Álvaro Bisama - a story-within-a-story set against the backdrop of Chile’s transition to democracy after decades under the Pinochet dictatorship, filled with characters desperately searching for a way to escape their past, their present, their future: a small-town metalhead; left-wing revolutionaries without a new cause; a brotherhood of cough syrup addicts; punks, prostitutes, and thieves
Álvaro Bisama, Dead Stars, Trans. by Megan McDowell, Ox and Pigeon, 2014.
An unnamed couple sits in a café, waiting for the city offices to open so they can finalize their divorce papers. The wife opens the local newspaper to a shocking photo of a classmate from her university days being taken into custody by the police. In an engrossing ebb and flow of facts, recollections, and conjecture, the couple spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how this former acquaintance—and, like her, the couple themselves, along with an entire generation of Chileans—could have reached this dead end almost unconsciously. Álvaro Bisama’s award-winning novel Dead Stars is a story-within-a-story set against the backdrop of Chile’s transition to democracy after decades under the Pinochet dictatorship, filled with characters desperately searching for a way to escape their past, their present, their future: a small-town metalhead; left-wing revolutionaries without a new cause; a brotherhood of cough syrup addicts; punks, prostitutes, and thieves. Through them, Bisama’s tragic novel explores how our choices, the people we know, the places we pass through, and the events of our lives exert an unsuspected influence long after their light has gone out and they have faded from our memory.
While Bolaño narrated the blackout during the first years of the Pinochet regime in Distant Star, Dead Stars describes an equally dark outlook in the years of transition. If the former tried to answer the question, ‘Where were you during the coup?’, the latter asks instead, ‘Where were you when Kurt Cobain died?’ - Marcelo Soto
The brevity of Bisama’s novel is matched by the precision of his language, just the right words in a love story irreversibly doomed to failure. - Tito Matamala
Imagine if W.G. Sebald numbered his paragraphs. Imagine if he shucked many of those long, discursive takes on architecture and history. And imagine he abandoned his peripatetic plots and instead wrote about doomed and melancholy lovers. Perhaps this gives something of the aesthetic flavor of Álvaro Bisama’s novel Dead Stars, published in Spanish in 2010, but only now appearing in an English translation by Megan McDowell, the first from digital publishing house Ox and Pigeon.
Dead Stars is composed of nested stories centered on a newspaper picture of Javiera, as she is being arrested for an unknown crime. This madeleine, glimpsed by an unnamed couple, initiates a long conversation at the Hesperia Café in Valparaiso, Chile, “when the Laguna Verde forests were on fire and the wind from the south blew the black smoke over the hills on the horizon.” The couple is sitting in the sight of enormous mirrors, where their own “dark and twisted” reflections are looking back at them. This fey setting fits the couple, who have settled at the café to wile away their remaining anxious hours as lovers. They have nothing really to say to each other—are only still together for the barest of physical reasons, it seems—and are reading newspapers, the man says, “in order to avoid mentioning what was happening to us in the final hours of our life together.” The status quo is irrupted when the newspaper picture resurrects, directly and indirectly, much of their respective pasts.
The novel’s heart, though, lays with Javiera and her inamorato Donoso, friends of the unnamed woman. It is Javiera—a firebrand, a communist, Youth League member, candidate for office, torture victim of the Pinochet regime who lived to tell about it—whose passions swell the story. While Javiera and Donoso, the pages prove, are a volatile couple themselves, the primary drama is not whether they will be doomed like the man and the woman (something that seems quickly evident) but how exactly the relationship will die. As the woman says, Javiera and Donoso
…lived happily for two years and then it all went to hell. They didn’t break up, but something went rotten. I was there when everything fell apart. That was my good fortune, or bad. To be there, walking along behind them.
Even reconciliation can be tragic. As we drill deeper and deeper into their relationship—they keep splitting and getting back together, despite beatings, miscarriages, affairs, the departure of Pinochet—any hope of reconciliation between the unnamed couple turns to ash (right along with the forest). It is testament to the bleakness of this novel that the dissolution of the relationship between the man and the woman is the closest thing here to a victory. Javeria and Donoso stayed together too long; the man and the woman are intent on splitting up while there are no casualties. As the unnamed man thinks:
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 met. It was another life…I looked over at the reflection of our life in common, the reflection of my head rising up behind the Hesperia’s bar. That would be one of the thousand things I’d never tell her.
