1 June 2012

Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star, 1988

This was, after not much internal debate, easily my best read of 2009. It concerns the life and elusive identity of a dashing Chilean Air Force pilot, skywriter and poet, twisted lothario and secret hitman for the Pinochet regime. The story will be familiar to readers of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas which featured as its final chapter a telescoped version of what was to become this novel. The straightforward structure is that of an attempt by a former acquaintance to identify him as the unlikely man responsible for the murders of some opposition sympathisers; the detective work quickly gets bogged down in endless possible leads that go nowhere as the pilot disappears and then very likely reappears in different guises as a guerilla and underground poet, hiding out elsewhere in Latin America as well as France and Spain. This is the literary territory Bolaño has claimed as his own, but he touches on areas I didn’t expect: American cult literature, fanzines and Philip K. Dick to name three. In political exile in Spain, this is probably not a book Bolaño could have written while in Chile: he is too specific about certain identifiable people, places and events such that Distant Star would not have received much widespread credibility there, perhaps before being accepted as a legitimate work by people who would be less inclined to discredit Bolaño’s believable journalistic style and instead embrace his invention. It’s a complex text, often by turns chilling and bizarrely funny, with a translation by Chris Andrews that once again preserves Bolaño’s infectious energy. Highly recommended.  PY


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