Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño (1996)

It’s petulant and dumb, but when suddenly everyone’s talking about a particular writer, I grumpily recoil like one of those guys with crew cuts on late night infomericals telling you to cash out your 401k and put it all in precious metals. So when suddenly a couple years back Bolaño was all over the literary press I remained studiously aloof and snooty, reading my Walser in a corner and fancying myself deliciously immune to fashion.

But there’s a difference between refusing to throw oneself at every new cutie NYRB/TLS sanctions and stupidly depriving yourself of fresh genuineness. So when a colleague cleaning out his office upon retirement offered me this early Bolaño novel for the reasonable price of free, I accepted it, pleased too to begin with this lesser known work instead of either of the bigger books which were so ballyhooed.

What a fool I’ve been. This little book is thrillingly weird. First person narrator tells of a charismatic young poet in his university writing workshop who, after Allende’s fall in 1973, becomes a sort of Göring, equally obsessed with austere militarism and obscenely decadent aesthetic poses. The two sides of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle’s personality come together when he performs exacting skywriting displays of poems at once nationalistic and drippily romantic, making of himself a sort of machine-age Caspar David Friedrich. As you can probably tell, I’m finding it all hard to explain; instead I keep reaching for comparisons. How’s this: Bolaño traverses the landscape of Chilean literary culture the way Sebald traverses the landscape of Europe, coolly describing unremarkable evident phenomena while at the same time continually suggesting — but lightly, lightly — the dark rot just underneath. Other authors that spring to mind here are Pamuk and Bernhardt, in each of whom fragile artistic culture and brute historical realities collide.

I have a strong sense that one must have to read a whole passel of Bolaño in order to grok the mission as a whole, since it seems several of the books refer to one another. I’m looking forward to it! And apologizing to myself for making me wait this long.

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