One of Bolaño’s more imaginative novels. This 1996 novel follows something of a mystery about a man named Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, a man the unnamed narrator first encounters in his college poetry workshop. After the 1973 coup, the narrator winds up in a prison camp for undesirables and while there he witnesses he bizarre spectacle of an aviator flying his plane over the Andes, writing nationalist slogans in the sky. The aviator turns out to be Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, now a pilot in the Chilean Air Force, but using his real name Carlos Wieder. This spectacle is Wieder’s attempt at launching “The New Chilean Poetry”, a project which involves skywriting, torture, photography, murder and verse.
Information about Wider comes in drips and drabs and the narrator’s obsession with Wieder’s story propels the narrative along like an old-fashioned detective novel. It begins years earlier, while the narrator is attending Wieder’s (then Ruiz-Tagle’s) poetry workshop. A dour man, he only had any interest in two beautiful twin sisters - Veronica and Angelica Garmendia. After making numerous visits to the twins’ home, one day they wind up brutally murdered - along with other members of their family - and soon other student members of the Chilean literature world begin to suddenly disappear one by one.
It is while witnessing the skywriting spectacle at the prison camp does the narrator learn that the pilot and the former poetry workshop teacher are one in the same man. The narrator becomes obsessed by Wieder and wants to know his story, who is actually is, and begins to believe that Wieder is the “invisible hand’ behind most of the evil deeds committed during the Pinochet regime. Years later, while the narrator is living in Barcelona, he realizes that his fate is forever intertwined with the mysterious Wieder when a private investigator come looking for him, seeking his help in locating Wieder by having the narrator look for Wieder’s hand behind numerous Neo-Fascist poetry publications.
The story itself would have probably made an interesting short story but Bolaño mixes things up by telling stories about his fellow writers and students and their college days in Chile, complete with obscure references to innovative Latin American writers and poets, interesting tales about some of the people that he had known (which could stand alone as short stories in their own right), and the effects the 1973 coup which ousted Salvador Allende had on a whole generation of writers, artists and intellectuals (not to mention the common people) and how the Pinochet regime found them particularly dangerous to them. Taken together, the novel is clearly about this, with the Wieder narrative the vehicle to move the story forward.
A highly imaginative and interesting novel to say the least, full of great writing and a dose of ironic humor which slightly takes the edge off a very serious subject matter. I’ve yet to read all of Bolaño’s body of work (there is so much of it available since his death) but from what I have read, this one is clearly one of my favorites thus far. Definitely recommended and for those who have never read any of his work, this is a good one to acquaint yourself.