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In its synecdochic mapping of two rival poetry scenes run by the Chilean poets Juan Stein and Diego Soto in the two years between Salvador Allende’s election and Augusto Pinochet’s September 11, 1973 coup, and its story of the rise and fall over the next two decades of the enigmatic avant-garde poet Carlos Wieder, Bolaño’s 1996 Distant Star continues and deepens his investment in the novel as a form for exploring poetry and politics, history and literary history, by other means (“de otra manera”). Characterized by Marta Posadas, a medical student and aspiring Marxist critic who writes prose poems, as the poet who will “revolutionize Chilean poetry,” Wieder is the central figure of a novel of poetic apprenticeship at once national and transnational, aesthetic and political, focusing on the choices aspiring poets of Bolaño’s generation faced from their late teens through their early forties. In the transatlantic arc of the novel’s final three chapters, which takes the detective Abel Romero’s search for Wieder from Chile to Spain, Bolaño figures both the ambivalence of his attraction to detective fiction at the expense of a more exclusive orientation toward poetry, and the irresistible pull of his work in that direction.
The manuscript of collected verse and prose poems Bolaño began assembling in 1993 under the title “Fragmentos de la Universidad Desconocida,” published posthumously in 2007 as The Unknown University, marks a pivotal moment in his career. Bringing to a close his lifelong aspiration to gain recognition primarily as a poet, its three-part construction, with Antwerp at its center (recycled and retitled as People Going Away), signals a decisive transition and reorientation of Bolaño’s writing priorities over the course of his final decade. Positioning as “one of the wings / of the Unknown University!”–but only one–the verse poetry he had loved all his life but come to find as limiting as Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud had found it to be a century-and-a-half earlier, The Unknown University sets the stage for one of the most productive decades any writer has known. Following quite logically on the farewell to poetry as verse that is The Unknown University, Bolaño published only three years later, in 1996, the breakthrough year of his career, the condensed, prose-poetic fiction of Nazi Literature of the Americas and the novel of poetic apprenticeship this is in fundamental respects both its companion text and its sequel, Distant Star.
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