Robert Bolaño's By Night in Chile

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

May 10, 2004   


Robert Bolaño, By Night in Chile, Harvill Press, London, 2000; ISBN: 1-84343-035-5.

While most people might feel the need to confess on their deathbed, the Opus Dei priest of Robert Bolaño's By Night in Chile does just the opposite. Over the course of this intense novella, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix attempts to justify his collaboration with the Pinochet regime to his readers, yet seems determined above all to convince himself that he was without sin. The opening sentences set the tone for the entire work:

"I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That 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. So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name. Or so he intended. 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. Clear to God above all. The rest I can forego. But not God. I don't know how I got on to this. Sometimes I find myself propped up on one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself."

Despite being a priest (or perhaps as a result of being one), Urrutia has lived a life in which morality was the least of his considerations. His main calling was not to serve god, but to make it the literary world as a poet and critic. Throughout his narrative, he recounts the various encounters that helped him achieve that goal, starting with a weekend at the country estate of "Farewell," the name he gave to a wealthy Chilean writer. It was there that he met Pablo Neruda, the greatest poet in Chilean history and a life-long Communist. Father Urrutia is in awe of Neruda, who spent the evening "reciting verses to the moon."

The next day, while strolling about Farewell's property, he takes a wrong turn and finds himself among some "rather godforsaken-looking orchards," being tended by a boy and a girl who were "naked like Adam and Eve." Urrutia recounts, "The boy looked at me: a string of snot hung from his nose down to his chest. I quickly averted my gaze but could not stem an overwhelming nausea. I felt myself falling into the void, an intestinal void, made of stomach and entrails."

This reaction would betray a certain inability on Urrutia's part to engage with an aspect of Neruda's poetry that is not focused on the moon and stars, but rather on more mundane matters:

My love, we are not fond
as the rich would like us to be,
of misery. We
shall extract it like an evil tooth
that up to now has bitten the heart of man.

("Poverty," from The Captain's Verses)

Through persistent hard work, the priest Urrutia becomes a member of the Chilean literary and intellectual establishment, which he sees in terms of any hierarchy with a pecking order: "I wrote articles. I wrote poems. I discovered poets. I praised them. They would have sunk without a trace if not for me. I was probably the most liberal member of Opus Dei in the whole Republic." Even the poets of the Chilean Communist Party "were dying for a kind word from me, a word of praise for their poetry."

It is possible that Urrutia was inspired by an influential Opus Dei literary critic of the right wing newspaper El Mercurio. The role of the Catholic Church in general and Opus Dei in particular in the Chilean counter-revolution is a story in itself. According to Catholic scholar and activist Anne Pettifer:

"The Church never distanced itself from the Pinochet regime, which was largely comprised of Roman Catholics in good standing. (One of the think tanks instrumental in planning the coup was staffed by zealous, far-right Catholics.) No one was ever excommunicated, and when Pope John Paul II celebrated a public Mass during his visit to Chile in the late 1980s he gave the Eucharist to the General and his cronies. Some of these men must have been involved in the Santiago Stadium where so many Chileans were liquidated. At a rally in Chicago not long after the coup, I heard Victor Jara's widow describe the manner in which her husband -- the great Chilean folk-singer and poet -- had been killed in the Stadium. His hands were cut off; then a guitar was thrust at him and he was told to play."
(http://www.zma g.org/zmag/articles/pettiferapril2000.htm)

Throughout his career, Urrutia remains impervious to Chilean politics. When Allende arrives on the scene, his aesthetic aloofness faces its greatest challenge. It was almost impossible for him to ignore the clashes between the country's haves and have-nots, despite his best efforts:

"...Allende went to Mexico and visited the seat of the United Nations in New York and there were terrorist attacks and I read Thucydides the long wars of Thucydides, the rivers and plains, the winds and the plateaux that traverse the time-darkened pages of Thucydides, and the men he describes, the warriors with their arms, and the civilians, harvesting grapes, or looking from a mountainside at the distant horizon, the horizon where I was just one among millions of beings still to be born, the far-off horizon Thucydides glimpsed and me there trembling indistinguishably, and I also reread Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle and Plato (whom one cannot read too often), and there were strikes and the colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a cameraman recorded his own death on film, and then Allende's naval aide-de-camp was assassinated and there were riots, swearing, Chileans blaspheming, painting on walls, and then nearly half a million people marched in support of Allende, and then came the coup d'etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last."

Once Pinochet is in power, he decides that he and his top aides need a crash course in Marxism, so as to better understand the nature of the beast they are trying to exterminate. Who do they turn to for a lecturer, but Father Urrutia. As a member of the intellectual establishment, he had mastered the abc's of Marxism. After the first night's lesson on the Communist Manifesto was completed, he gave them a reading assignment: Marta Harnecker's "Basic Elements of Historical Materialism." For the remainder of the classes, the goons in uniform seem fixated on her, whose various writings were discussed throughout. Once he heard "muffled voices of the generals talking about Marta Harnecker." One of them said that she was intimately acquainted with a pair of Cubans. That leads Pinochet to ask, "Are we talking about a woman or a bitch?" It is apt for Bolaño to choose Harnecker as a foil to the military barbarians and the amoral priest, since her life-long struggle to challenge capitalist oppression in Latin America is widely recognized.

Bolaño's By Night in Chile is not only a devastating attack on the spinelessness of the certain literati in face of capitalist brutality, it is also a literary achievement that breaks new ground in a Latin American fiction that has lately shown a tendency toward magical realist formulae or slavish imitation of European postmodernism.

In the February 22, 2003 Guardian, Ben Richards reported that Bolaño, who left Chile in 1973, is "underwhelmed" by the contemporary literary scene there. In seeking to escape a saccharine magic realism, he was offered several choices. You can imitate the European "greats," either directly like Proust or their Latin American wannabes like Borges. The other is to embrace popular culture in the context of a globalized marketplace as typified by the MacOndo movement led by the Chilean Alberto Fuguet. His "Movies of My Life" takes place in a Los Angeles hotel room and consists of reminiscences about seeing "Jaws," etc. McOndo draws its name from Macondo, the fictional town from magical realist bellwether Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. In an essay against magical realism in Foreign Policy, Fuguet called magical realism "overfolkloric" and the writers of his movement "in-your-face."

Bolaño is obviously not a member of any school. His style and voice are utterly unique. Since, as Henry James once pointed out, all great literature is driven by character, it is clear that Bolaño knows where his priorities lie. Father Urrutia is a quintessential modern villain. Unlike Macbeth or any other Shakespearean villain who consciously plotted evil, Urrutia's greatest sin is complacency. He is the "good Chilean" who never resisted the generals. Bolaño is also a superb psychologist who can get into the mind of a character who he obviously despises while doing him justice. Urrutia is always self-aware. He knows in his soul of souls that he is doing wrong, but rationalizes his behavior in terms of an almost Hegelian belief in the larger missions of history. When told that the North American husband of one of Chile's up-and-coming writers ran a torture chamber in his basement while she ran literary salons upstairs, often with Urrutia in attendance, he remarks "That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him." Fortunately for the world, there is an alternative embodied by Robert Bolaño's masterful By Night in Chile.

Robert Bolaño, By Night in Chile, Harvill Press, London, 2000; ISBN: 1-84343-035-5.

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Published May 10, 2004
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