Roberto BOLANO left behind stories and poetry, as well as a handful of extraordinary novels, when he died at 50 in July 2003. Yet in Latin America, the Chilean exile’s work isn’t widely known. This is a pity because in my estimation he is by far the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time.
Of left-wing persuasion, Bolano was concerned with the ins and outs of Chile’s extreme political right. He inserted all sorts of hidden clues in his narratives about real-life characters, and deciphering who they are has become a sport of late in his native country. English-language readers became acquainted with him in 2003 through “By Night in Chile,” a novel about the bloody events early in Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Now, “Distant Star,” one of Bolano’s best works, is available in English.
The novel’s seed was an experiment Bolano made in the mid-'90s, compiling a playful mini-encyclopedia of nonexistent Nazi literature from Latin America with detailed author entries, a bibliography and cross-references to titles, periodicals, etc. “La literatura nazi en America” is one of the most courageous and imaginative books produced in the region since Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” appeared in 1967. The last entry in the Nazi literature book was on a fascist poet whose performances unsettled the Chilean establishment shortly after President Salvador Allende was assassinated. Bolano devoted more than 20 pages to narrating the character’s adventures, but he was dissatisfied with the result. So he expanded it into a full-fledged novel, “Distant Star,” changing a circumstance here and there and a handful of proper names.
The poet, now named Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, is a serial killer, unbeknownst to those around him. At a time when killings of Marxist sympathizers were commonplace in a Chile controlled by the military, Ruiz-Tagle -- a.k.a. Carlos Wieder -- understood how to turn death into a public art. His story is told obliquely from the perspective of a character who knew him in his student days and whose exile followed a similar path. Bolano has a commanding style yet an unassuming voice; he lets the story tell itself, enjoying its bizarre twists.
Ruiz-Tagle at one point uses airplanes to compose his poetry in the sky. Casual encounters with former female colleagues unexpectedly turn into a violent spree. A gallery show is built around photographs of torture and dismemberment. In the hands of an American writer like Bret Easton Ellis, violence itself becomes a target of adoration, victims come and go without consequence. But Bolano isn’t interested in the grotesque. There is nothing gratuitous in “Distant Star.” Instead, this gracious novel, built as a thriller, is about politics in the most intriguing sense of the term: To whom does a disturbed artist convey his message at a time when the society that surrounds him is itself deranged?
Far too often in Latin American letters, authority figures, especially dictators, are turned into cartoons. Authors minimize their lives by turning them into senseless marionettes. What makes Bolano so fascinating is his refusal to simplify those who pushed him out of Chile. (He was exiled in Mexico and France, eventually settling in Spain.) The novel’s anonymous narrator follows a train of events the way one opens a family album, reminiscing about old times but in a state of disbelief at how things turned out. Pinochet’s coup is described in detached fashion, as if repeating what went on would bore everyone. That same detachment is used in describing the Chilean elite at the time. In the end, “Distant Star” offers a composite picture of a nation turned upside down, allowing Bolano to ask what the function of art is in such context.
Bolano’s literature is about silences and absences, about revaluating national memory. As today’s Chile moves to distance itself from the atrocities of the military period, it is forced to confront the ghosts of its past. In Bolano’s able hands, those treacherous ghosts have universal value.
He was working on a novel of more than 1,000 pages titled “2666" when he died. It has just been published in Spain. But the author’s American publisher next should bring out an English translation of the book on Nazi literature in the Americas, which isn’t only about Chile but about the entire hemisphere. It will open unexpected vistas.
Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, is the editor of “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature.”