Bisama glides this mystery along, poetic numbered paragraph by paragraph, with packed sentences. Some sections verge on prose poems; the language is always exacting—the result of McDowell’s translation, which captures the plainness in every foreboding detail. The language is straightforward, stripped down, details replaced with metaphors: the woman loses contact with Javiera and Donoso, who became “just rumors…they spoke with other people’s voices, they became echoes”; and reflecting on their life together, the woman tells the man: “We’re the black sea in those photos. The dirty surface of the ocean that everything sinks into.” Like the coffee the man and woman are drinking, the lines are bitter but invigorating.
A literary critic and multiple novelist, Bisama seems to be drilling down into a core idea about the suppression of memories, the very suppression of our pasts, which control our interpretations—and more about us than we realize. Early on, Javiera appears to have moved past the abuse she suffered under Pinochet, but the rest of her life functions as a convincing case against the idea—as a sort of recidivism. Here is a melancholy core, the cryptic agony of what cannot return. The past, the woman says, is “a photo taken in a hotel we wish was our home—false photographs, proof of the life we never had” and “always a newspaper page left behind on the ground…” What we remember seems to be as much fiction as fact: memory “turns into something that only works by hearsay, that works like a story told by someone else.” It is ultimately impossible to distinguish the truth from interpretation: “memory is just an infinity of songs playing one after another like a single indistinguishable murmur…”
In the book’s final section, Bisama does not pull any punches, although the end of Dead Stars is actually a haymaker. After the doomed couple’s connection dissolves completely, and after the horrifying revelation of Javiera is made clear, the entire world goes to shit: “The city burned down, it disappeared. The sky filled up with dead stars.” We have pushed forward, in two sentences, to the end of Valparaiso and then to the end of the universe. Whether this apocalypse is metaphorical is perhaps irrelevant. Even the stars, the eternal lights, must cease. What was a breakup, then, to the death of the universe? Or even love, sex, death, or birth? What was Pinochet? What were bad memories? - Greg Walklin
Álvaro Bisama's Dead Stars (translated by Megan McDowell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novella in eighty-four brief chapters, and a story within a story. The book begins with two unnamed narrators having coffee in the city, waiting for offices to open (to let them get on with the business of dissolving their marriage...). Their plans are altered, however, when the woman opens the newspaper and sees a photograph of a woman she once knew - a woman who has just been arrested.
Shocked by the picture, the woman then turns to her husband, the real first-person narrator, and begins to tell him all about Javiera, the woman she met during her university days. As the words pour out of her mouth, we learn all about the charismatic friend and her young lover, Donoso. However, Bisama's novella is a story that's just as much about the couple in the café - and the country they live in - as about the woman in the newspaper...
Javiera is, though, the stand-out character of the book, a woman with an impressive past:
"Javiera use to talk so loudly that sometimes you'd think she was shouting. The next day we heard half her life in five minutes, when she asked us to stay after class to choose a student representative. Of course, we immediately elected her. That day, she told us she'd been expelled in the eighties. She told us how the rector had called for her head and she was kicked out of school. She left the country. The rest of us had all been just kids back then. None of our life stories could compete with hers."
Chapter 8 (Ox and Pigeon, 2014)
In a time of caution and moderation, Javiera is a woman who makes no secret of her political leanings. Having suffered horribly under the previous regime, she's determined to make herself heard, the one person who refuses to hide in the shadows.
The crux of the story is her meeting with Donoso in class. The younger man becomes her lover, the start of a tempestuous affair that eventually goes sour. There's an underlying clash of cultures between the die-hard revolutionary and the more pragmatic middle-class, post-Pinochet kid, and the two eventually struggle to really understand each other. Perhaps it's a little too tempting to read a lot into these generational differences, though...
However, as mentioned above, while Javiera and Donoso dominate the story, we constantly return to our nameless, disillusioned couple. From the vantage point of their seats outside the café, they cast an eye back on a different time, the unexpected photograph in the paper reminding them of their own experiences (including depression and addictions). In many ways, the end of the marriage is a suitable metaphor for the crushing inertia felt in the country after the euphoria of a potential change of direction.
While the story is fascinating, Dead Stars stands out mostly for its style. It consists of a series of brief chapters, highly effective, several of them consisting of simple one-sentence gems:
"You remember Valparaíso back then? she said. I said: Yes, the whole city was in ruins." (Chapter 16)
In many ways, it's a recital, an outpouring of memories, and the story of Javiera is representative of a communal need to release the suffering. The story is written in short, plain sentences for the most part, communicating the apathy felt after the draining oppression.
With Chilean authors writing about the years of oppression, there's always an elephant in the room, and there's certainly a Bolaño influence, in themes if not in style. Of course, it would be hard for a Chilean writer not to mine that particular vein given the country's recent history. Dead Stars has a foreword by Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean writer, poet and literary critic, which touches on the era and looks at why the characters would feel and act the way they do. For most Anglophone readers, though, this is probably still not quite enough, and it might be a good idea to briefly look up the history of the era (Chile in the 1980s and 1990s).
