‘Dead Stars’ by Álvaro Bisama (Review)

This is my third review for Spanish-Language Literature Month, but it’s a big welcome to a new writer, and a new publisher.  Ox and Pigeon are a fledgling online presence with a focus on Spanish-language writers, with three works available so far purely in digital form.  After a couple of collections with stories by various writers, their third offering is their first by a single writer – and while it’s fairly brief, it’s a great way to kick things off 🙂

*****
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 😉

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6 thoughts on “‘Dead Stars’ by Álvaro Bisama (Review)

  1. Thanks for the post, Tony–hadn't heard of the author before, but the story sounds like something I'd enjoy and you say the style is even better! Does the work reference Chilean author José Donoso, by the way, or is that one character's name just a coincidence, do you think?

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  2. Richard – I honestly couldn't tell you if there are any allusions as they would have gone right over my head anyway 😉 I have another story by Bisama in one of the collections I talked about above, so it'll be interesting to see if that's written in a similar style.

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