Posters showing the faces of people disappeared and killed by the Guatemalan state alongside graffiti depicting Salvador Dali, Guatemala City
Primary readings: Estrella Distante (1996) and Nocturno de Chile (2000), Roberto Bolaño
I knew while reading that Roberto Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) was a semi-biographical novel, something like an ironically self-aware, kaleidoscopic reiteration of Jack Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend” methodology. Yet it was still an astonishing surprise to discover, upon finishing the book, an archive of works by the Infrarrealist poets, the Mexican and international avant-garde groupuscule which Bolaño parodies, at once biting and affectionate, as the “visceral realists” of Los detectives salvajes. Reading the first few fragments by poets like Jorge Hernández Pieldivina and Maria Santiago Papasquiaro, it was as if an intricate mosaic assembled by Bolaño had subtly changed perspective, expanding beyond the horizon of the literary work and into real life.
This same tactic is employed in Roberto Bolaño’s novellas Estrella distante (Distant Star) and Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) which together reveal the hidden chords of complicity which link culture and authoritarianism, civilization and barbarism, communism and fascism. Estrella distante is haunted by a shape-shifting antagonist, first appearing as a self-taught participant in a left-leaning university poetry circle, later as Chilean Air Force pilot Carlos Wieder, who inscribes poetic verses such as “cleanliness is death” in the sky over Chile and Antarctica using a Luftwaffe warplane and who stages an avant-garde happening featuring photos of the mutilated bodies of disappeared women artists. The narrator, Bolaño’s alter-ego Arturo Belano, later tracks down Wieder as an exile in Europe, writing for obscure ultra-right wing fanzines and a follower of a transgressive literary cult of “barbaric writers.” Nocturno de Chile is presented as the dense, fevered monologue of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Catholic priest, conservative literary critic, and dilettantish poet whose self-justifying autobiographical confession implicates Chilean high culture in the crimes of the Pinochet regime as Lacroix recounts episodes such as a symbolic mission for Opus Dei in Europe, which prepares him to be handpicked to deliver classes on Marxist theory to dictator Augusto Pinochet and members of his junta. The novella climaxes at a party hosted by a writer and socialite, during which an attendee stumbles on a basement room in which an anonymous man is being held for torture.
As in Los detectives salvajes, the key characters in Bolaño’s Chilean novellas are thinly-veiled versions of real individuals. Wieder is a nightmare composite, or perhaps mirror image, of the left-leaning Chilean poet Raul Zurita, a correspondence that reveals the cultural left’s own participation in violence (such as the murder of Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton by his guerrilla comrades) and dependence on power (potshots against Latin American “establishment” poets including Pablo Neruda abound in Bolaño’s work). Lacroix’s literary milieu also corresponds to figures in Chilean culture and politics, such as the writer and military intelligence informer Mariana Callejas and her husband Michael Townley, a CIA agent who worked with Southern Cone regimes and death squads to carry out disappearances and torture as part of the “Condor” counterinsurgency operation, and who later served prison time in the U.S. for his role in the car-bombing which killed Chilean opposition politician Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. in 1976.
The written word possesses paradoxical powers, aiding quiet contemplation that can motivate reflective engagement with the social world, or that can serve as protective insulation from reality. Writing can also provoke action and emotion, the furthest extremes of joy and violence. Were the situations explored in Bolaño’s Chilean novellas not based in true events, their exploration of the intersections between political violence and literature might seem didactic or exaggerated. Through these uncomfortable and unstable linkages between narrative constructions and fact, Bolaño illustrates Walter Benjamin’s rejection of liberal humanist faith in historical progress – my astonishment at the continuity between the “fantasy” of a literary narrative and the “true” autonomous lives and independent body of poetry that inspired it recapitulates and undermines our collective astonishment at the atrocity exhibition that is history, at the capacity of barbaric violence to erupt at any moment from behind the veneer of civilization. Bolaño forces us to admit that violence is a fundamental force in human society, in which our own acts of resistance and complicity are deeply and inextricably embedded.
Exhibit A: Skywritten poem, Raul Zurita (Chile)
Exhibit B: Poem inscribed on desert, Raul Zurita (Chile)
Exhibit C: Excerpt of biography of Raul Zurita
Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1950. He started out studying engineering before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. He has written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He has done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. In the early 1980s, Zurita famously sky-wrote passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over New York and later—still during the reign of Pinochet—he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into the Atacama Desert which, for its length, can only be seen from the sky.
Exhibit D: Translation from conclusion of “Malestar en la literatura: Escritura y barbarie en Estrella Distante y Nocturno de Chile de Roberto Bolaño,” Ignacio López-Vicuña, Revista chilena de literatura (2009)
In “On the Concept of History,” [Walter] Benjamin proposes that fascism is not an “historical norm” which can be “overcome” simply through “progress”: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.” We should thus ask ourselves if it is a philosophical attitude to be astonished that “such things” have occurred recently in Chile. Everything that happens, Bolaño seems to point out, happened in order to give birth to a new society: the one in which we live today. In this context, Bolaño’s contribution is to look horror directly in the face, exposing the sinister dimension of daily life, and “comprending how to stick your head into the darkness”, developing a writing which expresses the profound sickness of our time.
Exhibit E: Chilean informer and writer Mariana Callejas and husband Michael Townley, CIA agent and assassin
Further reading: Roberto Bolaño, Los detectives salvajes; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine; Eduardo Galeano, Días y noches de amor y de guerra; Diez poemas y once poetas Infrarrealistas; Mario Vargas Llosa: The intellectual defense of liberal racism in Latin America.