In short, Dead Stars is a story of a melancholy time, seen through two relationships, where the hope of the past has gone, leaving ruins in its wake:
"The university was truly the museum of a revolution that never came, a resistance that had been slaughtered in the trenches." (Chapter 19)
Depressing? Grim? Yes - but an excellent little read all the same :)
If you're looking for more from Bisama, Ox and Pigeon give you some tips on their website, including a short story in one of their previous collections. Issue 1 of The Portable Museum contains Bisama's 'Nazi Girl', along with stories by three other Spanish-language writers (including a certain Enrique Vila-Matas...). That's a book I'm sure I'll be checking out soon too ;) - Tony Malone
Reading Megan McDowell’s (Under this Terrible Sun) clean, crisp translation of Alvaro Bisama’s Premio Municipal de Literatura award winning novel Dead Stars is a bit like cutting into an onion. Like it or not, regardless of how deep the slice or how many layers you ultimately choose to peel back, you will experience a strong chemical reaction.
The story opens in the country of Chile on the threshold of an ending. Early one morning an unnamed woman and her husband sit together peacefully in a café waiting for the very moment that the doors to city hall will swing open so that they can casually walk in together and terminate their marriage. Passing the time, this nameless woman happens to open a newspaper. Unexpectedly, its contents will reshape her predetermined outline for the day and perhaps even her destiny as a whole. For what she finds staring back at her is a distressing photograph of a former college classmate and friend named Javiera. The reason for her noteworthy appearance is left unrevealed until the very end of the novel, but regardless of whatever the circumstances may be, it triggers a sudden, difficult, and perhaps unwelcome trip down memory lane for both the unnamed woman and her soon-to-be ex-husband.
You could arm yourself only with an understanding of this surface level plot and easily be swept away by the heartbreaking beauty of both Bisama’s tale and McDowell’s urgent, straight-forward translation of it. Armed with the pacing of a master storyteller and the heart of a soul that’s wise well beyond his years, Bisama has crafted something that’s not only memorable for its lavish intricacies, but is also extremely accessible in spite of them. The unnamed woman, her unnamed husband, and her former friend are all splendidly realized characters. They’re deeply flawed, but they’re desperately searching for a way to ease both their personal pain and that of their country.
Music plays a significant role in the story. In fact in her college days the unnamed woman was a cough syrup swilling punk rocker who loved listening to Nirvana and The Dead Kennedys. Kurt Cobain’s death is touched upon, and in that moment I was transported back in time myself, to a memory of turning on the radio in my car while driving and wondering why Nirvana was being played back-to-back-to back. I remember pulling into my driveway just as the DJ returned to repeat the announcement I had missed: Kurt Cobain had killed himself. I stumbled into my house a bit stunned, grabbed my $10 imported All Apologies CD single, and played Moist Vagina on repeat five or six times while I stared blankly at the wall. I knew that for me music had forever changed, but I didn’t understand exactly how. As this unnamed woman narrates her past, the soundtrack to her life enhances what is already a tragic story, elevating it beyond words; to a place that all of us who happen to reminisce whenever a particular song or band unexpectedly pulls us back in time to a long buried moment can easily understand. Things out her control are forcing her world to change, but she can’t quite grasp the magnitude of what’s to come.
Finally there’s the setting. For as things continue to disappear throughout the story – a marriage, a friendship, a boyfriend, a dream of a happy life – so do actual people thanks to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. During his 17 year rule it’s estimated that 1,200-3,200 people were killed and another 110,000 tortured. Dead Stars finds the country at a crossroads as it transitions to democracy after the late 1980s plebiscite that successfully managed to oust Pinochet from power. Because of this, its characters struggle to achieve both personal and public change through extreme actions without really understanding the full implications of what that change will bring. They’re often left to wonder “what if,” to fill in the missing gaps in time with wholly invented scenarios in order to comprehend what’s occurred.
When you look up at the night sky and peer at the brightly burning stars, what you’re really staring at is the past, for those lights you’re seeing burned out and died long ago. Dead Stars takes a striking look back into the difficult life of a woman and the dissatisfaction of a country, and reminds us that even though the moments may have passed, the choices we made are forever shaping our present and future lives. - Aaron Westerman
I said when I reviewed Zenith hotel that so far in 2014 I had read two stunning books ,well this is the second one .Alvaro Bisama Grew up around Villa Alemana .He studied Playa Ancha university before coming a columnist after university .He also started writing .He also got a master’s degree from university of Chile ,where he worked on the website Mariano Aguirre alongside Alejandro Zambra ,also with Zambra he was on Hay festival Bogotá 39 of the best 39 writers under 39 .he has published seven books including four novels .
