Quick Review: Roberto Bolano's "Distant Star"


A “true masterpiece” said Vanguardia about this novel. It must be the case that Vanguardia doesn’t get out to the bookstores that often, because for me Distant Star is consistently less than stellar. It is not an entire disaster: the story is book-ended by twenty exciting pages on either side. But for the most part, the middle of the book sagged under its own boring weight. Many of the sentences just zipped past my eyes, like cockroaches skittering across dirty floors. I know what I saw, but couldn’t tell you what I read. Many pages acted as an excuse, it seems, for the author to list his favorite, obscure and/or radical Latin American authors (and their equally obscure publications). As such, Distant Star is probably read best as a sort of Cliffs Notes for the writers and poets influencing Bolaño’s thinking and writing styles. Surely Savage Detectives and 2666 must be better.


Distant Star revolves around the search for Carlos Wieder, a poet who in the 1970s is shaking up the world of literature and poetry in Chile by writing enigmatic poems in the sky with smoke he has taken the public’s imagination. The poets of the day do not agree on the importance of Wieder’s contributions:

“But these associates knew nothing about poetry. Or so they thought. (Naturally Wieder disagreed, assuring them they knew more about poetry than most people, more than a good many poets and professors, at any rate, living in their oases or miserable immaculate deserts; but his thugs didn’t understand, or dismissed it good-humoredly as another one of the lieutenant’s jokes.) For them that Wieder did in his place was just a ‘daring feat,’ daring in more ways than one, but not poetry.”

This passage reminds me of a profile recently in the New Yorker of the French Spider Man Alain Robert who free-climbs skyscrapers to garner attention for one cause or another. Some of those interviewed for the profile called Robert a glory hog, and because he chose to conquer steel and glass, not a “real climber.” Others claim the man is just plain awesome. The same happens for Wieder’s contribution to Latin American poetry. To some he is an amateur, a circus act. Others find him to be refreshing and a godsend.

A couple of pages later I came across the most beautiful statement in the story. Wieder had just finished sky writing a poem in Latin. The narrator is speaking about a translator’s take on the deed: “Because Latin makes more of an impression in the sky, although in fact he probably used the word ‘impact,’ Latin makes more of an impact in the sky…”

Think about that for a moment… while the differences in definitions of impact and impression are important to the point being made, the idea that we can impact or impress against an entity which has not the least bit of body—air, the sky—is poetic in itself.


This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.

Chile, Roberto Bolano, Quick Review