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Distant star, p.1
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       Distant Star, p.1

           Roberto Bolaño
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Distant Star



  Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

  For Victoria Ávalos and Lautaro Bolaño

  “What star falls unseen?”


  In the final chapter of my novel Nazi Literature in the Americas I recounted, in less than twenty pages and perhaps too schematically, the story of Lieutenant Ramírez Hoffman of the Chilean Air Force, which I heard from a fellow Chilean, Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America’s doomed revolutions, who tried to get himself killed in Africa. He was not satisfied with my version. It was meant to counterbalance the preceding excursions into the literary grotesque, or perhaps to come as an anticlimax, and Arturo would have preferred a longer story that, rather than mirror or explode others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion. 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 reuse of numerous paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Ménard.


  I saw Carlos Wieder for the first time in 1971, or perhaps in 1972, when Salvador Allende was President of Chile.

  At that stage Wieder was calling himself Alberto Ruiz-Tagle and occasionally attended Juan Stein’s poetry workshop in Concepción, the so-called capital of the South. I can’t say I knew him well. I saw him once or twice a week at the workshop. He wasn’t particularly talkative. I was. Most of us there talked a lot, not just about poetry, but politics, travel (little did we know what our travels would be like), painting, architecture, photography, revolution and the armed struggle that would usher in a new life and a new era, so we thought, but which, for most of us, was like a dream, or rather the key that would open the door into a world of dreams, the only dreams worth living for. And even though we were vaguely aware that dreams often turn into nightmares, we didn’t let that bother us. Our ages ranged from seventeen to twenty-three (I was eighteen) and most of us were students in the Faculty of Literature, except the Garmendia sisters, who were studying sociology and psychology, and Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who, as he said at some point, was an autodidact. What this meant in Chile in the years before 1973 is in itself an interesting subject. But to tell the truth, he didn’t strike me as an autodidact. What I mean is: he didn’t look like one. In Chile, at the beginning of the seventies, autodidacts didn’t dress like Ruiz-Tagle. They were poor. True, he talked like an autodidact. I guess he talked the way we all do now, those of us who are still alive (he talked as if he were living inside a cloud), but I couldn’t believe, from the way he dressed, that he had never set foot in a university. I don’t mean he was a dandy – although, in his own way, he was – or that he dressed in a particular style. His tastes were eclectic: sometimes he would turn up in a suit and tie; other days he’d be wearing sports gear, and he wasn’t averse to jeans and T-shirts. But whatever he was wearing, it was always an expensive brand. In other words, Ruiz-Tagle was well dressed, and in those days, in Chile, autodidacts were too busy steering a course between lunacy and destitution to dress like that, or so I thought. He once said that his father or his grandfather used to have an estate near Puerto Montt. At the age of fifteen he had decided, so he told us, or perhaps we heard it from Veronica Garmendia, to quit school and devote himself to working on the property and reading the books in his father’s library. At Juan Stein’s poetry workshop we all assumed he was a skilled horseman. I don’t know why, because we never saw him ride. In fact, all our suppositions concerning Ruiz-Tagle were predetermined by our jealousy or perhaps our envy. He was tall and slim, but well built and handsome. According to Bibiano O’Ryan, his face was too inexpressive to be handsome, but of course he said this with the benefit of hindsight, so it hardly counts. Why were we jealous of Ruiz-Tagle? The plural is misleading. I was jealous of him. Bibiano too perhaps. Why? Because of the Garmendia sisters, naturally: identical twins and the undisputed stars of the poetry workshop. In fact we sometimes felt, Bibiano and I, that Stein was running the workshop for their benefit alone. I have to admit they outshone us all. Veronica and Angelica Garmendia: so alike some days it was impossible to tell them apart, yet other days (and especially other nights) so different that they seemed to be strangers to each other, if not enemies. Stein adored them. Along with Ruiz-Tagle, he was the only one who always knew which twin was which. It’s not easy for me to talk about them. Sometimes they appear in my nightmares: the same age as I was, or perhaps a year older, tall, slim, with dark skin and black hair, very long black hair – it was the fashion back then, I think.

