Roberto Bolaño: By Night In Chile
It’s unfortunate that Roberto Bolaño isn’t around to see his star in the ascendency in the English speaking world, following on from the acclaim given to recent translations, The Savage Detectives and 2666. The English translations began in 2003, the year of his death, with Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night In Chile (2000). And the translations are set to continue with more books – novels, short stories, and essays – scheduled to appear in the next year. What makes the volume of work surprising is that Bolaño turned to fiction late in his life, before passing away at fifty.
By Night In Chile is the feverish confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, literary critic, and poet with a shady past. Believing himself to be dying, he sets out one night to recall the major events of his life, relentlessly delivering his story as a lengthy rant wrapped up in a single paragraph. A paragraph that runs for a 130 pages. A contender, perhaps, for the longest known ‘famous last words’.
Father Urrutia begins his confession:
One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear.
With all his talk of taking responsibility and mention of silences, we are immediately alerted that we are in conversation with an unreliable narrator and that we are going to have to tread carefully as he “rummage[s] through [his] memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate [him]”. Quite what those deeds are maintain interest as the narrative takes us on a dizzying journey from receiving God’s call at age thirteen through the political turmoil that affected Chile in the 1970s.
The moments recalled are extremely vivid. We spend some time with Farewell, “Chile’s greatest literary critic”, as Urrutia learns his craft and comes into contact with some figures of Chilean letters, such as Salvador Reyes and Pablo Neruda. There’s an extended piece where Opus Dei sends him to Europe to report back on the methods used to preserve dilapidated churches and finds pigeons are at the heart of the problem. The solution appears to be falconry, with many of the Old World priests adept in the art, an art which presages the impending Pinochet regime. Its delivery comes as a prose poem that, as befits Father Urrutia’s lyrical and feverish mind, lingers long and indecisive on details in a stream of consciousness, such as this example from a visit to Avignon:
Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the colour of sunsets seen from an aeroplane, or the colour of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Gueule splashing colour like an abstract expressionist painter, ah, the peace, the harmony of nature, nowhere as evident or as unequivocal as in Avignon, and then Fr Fabrice whistled and we waited for an indefinable time, measured only by thebeating of our hearts, until our quivering warrior came to rest upon his arm.
Long sentences like this are par for the course in By Night In Chile, but are not the only means of expression. Bolaño changes the style throughout, throwing in patches of terse sentences to juxtapose the longer, recanting conversations (“And Farewell said:….And I:…”) without getting annoying, and hitting the reader with a salvo of Urrutia’s rhetorical questions. The book may be a single paragraph, but its patchwork of styles keep it engaging throughout.
Bolaño’s focus for the novel is the literary intelligentsia of Chile, as epitomised by Father Urrutia. When drafted to lecture the newly formed junta on Marxism, so that they may know their enemies better:
Was it all right? Did they learn anything? Did I teach them anything? Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done? Is Marxism a kind of humanism? Or a diabolical theory? If I told my literary friends what I had done, would they approve? Would some condemn my actions out of hand? Would some understand and forgive me? Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad? […] Then, before I knew it, I was asleep.
With misplaced concern – look how long his questions keep him awake! – Urrutia’s path to self-denial continues as he seeks to prove he has done nothing wrong, all the while haunted by his conscience which he fears because it tries to make him address the truth. His self-assuredness of innocence does create doubt and he constantly seeks assurance:
Farewell, I whispered. Did I do the right thing or not? And since there was no reply, I repeated the question: Did I do my duty, or did I go beyond it? And Farewell replied with another question: Was it a necessary or an unnecessary course of action? Necessary, necessary, necessary, I said.
The scorn for the literary class of Chile comes in their inactivity under Pinochet’s regime. All around them people were being tortured and killed and the writers did nothing. They never rebelled. What should have been happening by night in Chile didn’t happen.
We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and all night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers need to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons that were often more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.
While By Night In Chile is a powerful rant by Urrutia about defending his complicity in what transpired amongst Chilean writers, Bolaño’s subtext is a condemnation of such actions. During one crucial incident the priest notes that “all horrors are dulled by routine”. That may well be true, but the engaging way Bolaño maintains the narrative ensures that the horrors of silence are in no way, as the priest begins his account, immaculate.
July 19, 2009