Dead Stars by Álvaro Bisama – A Review

Dead Stars
Álvaro Bisama
Megan McDowell, trans

Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars is a fascinating take on a troubled woman’s failing attempt to survive political violence in Chile. The novel follows Javiera a woman who was beaten and raped by the Chilean secret police during the Pinochet era. She was a committed communist and lost everything, almost dying at the hands of the police as many of her contemporaries did. She is a troubled woman who returns to college, engaging in political activities and taking up with a student years younger than her. It is a rocky relationship and the fights and arguments are legendary among their friends. As the novel progresses it is a relationship that can never turn out well. Why she continues with her brutish lover is hard to understand but she gives up everything for him, even her relationship with the party, sliding farther and farther into obscurity until she only resurfaces in the newspaper with the police.

This is where the narration actually starts. A couple whose tension bubbles throughout the narration as yet another disappointed backdrop, is sitting in a restaurant and stumble on the article in the paper. The article not only shows a tension between the couple, but starts a narrative that is elusive, confrontational, and creates a dialog between what is remember able and what the narrators want to remember.

She said: You’re going to have to listen to me, you owe it to me; we’re going to spend the whole morning on this shit.

It starts just like that: with an image. The two of them sitting together. In the first row. By chance. I stayed in the back. It was the first day of classes. I didn’t talk to anyone. They talked to each other. Maybe that’s what defined everything. The first minute of the years to come, the laws o attraction that would embrace them, the solitude of the rooms they would inhabit and the desert they would flee to, the volume of gray sea’s murmur, like a dream of silence.

Already, Bisama starts to construct the narrative in a series of confrontations and memories. The two narrators are already negotiating what they are willing to construct as they listen to each other and remember what they can.

Their relationship to Javiera is one not one only of friendship, but of animus. She is the older survivor of the dictatorship and the female narrator felt smaller for it: “The past was a liturgy that excluded us from its miracle […] Because we had no share in the tragedy, and we had no right to ask for anything.” The statement puts a line between the veterans of the repression and those too young and now have different expectations, and throughout the novel one has the impression that a form of survivor guilt is at work in Javiera. The narrator doesn’t understand it in those terms but she does understand that the children of the 80’s are not the same politically engaged revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s.

Memory and the reason when remember keeps returning as a theme as the story evolves and the narrator’s try to make sense of what they are saying and why. The female narrator notes

But that’s how I feel now. Poisoned by other people’s stories, by other people’s lives. When I think about those two, that’s how I feel: I feel like the witness to something that no one cares about. That’s why I haven’t stopped talking, that’s why I’m not going to stop talking, she said.

Then the primary narrator chimes in

I didn’t tell her that I did know parts of that story, I didn’t tell her I’d seen Javiera and Donoso in some photos when I went through her old albums trying to get a look at her face back before we’d bet. It was another life. I wasn’t there. But I couldn’t tell her anything, ask her anything. It wasn’t my place.

Each narrator attempts to construct something. She who knew Javiera does it because she has no choice, as if she is obligated. Yet it is an obligation stemming not a deep bond something akin to guilt. And if one is poisoned by another’s stories why repeat them? Why not forget them? He for his part has attempted to construct something that is unconstructable: a image of Javiera that is his and is accurate. He knows it is hers to do.

As the story continues Bisama keeps returning to the question of why the story has to be told, if these two are really not that interesting. Can anything come from this act? It certainly will not bring the two narrators closer. And she only grows more doubtful as time goes on:

Her: Aside from many other things, the past is that: a photo taken in a hotel we wish was our home–false photographs, proof of the life we never had.

Later she rephrases it:

The past is always a newspaper page left behind on the ground, she said.

In each case there little to be gained from remembering the past. These kind of sentiments reflect something generational in the narrators. An escape perhaps from activist era of Javiera and the disillusionment with her behavior. The narrator during college retreats into punk, into rebellion that is not as political and what there is to remember just doesn’t mater.

Bisam’s continual reworking of the narrative purpose makes Dead Stars more than its basic plot suggests. It creates a narrative the questions if it she be told, and yet when read says, yes, it should. Javiera’s life is tragic, all the more so because no one knows what to do with it. She survived the police, but did not become a hero for it and lost herself and her history in the process.