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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Distant Star

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase Distant Star

Title: Distant Star
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Distant Star - US
Distant Star - UK
Distant Star - Canada
Distant Star - India
Etoile distante - France
Stern in der Ferne - Deutschland
Stella distante - Italia
Estrella distante - España
  • Spanish title: Estrella distante
  • Translated by Chris Andrews

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fanciful and unwieldy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2005 Aura Estrada
Daily Telegraph A 17/10/2004 Chris Moss
FAZ . 21/3/2000 Paul Ingendaay
The Guardian . 23/10/2004 Nick Caistor
The New Yorker . 14/2/2005 .
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2005 Chad W. Post
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/12/2004 Glen Helfand
Sunday Telegraph . 12/12/2004 Ian Thomson
TLS . 5/11/2004 Stephen Henighan

  Review Consensus:

  Most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is far from merely a denunciatory account of the regime's cruelty, however; it is a tragicomedy, one that echoes Borges in its erudite uncanniness." - Aura Estrada, Bookforum

  • "In this mesmerising, multi-layered novella, Roberto Bolaño explores the implications of Chile's most telling cultural alliance -- with Germany and, in particular, its Prussian, jackboot militarism and its later Nazi incarnation. (...) In Distant Star, Bolaño suggests that a fascination with fascism extends to those who most vocally oppose it. (...) This surreal turn of events may sound like a familiar trope of magic realism, but Bolaño is closer in spirit and style to Borges, his narrative pared down, portentous and richly allusive." - Chris Moss, Daily Telegraph

  • "Man erwartet so ein Buch nicht von einem Chilenen, schon gar nicht, wenn darin der Putsch und die Pinochet-Diktatur eine Rolle spielen. Und es könnte sein,dass sich der Leser nach diesem beeindruckenden, mit hohem Stilempfinden übersetzten Roman von anderen Büchern zum Thema -- ihren Tätern, ihren Opfern, ihrem moralischen Recht und ihrer moralischen Plattheit -- sehr gelangweilt fühlt." - Paul Ingendaay, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This sense of unease means that Bolaño's narrative style is fragmented and loaded. It is also full of a strange kind of gallows humour, as we are swept along by stories that are invented and presented entirely convincingly, only to be suddenly brought up short by a reminder that this has not been done innocently." - Nick Caistor, The Guardian

  • "Bolano's spare prose lends his narrator's account a chilly precision -- as if the detachment of his former classmate had become his country's, and his own." - The New Yorker

  • "At the heart of Wieder’s story is the strange interaction between poetry and Nazism. (...) There’s definitely some black humor in this novel, but its core is horrifying, as the tales of poets killed or exiled following the coup are placed in juxtaposition to Wieder’s story." - Chad W. Post, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In their brief appearances, these Chileans embody themes of disappearance, loss, murder, exile and occasionally personal triumph. As colorful as these characters may be, the book is ultimately a dour picaresque, one tempered by ubiquitous references to obscure (perhaps fictional) European and South American poets and the unknowable character at its core." - Glen Helfand, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "If parts of Distant Star -- beautifully translated by Chris Andrews -- appear to be in narrative disarray, the plot skittering about confusedly, Bolaño's artful interstitching of plots and his surreal, sun-dazed images make up for that." - Ian Thomson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The narrative's light and witty tone make harsh material uncomfortably easy to digest. Floating above the ideological fray, Distant Star achieves a poignant, disconcerting account of a man made rudderless by the loss of his humanity." - Stephen Henighan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Distant Star Roberto Bolaño seems to just shake the stories and ideas out of his sleeve onto the page. It's ebullient and brightly imagined, with some jaw-droppingly good bits. But it also drifts, gelling neither into a novel nor separate enough to be a story- (or even anecdote-) collection.
       The tale begins in Chile in the early 1970s, when Allende was still president. The narrator is a university student and would-be poet, but the central figure in the novel is the mysterious Carlos Wieder -- calling himself, back then, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. Not even his name is certain (he appears to use other pseudonyms as well), and he remains throughout a fairly shadowy figure.
       Wieder also appears at first as a would-be poet, but he's a different sort -- and a different talent -- than all the others in the local poetry-circles. Early on someone is already certain that he: "is going to revolutionize Chilean poetry." But there's little obvious evidence of his poetic skills: no one seems to have read any of his stuff, for one.
       Comes the revolution, and Wieder comes into his own -- very much his own. The transition from Ruiz-Tagle into Wieder is already a radical act, as brutal a transformation as that of Chile itself as it moved from Allende to Pinochet; indeed, Wieder is nothing so much as a (both abstract and real) representative of Chile itself. The first great creative act of his the narrator describes is, in fact a destructive one, the simple art of murder.
       But Wieder is a poet, and a performer. He is in the air force, and takes to sky-writing, trying to inscribe the heavens themselves with his poetry (which generally only works, at best, fleetingly). He flies to Antartica. But his greatest achievement is a small, private photography exhibit for a select audience -- a shocking confrontation with the brutal truth of the regime that isn't exactly warmly embraced
       After that -- around 1974 -- Wieder disappears from public view, but he still haunts the narrator, and traces and clues continue to pop up. Distant Star is also, in part, a detective story, of trying to find the real Wieder (or Ruiz-Tagle or whoever he is).
       Between the Wieder-episodes, Bolaño also describes the fates of the narrator's various student-friends, as well as of some of the leading poets of that time (including one with no arms ...). Each life-story is, of course, crammed and symbolic -- and, for example:

     Like the story of Chile itself in those years, the story of Juan Stein, who ran our poetry workshop, is larger than life.
       Unfortunately, all these larger than life digressions get to be a bit much. It's great stuff, with some wonderful invention, but it often feels more like dazzling display than furthering any aspect of the narrative.
       Worthwhile, but also frustrating.

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Distant Star: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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