Monday, September 19, 2005

Who was it who first proposed the Bolivian government’s display of the corpse of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967 as an instance of bourgeois sculpture? Ghastly as that sounds, it also rings true. The border between the work of art and the public image has always been one subject to conceptual negotiation. Indeed, in just the past three weeks, there have been more than a few aerial photographs of New Orleans that have suggested an almost Christo-like quality to them.

Let’s take this one step closer to home. There once was an artist whose work with the body, especially in outdoor sites, often resulted images that suggested half-buried corpses. Then Ana Mendieta either jumped or was pushed from her 34th-floor loft – the echoes from her own work were unmistakable. Her husband Carl Andre, a sculptor whose own signature pieces are of flattened metal laid out on gallery & museum floors, was prosecuted, but acquitted. Regardless of what scenario one concocts in one’s head to explain what might have happened, the stain of the aesthetic is impossible to completely eradicate. The event is all the more horrific because of this.

At one level, Roberto Bolaño’s novel, Distant Star, is about an artist whose work just as dramatically obliterates the boundaries between not so much art & life as art & death. At another level, Bolaño’s book isn’t about this character at all. Rather, it’s about telling & perception.

The context is a group of young poets in a couple of college creative writing courses in Chile in the early 1970s. In addition to the unnamed narrator, we have a couple of teachers who figure into the narrative only peripherally, Bibiano O’Ryan, the narrator’s best friend, Fat Marta, Veronica & Angelica Garmendia – mostly referred to collectively as the Garmendia sisters – and one Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who even in the book’s ostensible first sentence¹ is called Carlos Wieder. The little coterie’s days as idle students, contemplating their publication in little magazines & wondering as to whom might be sleeping with whom, is blow apart abruptly when Pinochet’s coup overturns the government. The narrator – like Bolaño himself – finds himself in prison, then later in exile in Europe. One of the Garmendia sisters is found with her throat cut, the other (and an aunt) are disappeared forever. Ruiz-Tagle drops from sight. This little scene will not be the birthplace of the new Chilean poetry.

Later – and this book is very much about what happens later – a freed narrator & Bibiano (he is almost never called by his surname, which I had to go back to look up) conclude that a mysterious pilot from the Chilean air force, Carlos Wieder, must be their old acquaintance Ruiz-Tagle. Wieder’s specialty is skywriting poetry, erasing lines between audiences & the concept of publication. The poems quoted sound more like an heroic mode of surreal nihilism than anything else. Then Wieder is said to have given an exhibition, not of his skywriting, but of a series of photographs. This turns out to be the hinge event of the book – and also why I raised the questions of Guevara & Mendieta above – but I won’t say more here, other than that even this Wieder now drops from view.

Virtually nothing in the book, save for the very end, occurs with even remote directness. It is always the narrator hearing from somebody else – most often Bibiano or Fat Marta, and later an ex-Chilean cop now in Paris called Abel Romero – that somebody has alleged that somebody said that something happened. Maybe.

From this point forward, the veiled narrative of Wieder’s actions become even more speculative. Characters are reduced to looking for stylistic quirks in little zines by writers with improbable names. Has Wieder become the theorist for a group of neo-Nazi skinhead poets who call themselves the New Barbarism? And, if so, which one?

Bolaño is operating on a dizzying number of levels here. On one, this is a tale of what happens to a group of, if not friends & lovers exactly, something not so far distant, after a proto-fascist coup. About preparing for a world that never actually happens. On a second, it’s about how you know something – anything – about another person, about knowledge as such, done with a savoir-faire that should ring true for anybody familiar with the literary milieu of young poets. It would all be just gossip if only it were not so terribly lethal. On the next, it’s a masterwork of story-telling, almost the perfect blend of Borges and Raymond Chandler, a combination you don’t think of every day. Finally (or am I forgetting things?), it’s an instance from a South American context of a phenomenon that will be familiar to U.S. readers – the poet’s novel, not because it’s about poetry so much as the uses it makes of this knowledge in both telling its story & plotting that story.

In this latter sense, it’s a direct kin to the work of Jack Kerouac, Kathy Acker, Joe Torra, William Burroughs, Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Auster, Mary Burger, Kevin Killian, Douglas Woolf, Robert Glück, Camille Roy & even Herman Melville, all writers who hover about that fine demarcation betwixt genres. Again, this isn’t a context I think of when I think of South American writing. The closest antecedent I can think of is Julio Cortázar, the Argentine member of Oulipo.

And perhaps it’s the Raymond Chandler element, and definitely it’s at least partly Chris Andrews’ terrific translation, but Distant Star is completely compelling writing. In contrast, say, with a Borgesian type like Nabokov, where the result is always an overworked surface that deliberately slows the reading, Distant Star comes across like a detective novel even as it stirs up all these other dimensions. It’s a great read.


¹ Because it opens in fact with an introduction referring back to Bolaño’s first novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas (not yet translated into English), in which Wieder/Ruiz-Tagle appears to be called Lieutenant Ramirez Hoffman. A onetime Chilean revolutionary, Arturo B., was not satisfied with the version there. “So we took that final chapter and shut ourselves up for a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel. My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the results of numerous paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Ménard.”