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By Night in Chile

November 12, 2013

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolano
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Vintage, first published 2000 (Spanish), 2003 (this translation)

I’ve read quite a few Bolanos now: the overwhelming 2666, the much smaller but still epic Amulet and Savage Detectives, the novel that put him on the map. After reading all of this, I started to pick up some common elements: anger and passion about the state of the world and some of the terrible people in it, complex structures with nearly too many characters to count, and an enormous range of styles even within one book, from dazzling poetry to bitter satire to dry journalistic accounts. Copious references to obscure (to me) Latin American poets and authors also feature, but I can’t tell whether their constant presense demonstrates Bolano’s refusal to make his work accessible to ‘outside’ readers, a satirical mocking of the ‘scene’ (which he often makes very cutting remarks about), just a real insight into the vast, confusing, and conflict-ridden literary life of South America, or something else.

By Night in Chile is heavily concerned with writing and criticism too. Pablo Neruda hosts a literary and cultural gathering and comes across (in the narrator’s telling) as some kind of Godlike prophet who holds everyone in his thrall. Based on Bolano’s other writing I get the feeling he has a fair bit of contempt for this kind of hero worship, as if he is pissed that there are only a handful of Latin American writers like Neruda that the wider world knows about, and all the new, vital stuff is just invisible. Perhaps the Kiwi equivalent would be mocking the assumption that New Zealand = Middle Earth, but this book is also about a much more general attack on literature.

To quickly summarise, the book is set up as a deathbed confession of a narrator who is both a priest and a wannabe literary critic/poet. The first page setup:

I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quit and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. The wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up.

In fact, it’s not until deep into the book’s 130 pages that Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix really confesses anything, or rather starts talking about the things he’s done which might be preventing his peace. I’d have expected a Catholic to be better at confessing.

Partly he is not a very self-aware character, or he doesn’t want to be honest with himself and examine about why he did what he did. But his situation is also an exaggerated version of what a lot of educated people must worry about to some extent: is a life spent hiding in literature and moving around cultural circles really any different to a rich guy sitting by the pool paying his servants a pittance to bring him cocktails?

The back story that the narrator provides seems to serve a dual purpose, as the priest is trying to set up his own circumstances to explain and excuse what he did, while Bolano also uses it as an example of a comfortable but rather useless life which was much less important and accomplished than the narrator seems to believe.

Eventually Lacroix reveals his twin shames: that he said nothing and continued attending pleasant cultural gatherings at a certain house in Chile even after he knew that people were being tortured by the Pinochet regime in the basement, and that he taught a course to Pinochet and his assistants about communism, so that they could better understand and fight it. The priest seems to want us to understand that he didn’t really have much choice, everyone was doing it, as he says towards the end “Is there a solution? That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made.”

What Bolano manages to do in this short book is to savagely attack the Pinochet regime and the people who lent it respectable support under cover of their fine arts and writing, while also demanding that all readers, writers, and people who try to use cultural pursuits to gain influence, status, or enlightenment examine their motivations. There often seems to be a tension in Bolano’s work between the immense power and importance of literature and the possibility that that instead of sitting inside quietly consuming and producing fine words perhaps we should all just stop feeling smug and get out on the streets to fight for justice and for the neglected and downtrodden people of the world. It’s almost as if he’s using his talent as a writer to try to convince the reader that books aren’t going to solve anything. I really admire the way Bolano can combine satire, criticism, wonder, and self-awareness like this while still retaining a powerful sincerity and relentlessly demanding the reader to question why they aren’t going out into the world to act on these fine high-minded ideas.

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