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.


The Portable Museum Vol 1 featuring Ortuño, Morábito, Bisama, Vila-Matas – A Review

The Portable Museum Vol 1
Featuring Antonio Ortuño, Fabio Morábito, Alvaro Bisama, Enrique Vila-Matas
Ox and Pigeon, 2013

Ox and Pigeon is a small press dedicated to publishing international literature in translation. So far they have brought out two e-books with short stories from the Spanish. In this volume they have short stories from Antonio Ortuño, Fabio Morábito, Alvaro Bisama, and Enrique Vila-Matas. Vila-Matas is the most famous on the list with several books already translated into English. I have read one of Fabio Morábito’s books (review here) and enjoyed it and was looking forward to reading his story. From all the criticism I’ve read his style is always heralded as very clean and pure. Antonio Ortuño and Alvaro Bisama I was unfamiliar with. The stories are varied, from the fantastical to the more meta, all revolving around the theme of relationships.

From the start the authors show a willingness to expand the idea of a relationship. In The Japanese Garden, Antonio Ortuño writes of a man whose father hires him a prostitute when he is 9 years old. From there his life is consumed by the thought of the prostitute and into adulthood. The story, though, is not a warning about the dangers of such an early encounter, but a study in eccentric longing. While one might suggest his longing is damaged goods, there is a humor to the story that suggests that while he is wasting his time and money pursuing her, the kind of attachment he has is just as normal as a man might have for a long lost love that was not a prostitute.

Fabio Morábito’s story The Mothers (download the pdf) is a fantastical piece that depicts “the mothers” as a creatures who take to the trees at the beginning of June and become a type of plague, threatening the inhabitants of the town. They spend their time capturing men and doing as they wish for the month. When the mothers have spent their energies laying fruit in the trees they return to their homes where their families, exhausted, their work done. It is a fascinating renvisioning of procreation that shows the dynamics that underlie those of reality. The mothers are at once needed, both in the home and for the creation of the fruits, but also a bother that one must put up with. It is dark cometary and Morábito’s story is the strangest of the four.

Alvaro Bisama’s Nazi Girl is the most transgressive of the bunch. Narrated by a Chilean woman who was raised by parents who were Hitler fanatics, and who were also Catholic supporters of Pinochet. Bisama creates a world in which the martial aesthetics of Nazi Germany, in part personified by the eroticism that can be found in the likes of Leni Riefenstahl, become an intoxicating mix of sex and domination. It is a disturbing image and at first look the transgression looks like glorification, but Bisama is criticizing the glorification of dictatorships and the objectification of power that comes with it. It is a delicate balance to try and avoid glorying Hitler. I think Bisama has succeed.

Finally, Enrique Vila-Matas’ story about a man caught in a love triangle is interesting not so much for the triangle, but the way the story is told. All through the story the narrator has to battle with her grandmother over the veracity of her story. It is an interesting approach to story telling that I think is, from what I’ve read, an window into his style in general.

All the stories in the collection very good and highlight interesting work. Of the authors in the collection, I’m most interested to see what some of Bisama’s other work is like.

FTC Notice: The publisher gave me the book. I thank them for that.

An Alternate Bolaño in Exile – a Short Story from Álvaro Bisama

Letras Libres has a short story from the Chilian author Álvaro Bisama in its July issue. It follow the life of an exile who returns to Chile in 1988 after a 14 year exile. The man is an artist (se dedica al arte, pinta, escribe, dibuja, esculpe, lo que quiere decir que no se dedica a nada / he dedicates himself to art, painting, writing, drawing, sculpture, which is to say he dedicates himself to nothing) who lives in Valparaiso. He spends his time going to bars, meeting women, reading, and studying an obscure book of poetry by a mysterious and obscure poet. He reads like a character from Bolaño or a version of  Bolaño as if he had returned to Chile. The exile tries to turn the book into a novel then a movie script, which is for this man, is a Sisyphean task. The poet is a strange man who believes in Lovecraft’s phantasms and is more interested in narrating stories about surrealist poets who eat them selves in acts straight from Dali. Crypta is told in a very plain style and one has the sense of gloominess that overhangs every thing. Isolation is everywhere, between the exile and the people he knows, and the exile and the reader, as much of what we know of the exile are his actions, not his thought. The exile’s life is as if the exile continues at home, and most of all becomes a form of exile that one never returns from.

I’m not sure if the story is enough to make me want to read more yet. But you can read some interview with him here and here.

Tiene treinta años y viene llegando del exilio. Es 1988 y desembarca en el puerto. No importa su nombre en esta historia que, si se mira bien, es solo una anécdota. Lo que dejó atrás es la memoria de una infancia donde existían otros colores, otros aromas. Se fue el 74, lo que recuerda –la memoria es una lejanía desolada– es el vértigo y un mundo que desapareció. Pero nada más. No le interesa recordar. Así que eso es todo, ese es el punto de partida. Así que recapitulemos: borrón y cuenta nueva al regreso, treinta años, 1988, el puerto. Eso basta para comenzar. A su llegada, no tiene un trabajo seguro. Vive en la casa de una pareja de amigos. Él es profesor y ella enfermera.

La casa queda en los altos del cerro que se eleva en el punto exacto donde alguna vez estuvo el barrio rojo de la ciudad. Sobre ese barrio rojo se escribieron novelas y se filmaron películas pero ahora ya no queda nada salvo eso: las películas y los libros. Pero la vista desde su balcón es impresionante. Cuando se levanta, puede ver la bahía al amanecer y la lentitud de los buques al entrar y salir de la rada. Hace durar los ahorros. Les paga un arriendo mínimo a sus amigos y se dedica al arte, pinta, escribe, dibuja, esculpe, lo que quiere decir que no se dedica a nada; simplemente deambula por el puerto, bebe en los bares, se escurre en la frágil bohemia de los fines de dictadura. A veces se acuesta con novias ocasionales, muchachas que le preguntan por su acento, sus viajes y con las cuales comparte algunas tardes. Él, se hace entender, es poeta y, por ende, lee mucho.

Aquello es falso pero no demasiado, lee mucho pero no es poeta. Alguna vez lo publicaron en una antología sueca de escritores en el exilio. Como todos los de la antología era una copia triste de Nicanor Parra. Pero da lo mismo. Lo que importa: una de las muchachas con las que se acuesta le presta un libro.