A Great Cloud Falls Over Chile, or Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

Poetry is not the center of politics, anymore. In fact, much of the things that used to be the center of a community – church, local agriculture, poetry, music – have been destabilized by the information age and the economy that has resulted. Everything that is of value, now, is made cheaply, in mass quantities, for a technologically-connected world. It is next to impossible to make a living anymore at local-level agriculture, poetry, music, and even church faces her challenges as the community dissolves into agnosticism and the aging population dwindles naturally. Once upon a time, poets were murdered in their sleep, and important enough to be murdered in their sleep.

Naturally, it is hard to reset the mind for a modern reader to comprehend why poetry could be so important, so dangerous, that the Garmendia sisters – twin poetesses expressing their socialist ideals in verse – must be raped, murdered, disappeared, along with their family in the night when Pinochet’s coup violently swallowed the nation of Chile. Still, in 1973, perhaps, poetry was still important enough. The idea of poetry, after all, is the pure, exalted state of idea, where minds can express with utmost clarity from one mind to another, and can infect minds with ideas expressed beautifully.

The book Distant Star  by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, gives a close and personal look into Pinochet’s Chile from the view of the poets. Young men and women, students at a University, met with a mentor to workshop their poems, pursue publication, and all other respects engage in the life of the mind. One of the men in the workshop is not what he seems. He is popular with the women of the workshop, including the beautiful Garmendia twins, and even the less-attractive but intelligent and talented woman the other two young men clearly respect. And, his poetry, in the workshop, always seems… off. No one can put their finger on it, but it is like the ideas are not quite original, or there is something very familiar to the poems, as if they are copies of poems from somewhere else. Yet, the Garmendia sisters insist this copycat is secretly one of the great poets. It is a mystery.

It is also a mystery that is quickly solved. He is a German descendant of Nazis, and a key officer in Pinochet’s revolution. He is an executioner and cleaner that was seeking out Socialists to be picked up, interrogated, possibly raped, possibly disappeared. He is also a skilled pilot, and a skywriter. After the revolution, he becomes the voice of the dictatorship with his poetry written in the clouds, themselves. It is as if he is the voice of heaven, or gives the voice of heaven to the regime. Much of his sky poetry is done in old Latin. Much of it is done as public spectacle to a community of prisoners, terrified men, who look up and cannot even appreciate the poems. He takes his poetic too far, and there is a long section in Europe, where the survivors have fled to escape Pinochet’s terrible regime. In Europe, the poet and pilot disappears into the air, itself, a myth and rumor and mystery, and a fallen star, once proud and bright.

The book explores closely the relationship between all those poetry journals and political power. Men and women from all walks of life are drawn to create poems, create journals, express their ideas and marvelous manifestoes. This is to say that the terrible ideas, as expressed in poetry, are both the root of the problem where bad ideas flourish, become fascism, murders in the night, etc., but also that the poetry is the cure. Poetry was so dangerous, once. It was so powerful, once. It used to be the center of politics and faith and culture. A fascinating book looking into a world where poetry matters, Distant Star calls to question the values of our own society, where the arts flounder on the shoals of raw commerce, and oligarchs accumulate authority and influence to hold back the floods, when they come, from the lesser peoples. There’s the final journal of fascism, where working class men will ritually defile great works of literature, peeling pages off and eating them, shitting on them, etc., to prepare for their own work. In this journal, the Fascist is found among the disillusioned working men. In this expression of the powerless, where all the young survivors of the poetry workshop, older now, have given up, gotten jobs, and moved on from their dreams of great works of art, these broken and defective men have never surrendered, to the point of madness. The man who would carve his poems into heaven, itself, swelling with pride at his great works of art, and his great works of murdering political dissidents, like an angel is not truly allowed to die. He is probably killed, but it happens off-screen, far away from the reader and the narrator. It is like a specter disappearing into the air, itself. A cloud puff fades, a word is uttered, and in the end, the world has already moved on.

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