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Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño

August 8, 2012 32 comments

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño 1996. French title: Etoile distante.

Se tuer, dit-il, dans cette conjoncture sociopolitique, est absurde et redondant. Le mieux : se métamorphoser en poète secret. To commit suicide in these socio-political circumstances is absurd and redundant. The best is to turn into a secret poet, he said. (Sorry, my translation from the French)

Arturo Belano relates the story of Carlos Wieder, how he met him in Concepción, in a poetry group at the university, how he later discovered he was a serial killer, a right-wing activist and an army pilot. It was in 1972 or 1973. He and Wieder weren’t really friends but our narrator kept tabs about his life mostly through the letters of his friend Bibiano O’Ryan. Wieder had that kind of artistic glow that appealed to women and made men jealous of him. He was secretive, strange and it added to the seduction power he had upon others.

It’s difficult to sum up this novel. Wieder is the Ariadne’s clew but his life is also linked to the history of Chile, the end of democracy with Allende’s fall and the switch to dictatorship. It’s also about Art and especially poetry.

Our narrator, like Bolaño was briefly imprisoned after Pinochet’s coup and like Bolaño again, chose exile in Barcelona. I know almost nothing about Chile but I had the feeling that Wieder’s life illustrates the country’s history. When the new regime discovers his awful crimes against women, he’s already a famous pilot in the army and a famous poet well introduced in the intelligentsia. He doesn’t get arrested. If he hadn’t revealed his crimes himself in an attack of artistic happening, nobody would have known about them. After all, disappearances were common at the time and were certainly not investigated. Unpunished crimes felt like everyday life in the Chile of that time.

I imagine that these three students, Wieder, O’Ryan and our narrator, represent the three paths followed by people in Chile after 1973: active cooperation with the new regime for Wieder, low profile for Bibiano who stayed in his country and exile for our narrator.

As far as the art aspect is concerned, Bolaño lost me there. I’m not educated enough to catch all the references, the name dropping. I couldn’t figure out if they were real names or fake ones and there were too many for me to check out. Some were real ones, I recognised them. I also got lost with art concepts:

Defoe en arrivait à affirmer que la révolution liée à la littérature amènera en quelque sorte son abolition. Quand la poésie sera faite par les non-poètes et sera lue par les non-lecteurs. Defoe ended up maintaining that the revolution linked to literature will lead it to its abolition, in a way. When poetry will be written by non-poets and will be read by non-readers.

Excuse me but I thought genuinely that writing poetry is what makes of someone a poet and that reading made a reader of me. I don’t understand that kind of concepts. It’s like when people tell you they eat cholesterol-free food not to be in the statistics of heart-attacks. But they are in those statistics anyway, just on the other side, the side of the people who have not had a heart-attack.

I’m also well aware that I’m too ignorant of Latin America’s history and customs to fully understand the book. It left me a bit unsatisfied but I’m glad I read it. I haven’t read a lot of South American literature and I know from experience that it takes a good number of novels to start linking things together in your head and draw a mental picture of the country you read about. It’s a piece of a jigsaw for future reading and also the appeal of reading in translation. What doesn’t make sense now will help build the picture later.

What I enjoyed immensely was Bolaño’s style. Sometimes I wondered how he sounds in English. It’s a flow with strings of adjectives, of propositions separated by commas, things that the English language doesn’t bear as well as the French. Bolaño is incredible when it comes to describing the horror of Wieder’s or the new regime’s crimes.

Et à leur suite la nuit pénètre dans la maison des sœurs Garmendia. Et quinze minutes plus tard, peut-être dix, quand ils partent, la nuit ressort, tout de suite la nuit entre, la nuit sort, efficace et rapide. Et on ne trouvera jamais les cadavres, ou plutôt si, il y a un cadavre, un seul cadavre qui apparaîtra des années après dans une fosse commune, celui de Angélica Garmendia, mon adorable, ma sans-pareille Angélica Garmendia, mais uniquement ce cadavre, comme pour prouver que Carlos Wieder est un homme et non un dieu. And following them the night enters the house of the Garmendia sisters. And fifteen minutes later, maybe ten, when they leave, the night goes out, all at once the night enters, the night goes out, efficient and quick. And the corpses will never be found, or actually yes, one corpse will be, one single corpse will reappear years later in a common grave, Angélica Garmendia’s corpse, my lovely, my one-of-a-kind Angélica Garmendia. There will be only this corpse as if to prove that Carlos Wieder was a man and not a god. Sorry again, still my translation from the French.

