DEAD STARS by Alvaro Bisama, Book Review

Dead Stars Synopsis: 

Dead Stars Alvaro Bisama

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.

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

(Ox and Pigeon)

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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.

Alvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars would not be considered an uplifting story, but it and the many intimations contained are unmistakably powerful and broadly applicable — none more so for me than whenever we see shadow there must also be light.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5  —  Overall 4.5

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BOOK DETAILS: Dead Stars by Alvaro Bisama ( Kobobooks | Amazon | B&N )

Genre: Drama, Literature, Translation

About the Author, Alvaro Bisama

Álvaro Bisama (Valparaíso, Chile, 1975) is a writer, cultural critic, and professor. In 2007, he was selected as one of thirty-nine best Latin American authors under the age of thirty-nine 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 and was a finalist for the Premio Altazor.

Translator : Megan McDowell is a literary translator from Richmond, Kentucky. Her translations have appeared in Words Without BordersMandorlaLARBMcSweeney’sViceGranta, and BODY among others. She has translated books by Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, and Juan Emar. She is also a Managing Editor of Asymptote journal. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

– Read an excerpt from Dead Stars at the Asymptote Journal

Other reviews of Dead Stars

Goodreads, Typographical EraWinstonsdad

* My receiving an ecopy of this title from Ox and Pigeon for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.