  The Garmendia sisters made friends with Ruiz-Tagle almost straight away. He enrolled in Stein’s workshop in ’71 or ’72. No one had seen him before, at the university or anywhere else. Stein didn’t inquire where he was from. He asked him to read out three poems and said they weren’t bad. (The only poems he ever praised without reserve were those of the Garmendia sisters.) And that was how Ruiz-Tagle joined our group. At first the rest of us didn’t pay him much attention. But when we saw that the Garmendia sisters were making friends with him, we did too. Up until then he had been affable but distant. Only with the Garmendia girls (and in this he resembled Stein) was he positively friendly, unfailingly kind and attentive. With the rest of us he was, as I said, affable but distant, by which I mean that he would greet us with a smile; when we read out our poems, he was discreet and measured in his critical judgments; he never defended his work against our generally devastating attacks, and when we talked, he listened in a manner that I certainly wouldn’t describe as attentive now, although that is how it seemed to us then.

  The differences between Ruiz-Tagle and the rest of us were obvious. We spoke a sort of slang or jargon derived in equal parts from Marx and Mandrake the Magician (we were mostly members or sympathisers of the MIR or Trotskyite parties, although a few of us belonged to the Young Socialists or the Communist Party or one of the leftist Catholic parties), while Ruiz-Tagle spoke Spanish, the Spanish of certain parts of Chile (mental rather than physical regions) where time seems to have come to a standstill. We lived with our parents (those of us who were from Concepción) or in spartan student boarding-houses; Ruiz-Tagle lived on his own, in a flat near the center of town, with four rooms and the curtains permanently drawn. I never visited this flat, but many years later Bibiano O’Ryan told me about it, no doubt under the influence of the sinister legend that had grown up around Wieder, so I don’t know how much to believe and how much to put down to my fellow student’s imagination. We hardly ever had two dimes to rub together (it seems so odd to be writing the word dime: I can see it shining like an eye in the night); Ruiz-Tagle was never short of money.

  What did Bibiano say about Ruiz-Tagle’s flat? He talked about how bare it was, mostly; he had the feeling it had been prepared. He only went there once on his own. He was passing by and, typically, decided to drop in and invite Ruiz-Tagle to go and see a film. He hardly knew the guy, but that didn’t stop him. There was a Bergman film showing, I can’t remember which one. Bibiano had already been to the flat a couple of times with one or other of the Garmendia sisters, and on both occasions the visit had been expected, so to speak. Both times, the flat seemed to have been prepared, its contents arranged for the eye of the imminent visitor; it was too empty, and there were spaces from which things had obviously been removed. In the letter explaining all this to me (which was written many years later), Bibiano said he felt like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, when she goes into the neighbour’s house for the first time with John Cassavetes. What was missing from Ruiz-Tagle’s flat was something unnameable (or something that Bibiano, years later, and knowing the full story, o
r a good part of it at any rate, considered unnameable, but palpably present), as if the host had amputated parts of the interior. Or as if the interior were a kind of Meccano that could be reconstructed to fit the expectations and particularities of each visitor. The impression was even stronger when he visited the flat on his own. This time, of course, Ruiz-Tagle, had not been expecting him. He took a long time to open the door. And then he seemed not to recognize his visitor, although Bibiano assured me that he came to the door with a smile and went on smiling throughout what followed. There was not much light, as Bibiano himself admitted in his letter, so I don’t know quite how accurate my friend’s account is. In any case, Ruiz-Tagle opened the door, and after a rather incongruous exchange (at first he didn’t understand that Bibiano was proposing they go and see a film), he asked him to wait a moment, shut the door, opened it again after a few seconds, and invited him in. The flat was dimly lit. The air was thick with a peculiar odour, as if Ruiz-Tagle had cooked something very pungent the night before, something oily and spicy. For a moment, Bibiano thought he heard a noise in one of the rooms and assumed there was a woman in the flat. He was about to excuse himself and leave when Ruiz-Tagle asked which film he was thinking of going to see. Bibiano said a Bergman film, at the Teatro Lautaro. Ruiz-Tagle kept wearing that smile of his, which, according to Bibiano was enigmatic, but which always struck me as self-satisfied if not downright arrogant. He excused himself, saying he already had a date with Veronica Garmendia; and anyway, he explained, he didn’t like Bergman’s films. By that stage, Bibiano was sure there was someone else in the flat, hiding behind a door and listening to the conversation. He thought it must have been Veronica; otherwise why would Ruiz-Tagle, who was normally so discreet, have mentioned her name? But try as he might, he couldn’t imagine our star poet in that situation. Neither Veronica nor Angelica Garmendia would stoop to eavesdropping. So who was it? Bibiano never found out. Right then, probably the only thing he knew was that he wanted to get out of there, away from Ruiz-Tagle, and never return to that naked, bleeding flat. Those are his words. Although, to judge from his description, the flat could not have looked more antiseptic. Clean walls, books lined up on the metal shelves, armchairs covered with Mapuche ponchos, Ruiz-Tagle’s Leica sitting on a wooden bench (he brought it to the poetry workshop one afternoon to take photos of us all). The kitchen door was ajar and Bibiano could see in: it looked normal, except that there were no piles of dirty plates, none of the mess you’d expect in the flat of a student who lives on his own (but then Ruiz-Tagle wasn’t a student). In short, nothing out of the ordinary, except for the noise, which could easily have come from the flat next door. While Ruiz-Tagle was talking, Bibiano had the distinct impression that his host didn’t want him to leave and was prolonging the conversation precisely to keep him there. Although there was no objective basis for this impression, it contributed to my friend’s nervous agitation, which soon reached a degree he described as intolerable. The strange thing is that Ruiz-Tagle seemed to be enjoying himself: he could see Bibiano growing paler and sweating more profusely, yet he went on talking (about Bergman, presumably), smiling all the while. Rather than breaking the close silence of the flat, his words accentuated it.

