by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (translator)
Paperback, 150 pages
Published December 17th 2004 by New Directions (first published November 1996)
original title Estrella distante
ISBN 0811215865 (ISBN13: 9780811215862)
The key to what this book is about is the following paragraph, from Between Parentheses, although it appeared in slightly different form in a novel– perhaps Amulet.
‘And last of all, a true story. I repeat: this isn’t fiction, it’s real, it happened in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and more or less everybody (the small and remote “everybody” that is Chile) knows it. A right-wing young woman sets up house with a right-wing American, or marries him. The two of them aren’t just young, they’re good-looking and proud. He’s a DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) agent, possibly also a CIA agent. She loves literature and loves her man. They rent or buy a big house in the suburbs of Santiago. In the cellars of this house the American interrogates and tortures political prisoners who are later moved on to other detention centers or added to the list of the disappeared. She writes, and she attends writing workshops. In those days, I suppose, there weren’t as many workshops as there are today, but there were some. In Santiago people have grown accustomed to the curfew. At night there aren’t many places to go for fun, and the winters are long. So every weekend or every few nights she has a group of writers over to her house. It isn’t a set group. The guests vary. Some come only once, others several times. At the house there’s always whiskey, good wine, and sometimes the gatherings turn into dinners. One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down, and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore. He’s terrified, but he doesn’t say anything. “Surely the people who attended those post-coup, culturally stilted soirees will remember the annoyance of the flickering current that made lamps blink and music stop, interrupting the dancing. Just as surely, they knew nothing about another parallel dance, in which the jab of the prod tensed the tortured back of the knee in a voltaic arc. They might not have heard the cries over the blare of disco, which was all the rage back then,” says Pedro Lemebel. Whatever the case, the writers leave. But they come back for the next party. She, the hostess, even wins a short story or poetry prize from the only literary journal still in existence back then, a left-wing journal.’
’And this is how the literature of every country is built.’
When I was a freshman student in the BFA program of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I tried to make a similar point in an assignment for a 2-D Design class. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say it was a parallel point. Saying it was similar is slightly pretentious on my part– I didn’t really know anything then, and what’s worse, thought I did. The scary thing is that the adjunct teacher who taught the class was taken enough with the results of my labors that she gave me an A for the class; a grade I surely did not deserve since I spent the majority of the semester making sure everyone knew just how much better than them I considered myself. Better than them, better than the stupid 2-D assignments, better than the whole world, I’m sure. That poor teacher must have had tremendously dull groups of students year in and year out to find anything interesting in my assignment.
My project consisted of some kind of comic, although I knew just as little about comics as anything else then, so it wasn’t much of a comic, more like a story told in pictures. I remember I got one of those sketchbooks with the pages already colored with swirls, for some reason. The story, which I thought up on the spot, was about a kid who sits around drawing and talking with friends at a coffee shop, mostly about art. Thats what I spent my time doing then, or wanted to think I did. Then he’s walking home one night and gets robbed by a bunch of other kids. While rummaging through his bag, one of the robbers says, “Hey, check out this kid’s drawings,” before they run off without looking. The last scene was of the boy sitting alone at the same coffeeshop, with thought bubbles saying “art” with a question mark (in the previous coffeeshop scene they said “art” “art” “art,” like to show that’s what they’re talking about). The end. I think I was trying to say that art is fine and all, until life makes a mockery of your creativity and makes you feel stupid for even thinking about it.
The difference is (one of the many differences is…), Bolano is really good at what he does, meaning that as his books make the point that art and fascism are not as opposed as one might be inclined to think, his genius with his chosen medium makes the exact opposite point. Reading Distant Star the second time really brought this out; the tension between the book’s message and execution, content and form, is one reason I rate it so highly.
I gather the job of an artist who would create original art is infinitely harder today than it was a hundred or two hundred years ago, but I wouldn’t have known this to be the case if not for people like Bolano. That is, reading Bolano makes clear to me just how hackneyed all the other writers are; what I don’t understand exactly is why i had to read this book twice to even appreciate it fully– although I gladly re-read Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, etc., their books are fully accessible to me upon the first reading. Maybe it’s the Borges influence.
I have much more to say about this book, and Bolano, and maybe I will. Things like, this is a book about SOMETHING. As in, it is neither pretending that a writer’s work concerns pretty prose, content be damned, as if the two have ever been separate; nor is it a cliche created to sell copies to people for whom reading is a comfort activity.