The “Violent Ambiguity” of Roberto Bolano

Photo by Marcos Toledo

“Roberto Bolano’s appearance in the world is great for Latin American literature, for Latin American writers,” Javier Antonio Gonzalez, playwright and artistic director of the theater company Caborca, told me recently. “Even though his work is celebrated everywhere and people connect to it all over the world, he kind of re-opens this door of what Latin American literature is about. He took us away from the cliché of magic realism. As a Puerto Rican you grow up a lot with magic realism. Most of Puerto Rican literature – not all, but most – is about nostalgia, about missing the island and wanting to come back. Yet Bolano presents these stories of exile that are not about that. It doesn’t turn back into blind patriotism or nationalism. Not at all.”

Gonzalez and I were speaking about his adaptation of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s Distant Star, presented by Caborca, the company he founded nearly a decade ago with a group of like-minded artists, which plays at Abrons Arts Center this month (through Oct. 1; tickets $25). Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez became invested in theater at an early age and studied theater and directing at the University of Puerto Rico as an undergrad. “That’s a very special place. A bunch of us met there,” he said of his company. “It’s not the only, but it’s the main place to study theater on the whole island. So it gathers people from all over, all different backgrounds.”

After heading to New York, where he studied directing at Columbia University until 2007, Caborca emerged in 2009 as the vehicle to produce collaborative, ensemble-driven work in theater and film, often though not exclusively written by Gonzalez. They’ve produced nearly a dozen shows since then, in both Spanish and English. But despite the fact that the company takes its name from a reference in a Bolano novel (Caborca is the name of a fictional literary magazine, the organ of the “visceral realist” poets, in The Savage Detectives), Distant Star is the company’s first foray into adapting his work to the stage.

“I think it’s almost a visual thing,” Gonzalez said jokingly of the company’s name. “I saw it on the page in The Savage Detectives. There is that whole ephemeral thing of the theater,” he noted of why the name worked. “Bolano deals a lot with archives, with taking this underground literature out of the underground. So Caborca was very meaningful. But I just loved how it looked on the page.”

Bolano was born in Chile in 1953 and grew up in Mexico City. An idealistic poet and leftist, he returned to his homeland to support Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government, but arrived just in time for Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup on September 11, 1973. According to his hagiography, Bolano was briefly arrested but escaped torture and likely execution (a fate the befell thousands of Chileans) when he was released by a police officer who was a childhood friend. After the coup, he returned to Mexico before moving onto Europe, where he settled into an uncomfortable and impoverished exile in Spain until he took up fiction writing in 1990s, producing a series of internationally acclaimed works before his untimely death in 2003.

His first works were only translated into English around the time of his death, beginning with By Night in Chile, and his major works – The Savage Detectives and his posthumous magnum opus, 2666 – were slowly rolled out in English to escalating praise through the rest of decade, giving Bolano the dubious distinction of becoming the hottest novelist in the world only after his death.

“At the time 2666 was not yet out in English, but suddenly he was everywhere,” recalled Shira Milikowsky, the director of Caborca’s production. “The New Yorker, The New Republic. And there was this rumor of his last book. So it was sort of like, are we sure he’s dead?”

It was Milikowsky who introduced Gonzalez to Bolano’s work. “She told me his life story, and I went to a bookstore and bought one of his books. And it was Distant Star.”

“We started working on this show before Caborca was founded,” David Skeist, the producing director of Caborca who stars in the production, quickly added. “We’ve been working on this play for ten years.”

There’s actually two versions of the story at the heart of Distant Star. The first appears in Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of fascist-leaning writers throughout the Americas. The last entry, “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman,” about a Chilean poet and military officer who commits a series of violent murders, is the longest and most detailed at 25 pages (in a 225-page book). Bolano later took that entry, renamed the character “Carlos Wieder,” and wrapped it inside a detective story to produce the novel-length Distant Star.

Photo by Marcos Toledo

Set in the 1990s, the narrator of Distant Star is one of Bolano’s literary alter egos, a Chilean poet living in exile in Spain after escaping Pinochet’s regime. The first part of the novel explores the narrator’s memories of this Wieder, who, when they met in a poetry group before the coup, was going by the name Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. Diving into his own memory, as well as exploring documents gathered by old friends in Chile, the narrator traces Wieder’s rise from a poetry group misfit to a celebrated icon of the new military regime. The progenitor of a “New Chilean poetry” that gave an avant-garde gloss to the regime’s messianic nationalism, Wieder became a literary star, a military pilot who skywrites his verse. In the early years of the regime, Wieder enjoyed the patronage of the military government, until he staged an art exhibit consisting of photos of his murder victims. Embarrassed, the regime sort of swept Wieder under the rug, allowing him to go into exile and thus avoid any reckoning or accountability following the restoration of democracy. Which gets us to the mystery novel aspect of Distant Star: It emerges that the reason for the narrator’s own engagement with this story is that someone – it’s unclear who – has decided to go after Wieder for revenge. A detective has been hired to track down the globetrotting fascist poet and kill him, and the narrator is one of only a handful of people capable of confirming Wieder’s identity.

