Distant Star tells of one man’s rise to fame in the early Pinochet years of the Chilean government. The man is Carlos Wider-self proclaimed autodictat, poet, pilot in the Chilean Airforce famed for the enigmatic messages he writes in sky from his plane. The anonymous narrator of the novel knows Wieder by another name, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. Throughout the novel, and much of his own life, the narrator searches for answers to the question: Who was the real Carlos Wieder? If he is able to understand Wieder, perhaps, he may find out how and why the other things around him occurred.
In the poetry workshops the narrator and fellow university students attended, Ruiz –Tagle, sometimes came. Quiet most of the time, when the lead scholar of the group critiqued Ruiz-Tagle’s poetry he was told ‘ It’s almost as if they weren’t your poems. ‘ Ruz-Tagle was talented, but needed some kind of spark, or muse. Women were drawn to him like magnets. He befriended many of the women who would later disappear, including the talented and graceful Garmendia twins he met at the poetry session.
Soon after Ruiz-Tagle began attending the poetry workshops, the army seized control and the government collapsed. This meant that many students were imprisoned, those who were not ran away to the country to hide. The Garmendia sisters, went to their parents’ house outside the city. They were never seen again. The author creates a scene in which Ruiz-Tagle comes to woo them with poetry reading and then slits their throats. He admits no one really knows exactly, what happened.
What becomes certain is Wieder’s success as a poet/pilot. The first time the narrator sees Wieder’s poetry, he is in prison. A Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109 flies overhead leaving messages in Latin for the crown to decipher below. People are speechless, afraid, confused, and silent. The only person excited is Norberto, the man who realizes the plane is a German WWII fighter plane. Norberto also speaks Latin. He says the message is biblical. ‘It was about the beginning of the world, about will, about light and darkness.’ Later, Wieder makes a star in the sky for the Chilean flag. Almost no one knew what the message meant, but the daring manner in which he displays them, makes Wieder important, mysterious, heroic.
When his later messages are written so people could understand, they, are poetry to be interpreted by the reader. The only viewers to understand his references to “the twins” and other girls from the poetry reading who have disappeared and are now dead are those who know what Wieder has done. To the public, his airplane shows in the sky are just words. To the friends of the girls, Ruiz-Tagle has used his violence, their murders, in some sick way to gain inspiration for his craft. He became Wieder through them.
Carlos Wieder is depicted as a great man with power and influence by Chilean society. One of Chile’s renowned critics praises his poetry, which has never been very good, according to the narrator. ‘We are witnessing an emergence of new era’s major poet.’ Wieder is given the opportunity to fly to Antartica for Chile. He becomes more and more arrogant, developing a sense of confidence. ‘There was a sense of force in the way he talked, purity and sheen of the absolute the reflection of a monolithic will.’
Throughout the novel, Bolano makes allusions to the Second World War, German ancestry in the Americas, and the possibility of a Fourth Reich. Many times, the reader is meant to notice to references such as the Messerscmitt. In others, the hints are more subtle. For example, suggesting that Wieder’s arrogance has reached a new level, the narrator uses the words ‘purity and will’ which bring to mind the belief systems and propaganda of Nazi Germany. I couldn’t help but flash back to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film ‘Triumph of the Will’ and wonder whether or not Wieder’s fame was part of the new regime’s way of distracting from the immorality of its actions. Perhaps instead of being a great pilot and poet, Wieder is not only a ploy for the government to trick the people into supporting things they knew nothing about.
Juan Stein is one of the leaders of the university’ poetry workshop- a true man of letters. The narrator and his friend Bibiano can recall two important photos which hung in their teacher’s home. One was his mother’s cousin, Ivan Chernyakhovsky, Red Army general and the greatest of Word War II. The general was twice named the Hero of the Soviet Union, the only Jewish general in the War. According Juan Stein he was the best. This man was underappreciated, due to his race. No one went out of the way to praise him, although he was truly great. He fought for his people and the world. On the other hand, Carlos Wieder is no hero. He has taken a German name, no one knows his true identity. Everything great about him is an illusion-propaganda.
Despite the fact that the narrator hates Wieder and is terrified of the man he claims is pure evil, the reader is never certain how to feel because every story is speculation or told through outside sources. This is until the day of Wieder’s photo exhibition. The day begins with a show in the sky as usual. But, Wieder’s messages are very eerie. ‘Death is cleansing. Death is resurrection. Death is my heart.’ These are only building up to his photos which will follow. The photos are so gruesome, they cause a guest to leave throwing-up. Wieder invites guests to view pictures of the women he murdered. ‘The women looked like broken dismembered manequins.’ Some of the guests are able to identify the victims, two of them were the beloved Garmendia twins. Thanks to Wieder’s status, whatever, it may have been, within the government, he is not tried for the crimes. Military Intelligence take the photos away in a shoebox and Wieder leaves the airforce.
After Wieder disappears and is later presumed dead, he remains a myth to some and still has a sort of cult following. The narrator and his friend Bibiano have a difficult time letting go of the fame he has obtained and the ferocity of the acts he committed. Why on Earth would people be drawn to such a horrible creature? How could they not understand what he had done?
It is not until the narrator says himself, ‘Wieder was a serial killer,’ that I believe it really sinks in for the reader why it is the narrator needs to know where Wieder has gone and what he is doing now. For the narrator and Bibiano, who had been friends with so many others who had disappeared, they must have lived with the fear they might be next for years. While living in Europe, the narrator is approached by Romero, a man being hired to hunt down Carlos Wieder.
They find Wieder, now aged past sixty, at a café reading a book. When the narrator looks at the murderer, he only sees someone ‘self-possessed.’ The narrator is overwhelmed by relief because the man he sees after so many years of worry is not a poet, Airforce Captain, or any of the awful things he remembers. He feels, ‘The feeling of freedom of having finally solved a problem.’ Perhaps his view of Wieder had been about perspective all along. Had Wieder ever really been the larger-than-life monster the Chileans had made him out to be? The truth is word of mouth, memory, time- all of these things lie. The narrator does say throughout the novel that the stories have the possibility of being inaccurate, and maybe they were. Then again, it is possible that Wieder was evil and in old age he became harmless.
Bolano wrote a text which is admittedly perplexing. In life infinite possibilities exist sometimes. There are mysterious people we can never understand and stories for which the truth may never be fully uncovered. When governments, politics, death, fear, guilt, love, and jealousy become involved history must be distorted. I think this was a large part of Bolano’s message. Nothing is as it seems.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information: Roberto Bolano