  What exactly did Ruiz-Tagle say? It might be important, if only I could remember, Bibiano wrote in his letter, but however hard I try, I can’t. In any case, he stayed until he couldn’t bear it any more, then rather brusquely he said, See you later, and left. At the bottom of the stairs, he ran into Veronica Garmendia. She asked what had happened to him. What do you mean? Why should anything have happened to me? asked Bibiano. I don’t know, said Veronica, but you’re as white as a sheet. I’ll never forget her saying that, wrote Bibiano: white as a sheet. And Veronica Garmendia’s face. The face of a woman in love.

  It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. Veronica was in love with Ruiz-Tagle. And it’s possible that Angelica was in love with him too. We talked about it once, Bibiano and I, a long time ago. I suppose we were miserable because neither of the girls was in love with us, or even paid us much attention. Bibiano liked Veronica, while I preferred Angelica. We never dared declare our feelings, although I suppose they were common knowledge. And in this respect we were no different from the other young men at the workshop, all of whom were more or less in love with the Garmendia sisters. But the twins, or one of them at least, had succumbed to the peculiar charm of the poetry-writing autodidact.

  He may have been an autodidact, but he was keen to learn, as Bibiano and I discovered when he appeared at the University of Concepción’s rival poetry workshop, run by Diego Soto, whose approach differed markedly from that of Stein in ethical as well as aesthetic matters, although the two were what used to be, and I suppose still are, called soul mates. For some reason, Soto’s workshop was held in the Faculty of Medicine, in a poorly ventilated, poorly furnished room, just across the corridor from the theater where the anatomy students used to dissect corpses. The theater smelt of formaldehyde, of course. Sometimes the corridor smelt of formaldehyde too. And some nights – Soto’s workshop was held every Friday night from eight to ten, although it usually finished after midnight – the smell of formaldehyde infiltrated our room, and we tried in vain to smother it, smoking cigarette after cigarette. The regulars at Stein’s workshop didn’t attend Soto’s and vice versa, except for Bibiano O’Ryan and myself. We made up for skipping almost all our classes by attending not only both workshops, but also every reading and cultural or political event that was held in the city. So when we saw Ruiz-Tagle turn up one night at Soto’s workshop it was a surprise. He behaved more or less as he did at Stein’s. He listened; his critical remarks were thoughtful, brief and always proffered in a polite and well-meaning manner. He read his own work with a certain disengagement and distance, and accepted even the harshest comments without protest, as if the poems he had submitted for our criticism were not his own. Bibiano and I were not the only ones to notice this; one night Diego Soto told him that there was something distant and cold about his writing. It’s as if they weren’t your poems, he said. Ruiz-Tagle nodded in agreement. I’m still trying to find my voice, he said.

