If you've never read Bolano before you don't know what you have been missing. Like most people I stumbled across him when I first read The Savage Detectives
, which is now out in paperback. I have now read a few of his books and can say that so far what I thought could only have been a one off isn't. Yes, he always seems to write brilliantly.
If you have never read him before you could do worse than start with this book, which is really a novella. Bolano claimed that this story came about due to his last chapter in Nazi Literature in the Americas (New Directions Paperbook)
, which has been now expanded and built upon in this book.
Alberto Ruiz-Tagle appears on the scene in the early seventies; he is a hit with the ladies and everyone seems to think that he is going to be the new face on the poetry scene (even though they don't know what he has written). Alberto is indeed an enigma, the narrator doesn't seem to like him, but this may just be jealousy due to the girls being all over Alberto. Pinochet takes over Chile and things start to change. The poetry groups that our narrator belongs to suddenly have members arrested, and disappearances along with the obvious killing of some of the female members. People move about and go missing, so it is no surprise that Alberto seems to disappear. What becomes apparent is that Alberto, now reincarnated as Carlos Weider (his real name) has something to do with all this. Whilst others are arrested and killed he becomes a flight-lieutenant in the air force. Carlos starts writing his poetry in the skies, flying his plane and using smoke. He even flies over Antarctica to sky write some of his stuff. As things become worse due to the Pinochet coup our narrator manages to leave the country, but still remaining in contact with his friend Bibiano.
Carlos Weider seems to be the golden boy of the new regime, until he embarasses his rulers with his photographic exhibition. The exhibition is closed and Carlos disappears, however he doesn't seem to be arrested. Over time rumours start to spread about Carlos, he is seen in Latin America, and then in Europe, using different names and doing different things. He is involved in a weird craze callled barbaric writing; our narrator finds out that he was also a cameraman on some hard-core and violent porno movies. With Romero, an ex-policeman our narrator tracks down Carlos only to discover the inevitable, that Romero has been sent to kill Carlos.
Slightly surreal, Bolano gets us to think about whether art should be art for it's own sake, the nature of true evil, and the absudities and horrors of any dictatorship. Of course, like all Bolano books this is semi autobiographical, but this book really does something to explain the Chilean mentality, and why there were questions of what to do with Pinochet a few years ago. All in all a fantastic read that really gets you thinking and will haunt you long after you have finished it.