The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Chile (2)

Monday
Feb042019

The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Published in Spain in 2018; published in translation by Penguin Press on February 5, 2019

The Spirit of Science Fiction is an early novel that foreshadows Roberto Bolaño's later and stronger work. It was published posthumously.

While the novel begins with the interview of a writer who has won an award for his book of poetry, most of the novel is set in the past. Jan Schrella is a 17-year-old unpublished writer of science fiction, living in Mexico City with Remo. Jan is Chilean and, as he writes in a letter to Ursula K. LeGuin, Remo also “claims to be from Chile.” The story eventually suggests that Jan is Bolaño’s alter ego, although Remo is the novel’s narrator and main character. The Spirit of Science Fiction certainly has the feel of a fictionalized autobiography, although one wonders whether there might be more of Bolaño in Remo than in Jan.

Remo scrapes out a living writing book reviews and magazine articles about historic crimes. Their parents contribute the rest of their living expenses. Remo socializes while Jan writes letters to science fiction editors and writers. Some are fan letters, some recount his dreams, some contain ideas for stories, some ask the writers to pay attention to Latin America.

To alleviate his boredom (and because this is a Bolaño novel), Remo begins to attend a poetry workshop. There seems to have been an explosion of poetry workshops in Mexico, or maybe that’s just a rumor started by a mimeographed cultural weekly they get from a mysterious woman named Estrellita, who might be a poet and might be living with a son who is an artist, although the details of Estrellita’s life might also be based on rumor. In any event, Remo and José Arco decide to investigate the state of Mexican poetry. They find clues in graffiti. They listen to a professor discuss fate and the lack of meaning in poetry magazines, a discussion that provokes Remo, who believes that South Americans from poor countries are motivated by pride in their national poetry.

Remo meets and instantly feels romantic inclinations toward a woman named Laura, in the tradition of Latin men of romance (within hours of meeting her, she is “gradually turning into everyone and everything”). He pronounces his love for her before the evening is done, while she ponders how to break the news to her boyfriend. Yet Remo can’t get an erection because, paradoxically, their first kiss is too intimate a time for love-making.

Enigmatic characters populate Remo’s life, all of whom seem to have a hidden intellect and a desire to write poetry, including the toothless young mechanic who sells him a stolen motorcycle named Aztec Princess and the woman who complains that Jan has disrespected literature by constructing a table from science fiction paperbacks. The characters and their actions often have a surrealistic feel.

In the novel’s last section, Remo and Laura explore Mexican bathhouses and the erotic (or not) possibilities they inspire when strangers knock on the door. The ending comes across as Bolaño deciding he needed to end the story somewhere, but it abandons all the other characters, giving that section of the story a disconnected feel. Still, the lives of the characters and the atmosphere that Bolaño creates make it easy to recommend The Spirit of Science Fiction, perhaps as a prelude to his outstanding The Savage Detectives.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb072018

Dark Echoes of the Past by Ramón Díaz Eterovic

First published in Chile in 2008; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on December 1, 2017

Dark Echoes of the Past takes place in Santiago. The Pinochet dictatorship has ended, but as the book’s title suggests, it has not been forgotten. Or perhaps too many people have forgotten it too quickly.

Heredia is a private investigator. He rarely has clients so he earns a meager living reviewing books about politics or economics. His girlfriend’s former math teacher wants him to investigate her brother’s death. Her brother, Germán Reyes, was shot in the street, but his money was left untouched, suggesting that the police are wrong in believing the crime was an ordinary robbery.

Reyes was tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship, but that was long ago, so why should he now be murdered? The only clue from a search of the dead man’s apartment is a flyer that mentions Werner Ginelli, a doctor. Many years earlier, a “performance art” group outed Ginelli for his role as a torturer, but again, what does that have to do with the murder?

When one of Reyes’ co-workers starts asking questions about him, the co-worker also dies, giving Heredia another line of investigation. The mystery, of course, leads to the past, and to torturers who have avoided justice. The story reveals the ways in which military governments, like civil wars, pit family members against each other as they choose sides in a national conflict. It also discusses the role that Chilean military officers played in making international black market arms deals. And it makes the point, relevant in every time and nation, that: “Sometimes truth and justice move in opposite directions.”

Heredia spends more time philosophizing than detecting. He also carries on conversations with his sarcastic cat. Sometimes the cat is wiser than Heredia. Sometimes Heredia comes across as a bit pretentious; other times, he has something to say (particularly about people who support authoritarian government) that is worth the reader’s time. Like many South American intellectuals, Heredia makes a point of telling other characters that he keeps South American poetry alive by reading it. My impression is that he likes to talk about reading it more than he likes to read it.

Heredia’s personality is also too determinedly noir. He comes across as someone who wants to model himself after Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. That isn’t a bad model, but Heredia struck me as a self-satisfied poser, not as a true noir character. I recognize, however, that my feelings might be different if I knew more about the norms of Chilean culture.

Fortunately, I liked the story more than I liked Heredia or his philosopher cat. The mystery branches in several directions before the reader learns the full truth. The truth sheds light on Chile’s dark past, but also on human nature. All of that easily overcomes the annoying nature of the central character.

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