  At the workshop in the Faculty of Medicine, Ruiz-Tagle got to know Carmen Villagrán and they became friends. Carmen was a good poet, although not as good as the Garmendia sisters. (The best poets or potential poets went to Juan Stein’s workshop.) He also met and befriended Marta Posadas, known as Fat Marta, the only medical student who attended the workshop in the Faculty of Medicine: a very white, very fat, very sad girl who wrote prose poems and cherished the dream, back then at least, of becoming the Marta Harnecker of Chilean literary criticism.

  Ruiz-Tagle didn’t make any friends among the male poets. When he saw Bibiano and me, he greeted us politely but without showing the slightest sign of familiarity, in spite of the fact that, because of the two poetry workshops, we were spending eight or nine hours in his company each week. He seemed to be indifferent to men in general. He lived on his own; there was something strange about his flat (according to Bibiano); he was devoid of the puerile pride that most poets take in their work, and not only was he friends with the most beautiful girls of my generation (the Garmendia sisters), he had also conquered the hearts of the two women in Diego Soto’s workshop. He was, in a word, the focus of Bibiano’s envy, and of mine.

  And nobody really knew him.

  Juan Stein and Diego Soto, who for Bibiano and me were the two most intelligent people in Concepción, had no idea about him. Nor did the Garmendia sisters. In fact, on two occasions Angelica sang the praises of Ruiz-Tagle in my presence: he was serious, well mannered, a clear thinker, and a very good listener. Bibiano and I hated him, but we had no idea either. Fat Marta was the only one who glimpsed a part of what was lurking behind the façade. I remember the night we talked about him. The three of us had been to the cinema and after the film we went to a restaurant in the center of town. Bibiano was making his eleventh bid to publish a short anthology of work by Concepción
s young poets in one of the local newspapers, and had brought along a folder with contributions from the members of Stein’s and Soto’s workshops. Fat Marta and I started going through the poems. Who are you going to include? I asked, knowing full well that I was among the chosen. (Had I not been, my friendship with Bibiano would probably have come to an end the next day.) You, said Bibiano, Martita (Fat Marta), Veronica and Angelica, of course, Carmen. Then he mentioned two other poets, one from Stein’s workshop, the other from Soto’s, and finally he pronounced the name Ruiz-Tagle. I remember Marta said nothing for a moment while her fingers (which were permanently ink stained, the nails not very clean either – surprising for a medical student, though it was obvious from the lethargic way she talked about her course that she would never complete it) scrabbled through the papers until she found Ruiz-Tagle’s three sheets. Don’t put him in, she said suddenly. You mean Ruiz-Tagle? I asked. I couldn’t believe my ears: she was one of his most fervent admirers. Bibiano, meanwhile, said nothing. The three poems were short; all less than ten lines. One described a landscape: trees, a dirt road, a house in the distance, wooden fences, hills, clouds. According to Bibiano it was “very Japanese.” I thought it was like something Jorge Teillier might have written after suffering a stroke. The second poem (which was entitled “Air”) was about wind blowing through the gaps in the stone walls of a house. (This one sounded like Teillier stricken with aphasia but persevering in his literary endeavors, a style that should not have been totally unfamiliar to me, since even back then, in 1973, at least half of Teillier’s putative disciples were persevering, undaunted by aphasia.) I have forgotten the third poem altogether. Or almost: I remember that at some point in it a knife appeared, for a reason that remained entirely obscure to me.

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