Caborca aren’t the first theater artists to tackle Bolano’s work. There have been no less than three epic-length productions of 2666, most recently Julien Gosselin’s in France. (I’ve previously written about adaptations of 2666 in American Theatre, and created a theatrical lecture performance about it myself.) Nevertheless, there’s always a question of precisely what it is that attracts theater makers to Bolano’s work. Discursive, tangential, highly literary, and dense, his novels aren’t plot driven in a way that lend themselves easily to narrative storytelling, nor do his novels tend to feature the sort of scenes of dialogue or action that easily translate into a staging.

Asked about what inspired him to try to adapt Distant Star, Gonzalez didn’t hesitate. “The way he creates this suspense,” he said. “It’s sort of post-dramatic. Because there’s this sense that something should happen, then doesn’t. The way he changes expectations. It’s mostly about this tonal thing that permeates the work and makes you feel a way, and you don’t know why.”

“For me there are set-piece moments in the book where something so visual and so dramatic happens,” Milikowsky explained. “And usually they’re bookended by a narrator saying they may not have happened that way. So when you’re reading it, you go through this dramatic experience of, say, someone writing poetry in skywriting, and we don’t know what it said. Or later in the book, there’s a party happening and an art exhibit, and it turns out the art is all photos of dead people…but it may not have gone that way, no one really knows. So my experience of reading it was, I’m totally engrossed in the event, then I’m told it may not have happened that way. And that to me feels not only theatrical, but the sort of theater I’m interested in. As someone with a literature background, I’m interested in how to do a play with an unreliable narrator.”

In order to honor what Skeist succinctly termed the “violent ambiguity” of Bolano’s prose, Caborca’s adaptation has largely eschewed realist stagings. Gonzalez’s script is structured on the narrator’s voice, and the staging (with set by Jian Jung and lights and video by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) is almost site-specific in its engagement with the architecture of the Underground Theater at Abrons.

“I want to be loyal to Bolano, but also to expose the adaptation,” Gonzalez said of his script. “The fact that we’re adapting in the moment. So there are these loose ends that are not dramatic.”

Skeist plays Arturo Belano, the narrator, as well as Wieder himself, in a sort of diabolical double-casting. The way much of the play occurs is structured around Belano’s narration as a monologue, breaking into scenes performed by the ensemble cast of seven, and in the staging, the company has leaned toward the symbolic rather than realist. The novel is, after all, an exploration of political trauma told through the aegis of a detective story: Memory is imperfect, facts are hidden, truths are distorted. Belano, employed to help kill someone years after his crimes were committed, is forced to grapple with the hidden legacy of a political system that enabled a serial killer to frame his victims as expression of a political radicalism.

All of which makes the end of the novel – a final, anticlimactic showdown in the present in a Spanish café – so tricky.

Photo by Marcos Toledo

“When Romero [the detective-assassin] comes into the story, it’s a whole other play in a way,” Milikowsky told me. “It’s actually radically different from the rest of the play. I’ve struggled with it a lot because, all of a sudden, two people are sitting in chairs talking and it’s also the last 15 minutes of a two-hour show. That’s proven to be the trickiest part, which surprised me because I have a lot of experience in realism, it’s not that foreign to me, but then I’m in these places that should be familiar to me and it’s challenging. Whereas the symbolic parts, with the ensemble, came fairly easily.”

That tension in tone, though, lies at the heart of what the company finds so compelling and powerful about Bolano’s work, and in no small part the difficulty accounts for the artists’ sense of accomplishment in the work itself.

“I do think there is a literalizing that often happens when you take the written word and put it onstage,” Skeist said. “There can be this nailing down or literalizing of the image. Within artistic expression there are fascistic impulses, and there are impulses of resistance. Constructive and destructive impulses. And one of the things that makes Bolano’s work so political is his refusal to nail anything down. The fact that everything becomes a cipher of a cipher of a cipher. An empty box within an empty box. I think the temptation putting his work onstage is to try to literalize it and make it a clear-cut story. And that’s a temptation that we have been grappling with and struggling with and grappling against in ourselves throughout this process.”

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