Powerful, isn’t it? Few words, nothing special in appearance and still you’re chil(l)ed.

I wanted to read this for Spanish Lit Month but I couldn’t finish it on time. This was my first Bolaño and certainly not my last. I first heard of him on Richard’s blog, Caravana de Recuerdos, so thanks, Richard. You can discover his review of Estrella Distante here (in Spanish and English)

Shadows and Reds in Chile

July 10, 2012 13 comments

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepúlveda. 2009. French title: L’ombre de ce que nous avons été. 

I am the shadow of what we were and while there is light, we will exist.

I bought this novel by Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda a few month ago because the title appealed to me. It was on the shelf and I decided to read it for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad  and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.

The characters in The Shadow of What We Were are former communist, Moist, Trostkist or whatever kind of leftist militant cooked by the 1968 political movements. Sepúlveda makes our former active militants meet again for a last action. Cacho Salinas came back to Santiago after years of exile in France. Lucho Arancibia stayed in Chile but was tortured by the military and spent years in a concentration camp, which damaged his sanity. Lolo Garmendia fled to Romania where he experienced Caucescu’s dictatorship before fleeing to Yugoslavia. And then there is Coco Aravena, a dreamer, not much of a worker, who spent years in Berlin. Things are set into motion when Coco’s wife accidentally kills The Specialist, also known as The Shadow, an anarchist who helped different socialist organizations setting up spectacular non-violent operations before and after Pinochet’s coup. All four members had met The Shadow in their militant life without knowing who he was but benefiting from his advice and training.

After the Specialist’s death we meet Inspector Crespo, an old policeman who tried to keep his hands clean during the blackest years. His new assistant Adelita Bodavilla was born in 1973 and she belongs to the first generation of Chilean policemen who took their function after the dictatorship. She symbolizes the new Chile. They need to investigate the Specialist’s death.

I won’t reveal the plot but I should have guessed the theme. After all, on the cover of my French edition is printed a praise by L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party.

Sepúlveda describes with gentleness the hangover of these passionate militants. All are a bit lost in this new Santiago. The city changed during their exile, the shops changed, things aren’t at the same place any more. They sacrificed their life for their cause. Some died, some closed the doors to a “normal” family life. They still believe in socialism, quote Lenin and Marx, think according to that particular filter. It’s surprising: how can they still believe in it after the fall of the USSR, the horrors in China and the fall of Eastern Europe dictatorships? Shouldn’t they turn their back to it? And at the same time, how can they? Their sacrifice would be meaningless, their whole life a joke. They need to cling to these thesis because they define who they are, what they gave their life for.

I was born in the 1970s. Every time I read about the political movements, official or clandestine, of the years 1968-1970s, I’m puzzled. Firstly, I’m puzzled at the complexity and the subtlety of the different currents. Secondly, I’m amazed at the enthusiasm and the determination of these militants. This is so far away from my generation’s way of thinking: I find them incredibly naïve, gullible even. How could they genuinely believe in such theories? I’m this generation’s child. How did our parents have such a non-committed offspring? Is it the loss of their dreams? Or did our birth make them change gears and settle down? In my experience, there’s nothing like fulfilling a baby’s needs to change your everyday life and tame you.

The other background character of the novel is Chile itself. How does a country recover from dictatorship? How does it deal with exilees coming back and experiencing difficulties to adapt to their new home town? They’re like prisoners liberated after a long time in prison. It’s hard to get used to the changes in their environment. Salinas misses Paris. Garmendia misses Europe. Coco’s wife misses Berlin. They spent years abroad, they lost touch with their home country.

The Shadow of What We Were is a short novel but it gives an interesting glimpse at Chile today…by a writer who now lives in Spain. Sepúlveda was born in 1949. He was 24 when Allende committed suicide and when Pinochet did his putsch and became Chile’s dictator. His characters are from the same generation as he and he was one of them. It can explain the tender and amused tone he uses.

It is a coincidence but Stu also chose to read this novel for Spanish Literature Month and you can read his review here.

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