other members a of college poetry workshop he attends, although his main interest appears to be the beautiful Garmendia twins, Veronica and Angelica. This is also where the narrator of the book first glimpses him, and those that have read Nazi-Lit, will know that the narrator is Bolano himself.
Alberto seems as an enigma to his fellow poets, a slightly aristocratic individual, adored by the women, yet he comes across as polite but disinterested to the male members of the college circle, who are in fact a bit jealous of him and his cool styling. This is all thrown into disarray after Pinochet's military coup, when poets, writers and other intellectuals are attacked & either thrown into prison, or seek exile as the dictator’s brutal regime begins. The next time our narrator comes across Tagle, now Wieder, it is from the inside of a concentration camp where he sees a Messerschmitt writing obscure messages amongst the clouds and learns later that it was Wieder. Although released without charge Bolano (narrator) finds himself thrown out of college, and with no hope of work under Pinochet’s regime, he begins a nomadic life wandering Europe.
Whilst on his wanderings, he hears of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, now Carlos Wieder, who is now an officer in the Chilean air force, and whose poetic leanings have evolved into using aircraft to write messages in the sky. It also turns out Wieder is an assassin/torturer for Pinochet’s gov’t, with a side line in photographing his victims corpses.
Whilst all this is going on, Bolano is struggling, leading a hand to mouth existence and as we follow the two individuals (Bolano & Wieder) we learn of the horror, whether physical or spiritual caused by the brutalisation of a country. Through many trials and tribulations, under many aliases & pseudonyms Wieder ends up in Europe. Our narrator gets his next encounter in the form of a visit from an old detective who is being paid to track Wieder down and who will pay him for his help.
This is where the book becomes explicitly what it has played at being all the time, a detective thriller, Bolano and detective track Wieder through magazines, fanzines and film, as it appears he’s been rather busy. There's even a kind of stake out, before the detective does what he’s been paid for.
This book for all it’s Bolanoesque (Yeah I know) diversions, digressions and lateral journeys, comes across, at least in part, as a detective novel (which Bolano was a fan of), it’s not a whodunit, there are to many to count, it’s not who’s the victim, as again when do you stop counting, it is more a case of how do you define the innocent, as to some degree we are all complicit, even Bolano, who willingly points his finger at a fellow poet in return for his pieces of silver, whilst knowing in doing so he has condemned him. Under such circumstances is it possible not to get dirty, although as I’ve said before, Bolano believed that art, poetry etc. mattered, he also knew that didn’t make it clean or pure. Experience had taught him that it could happily turn tricks if called to do so, would readily beg like any half starved dog for it’s masters attention. Yet for all this horror, or maybe because of it, this book is shot through with humour, dark - yes, brutal - yes, uneasy – yes, BUT it’s there, and like Roberto Bolano it’s poking it’s tongue at oppression in all it’s forms.
Translated by – Chris Andrews