We’d be down in the port ,at Hesperia ,cafe 8.30 .Talking about whatever .She’d be chain-smoking ,and I would shred the skin of my lips with my teeth .Those nervous habits were all we had left in those days .
Opening both sat at a cafe ,waiting when they read the paper .
Dead stars ,strangely enough starts of a bit like Marias The infatuations in a cafe ,it is the end of a relationship a couple is using the cafe every time they visit there lawyers to finalize the details of their divorce .Anyway one day they are sat there reading the paper when they discover an article mentioning Javiera a women they both knew when they were studying .Now in a rather Proustian moment we go back into the history to the early post -Pinochet years of the 90’s and this couple when they first meet at college discovering them selcves ,Chiles past and forging their own ways and Political views ,that at a later date will have a big impact on each of them .How there lives all intersect in a backdrop of Grunge ,pink music ,drink and drugs and drug addiction .They remember what happened along the way til the point their respective lives split .
She said it all comes back at once ,it all comes back so suddenly .The photo opens the door .My memory is the room .
The proustian moment of remembering where they both met and the story began .
Now I was thinking of something to compare this with and the way my mind works the first thing that struck me was a piece of art .the Simon starling piece Shed Boat Shed ,where he took shed and this was the couple at the start of the book ,then made the shed into a boat and that like this book is a journey into the past is a voyage of discovery .Then we get back to the present and like the rebuilt shed in the piece it isn’t quite the same .I feel that covers the book well it is about rediscovering ones self ,a collective past and also a country struggling with a violent past and the fallout due to that ,these quiet unknown years after pinochet when the shadows are still there but people don’t always see them ,not til they are sat looking back .It was also nice to be reminded of some of the music of the time and to discover some artist I didn’t know or remember .Bisama is one to watch and great on Ox and Pigeon the small electronic publisher to finally bring one of the brightest hopes of Latin American fiction to us in English . - winstonsdad
Meaning pours from the pages of this unassuming novella, Dead Stars by Chilean author Alvaro Bisama. From the ambiguous yet profound title and cover art, to the conflicted and hearts and minds of the characters and their country, there is so much more to this work than initially meets the eye.
To say my knowledge of Chilean political history was limited prior to reading Dead Stars is a gross understatement – it was almost non-existent. I make this point, not because it is something I’m proud of – quite the opposite in fact – but because one need not have a detailed understanding of the political turmoil that transpired in this country to be affected by this tale.
Bisama’s writing (and that of translator Megan McDowell) exudes such intensity that at times a perceptive reader feels stunned, and must stop and reflect. From confronting imagery,
… in those days, when the Laguna Verde forests were on fire and the wind from the south blew the black smoke over the hills on the horizon. With that dark sky hanging over the port, I couldn’t help but think how those ashes floating in the air were like the ashes from concentration camp ovens or the flecks of human skin an atomic bomb leaves behind.
to the evocation of the mood of the youth post-Pinochet,
That tragedy told like a volatile fable, inscrutable in its commonplaces. Because the past was made of old light, she said. The past was a liturgy that excluded us from its miracle, she said. Because we had no share in the tragedy, and we had no right to ask for anything… our lot was only wooziness and hangover. The time of blood and vertigo was over. Our fate was to sit on the floor and listen in silence to the war stories.
I found myself re-reading and highlighting passage after passage.
In spite of the haunting and reflective nature of Dead Stars, it is surprisingly well-paced. Bisama’s use of short chapters and interchanging narrative viewpoint sustaining a compelling tension. The only weakness I could identify relates to the story-within-a-story framework. There were fleeting occasions my understanding of which ‘she’ the primary narrator, the husband, was referring to – his wife or the woman within the tale his wife was recounting to him – became blurred.
This is a perfect example of why I make time for translated fiction and its growing accessibility, one of the indisputable positives from the emergence of ebooks. -
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. -
Álvaro Bisama (Valparaíso, Chile, 1975) is a writer, cultural critic, and professor. In 2007, he was selected as one of the 39 best Latin American authors under the age of 39 at the Hay Festival in Bogota. Estrellas muertas (Dead Stars), his third novel, won the 2011 Santiago Municipal Prize for Literature and the 2011 Premio Academia, given out by the Chilean Academy of Language for the best book of 2010. His most recent novel, Ruido (Noise), was published in 2013.