Who better than Chris Andrews, translator of 10 of Roberto Bolaño's books, to write the first big book of Bolaño literary criticism? Roberto Bolaño's Fiction: An Expanding Universe is an indispensable guide to navigating the rich world of the Chilean author's fiction. Here, Andrews makes the case for why Distant Star should be required reading.
Late in 1995, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño met the publisher Jorge Herralde in Barcelona. Bolaño had been in living Spain for almost twenty years, working at odd jobs and writing continually, but all his publications up to that point (collections of poems and a novel co-authored with Antoni García Porta) had remained obscure. In 1998 he would publish his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), which would win two major prizes and put him firmly on the map of Spanish-language fiction. In 2007, the same novel, translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, would bring Bolaño to the notice of a wide reading public in the USA. But the author approaching his mid-forties whom Herralde encountered in 1995 was an almost unknown quantity.
In a recent essay, Enrique Vila-Matas wrote: “Distant Star was born precisely at the moment when Herralde, in his office at Anagrama, asked Bolaño if he had a novel in manuscript, something recent [...]. The novel did not exist, but Bolaño said that it did, and in three weeks — a record — he wrote it, borrowing a considerable number of words from Nazi Literature in the Americas, to save time but also because that was how his work always advanced, unfolding from one book to another.” Herralde was asking about a manuscript because he had just missed out on Nazi Literature, which had been shortlisted for Anagrama’s novel prize but withdrawn by Bolaño when it was accepted for publication by Seix Barral.
The account given by Vila-Matas does not exactly match with Herralde’s version of events in Para Roberto Bolaño, or with the preface to the novel in question, but one thing seems clear: Distant Star was written very quickly. And while it is true that Bolaño’s work always advanced by unfolding from one book to another, there was a leap in this process. At some point in 1995, Bolaño seems to have discovered that he could expand a published text without diluting its effect or getting bogged down in circumstantial details, and that he could bring back characters and give them fuller lives without being strictly constrained by what he had already written about them.
Distant Star is the story of a shadowy poet, Carlos Wieder, who inspires the envy of the narrator and his friend Bibiano O’Ryan by conquering the hearts of all the girls in the poetry workshop that they attend in the Chilean city of Concepción. After the military coup in 1973, Wieder, who turns out to be an air force pilot, briefly enjoys the patronage of the new regime, writing poems in the sky (Death is friendship / Death is Chile / Death is responsibility ...) and organizing an exhibition of photographs showing the victims of real murders that he has committed. In the scene of the exhibition, Bolaño gradually and brilliantly intensifies the atmosphere of menace without ever tipping over into schlock. Wieder’s performance art is too much even for his brutal superiors, who expel him from the air force, and he disappears into a netherland where fascism and the avant-garde mingle, before being tracked down in Catalonia by a detective who significantly shares his name — Romero — with the director of The Night of the Living Dead.
The basic plot remains as it was in the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas, but is enriched with new episodes and characters, including Lorenzo, Wieder’s luminous opposite, who has lost his arms after a childhood accident and grown up gay in Pinochet’s Chile. One day he jumps into the sea “from a rock used exclusively by suicides (every self-respecting stretch of Chilean coastline has one),” but suddenly decides, underwater, that he is not going to die. “In the current socio-political climate, he said to himself; committing suicide is absurd and redundant. Better to become an undercover poet.” Like Wieder, Lorenzo is a marginal wanderer in Europe; like Wieder, he is indubitably brave. But Wieder’s courage is entirely self-regarding and inspires only fear, while Lorenzo’s is generous and generates courage in others. Before dying of AIDS, Lorenzo achieves notoriety as the incarnation of Petra, a cartoon character who served as the mascot of the Barcelona Paralympics. “At the time I was flat on my back with a clapped-out liver in the Vall d’Hebron hospital in Barcelona,” says the narrator, “reading two or three newspapers a day, which is how I kept up with his exploits, jokes, and anecdotes. Sometimes I had laughing fits reading the interviews. Sometimes they made me cry.”
Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.
These processes combined to form what Nora Catelli has called Bolaño’s “fiction-making system,” which would go on operating with remarkable efficiency up to his premature death in 2003. My academic terminology might give the impression that this was a purely technical feat, but the system could only produce interesting results because Bolaño had the indispensible gift of a potent imagination, and a fund of stories to tell, accumulated over years of curious living, listening, and note-taking. He is not to be counted among the writers who regard “mere storytelling” as a regrettable concession to popular taste. Nor is he a writer who aspires to ethical neutrality or blankness. As I argue in the final chapter of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction, one of the reasons why his books matter to many readers is that they are underpinned by a strong and distinctive sense of what matters in life.
Translation reorganizes an author’s body of work: the books appear in a different order and illuminate or obscure each other in new ways. By Night in Chile has enjoyed a special prominence in the anglophone world because, as well as being a dazzling (and disturbing) performance, it came first, with an endorsement by Susan Sontag, and a positive mention later on from James Wood. To judge by Worldcat’s listing of library holdings, Distant Star is one of Bolaño’s least widely read titles in English. This is a pity, because it is a sampler of the author’s various talents, and an excellent point of entry into the oeuvre as a whole. But a book’s fate is deeply contingent, as Bolaño himself knew very well. That, I believe, is the lesson of Auxilio Lacouture’s crazy prophecies in Amulet: “For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033. Ezra Pound shall disappear from certain libraries in the year 2089,” and so on. And the greater part of a book’s life in the world is bound to remain private, even as blogs and social media swell the public sphere. One need not be excessively optimistic to find a certain encouragement in the thought that there is no knowing what a book may come to mean to readers scattered far away in space and time. It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.