Roberto Bolaño died three years ago at the relatively young age of 50 , at the pinnacle of his career as a writer and before he could be better known in the English knowing world.
The translation into English of his By Night in Chile a few years ago marked his arrival in the English world. Distant Stars is the next book translated into English. His collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth has been published recently and the translation of his most ambitious posthumus work 2666 is eagerly awaited.
The theme has been attempted by other writers, notably by Ariel Dorfman in The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, who made a vastly more experimental attempt at capturing the brutality of those years. In contrast, Distant Stars is a relatively simpler novel, closer to Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann, but less verbose and less tedious.
Mann had taken the analogy of the folk legend of Faust and Mephistopheles where a musician signs a pact with the devil (in this case Nazi Germany), to illustrate the immorality of those who had been accomplices of the Nazi regime. Bolaño, in this work, takes the case of an avant garde poet, Carlos Wieder. In the process he also offers insights into the lives of that generation of poets that was torn apart by the dictatorship: “Madness was not exceptional at that time,” he remarks, when Carlos Wieder inaugurates a new form of poetry by writing one and two liners poems in the sky on an airplane.
While Carlos wins accolades from the regime, other poets meet with a different fate. “The good news was that we had been expelled from the university, the bad was that almost all of our friends have disappered”, the narrator’s friend Bibiano observes. There are many incidents that recount the “melancholy folklore of exile- made up of stories that are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened”.
Carlos meanwhile goes on to experiment with other forms of ‘literature’ till it becomes so grotesque that even the supportive regime finds it difficult to continue to stand by him. Bolaño unmasks the gory details, and Wieder’s participation in the brutalization of the Chilean soceity during the dictatorship. Wieder’s unwritten pact with the devil becomes evident.
Bolaño scores with the fact that he is able to evoke a series of sub texts that are pregnant with possiblities. The following narration, for example, by the Indian maid of one the victims of the Wieder’s murderous crimes indicates a new trajectory that deserves a different treatment altogether.
The maid makes an appearance in the court against the defendent Carlos Weider when his crimes are discovered.
Over the years her Spanish had dwindled. When she spoke every second word was in Mapuche… in her memory the night of the crime was one in the long history of killing and injustice. Her account of the event was swept up in a cyclical, epic poem, which, as her dumbfounded listeners came to realize, was partly her story, the story of the Chilean citizen Amalia Maluenda, who used to work for the Garmendias, and partly the story of the Chilean nation. A story of terror…. Remembering the dark 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: ” Sheer rage, sir, sheer, futile rage”.
Cross posted here.