Reviewed: Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile Translated by: Chris Andrews New Directions
Bolaño’s 2000 novel “By Night in Chile” is an unusual one. In its merely two paragraphs (of which the second and last comprises a whole of only 7 words), we sit with a dying man, one single night, somewhere in Chile, listening to his life’s story, of which he claims to “still have many things to say.” That man is Father Sebastian Urrutia: renowned literary critic, failed poet and, as we soon come to find out, a coward. However, Bolaño’s slim novel is not only the story of one cowardly individual, but more generally a satire on a whole generation of Chilean intellectuals who chose to put their heads down when their country was suffering through the atrocities of the Pinochet regime.
“By Night in Chile” is an intelligent and in large parts deeply funny book, which however has its problems truly capturing us. The novel comprises the greater parts of Father Urrutia’s adult life, but somehow never develops a true plot. Yes, life may very well be that: a sum of individual, partially disconnected stories, moments and people, but brought together in a novel; the reader at times has problems following the author’s narrative. This is not helped by the fact that Bolaño’s hero is very much unheroic, a character we have a hard time liking. He may be a true intellectual, one far removed from mundane human life, but equally it seems, one far removed from human emotion. Soon we come to suspect that at the core of this emotional distance to other people and at the end himself, lays his suppressed homosexuality. This distant man leads us through his episodic life story which knows neither friends nor loves. The only man that comes close to fulfilling these roles is his intellectual idol and father figure, the literary critic Farewell, which he comes to know in the first few pages of the novel. Farewell invites Urrutia back to his finca, where he not only gets to know Pablo Neruda, but also gets his behind fumbled by his somewhat elderly idol, and is unable to react to such physical and emotional proximity.
The only constant in his fragmented life is literature and his philological studies. When public and private life in his home country turns sour, Urrutia, who at the time finds himself living in Europe, does not stand up on the stage he is already on, but flees into his books.
Instead of giving speeches and making public the crimes happening in his home, he reads the old Greeks and remains silent, with his head deeply dug into his shoulders. Equally, when he agrees to lecture Pinochet and a hand full of other Generals on Marxism, instead of trying to alter their convictions bores them with theory, and at the end even comes to find the man quite agreeable. Throughout his life Urrutia found it all too easy to blind himself and to justify his inertness, claiming to be “on the side of history.” Now a dying man, the telling of his life’s story seems an attempt to justify his and others’ failure to act, not to the victims of a brutal regime, but to himself. A spooky figure he calls the “wizened youth”, a bizarre form of alter ego, repeatedly appears in his story to cast blame. A voice that Urrutia was able to silence throughout his life, but now in his dying moments, resurfaces in nearly every part of his story. And just before the second and last paragraph proclaims “the storm of shit [to begin],” he realizes this voice to be his own and his lifelong immunity to his consciousness falls apart.
Bolaño’s satire culminates with the parable of the literary salon of Maria Canales, a wife, mother and aspiring writer. Circumventing the government curfew, a group of intellectuals gathers at her house to enjoy wine, dance, and good conversation, which carefully avoids anything political. This island, morally separated from the political reality around it, comes to a sudden end, when one of the invitees, in search of the toilette, stumbles across a torture room in its cellar, with a victim still gaged and strapped to a table.
And again, as to be expected, not only Urrutia, but all of the salon’s regulars remain silent with our narrator explaining that yes he “would have been able to speak out but … didn’t see anything [and] didn’t know until it was too late.”
It may not have the same narrative pull as his opera magna “Los detectives salvajes” and “2666” but “By Night in Chile” is both a very well-crafted book, and characteristic of its author’s life and work. With a narrator and protagonist we are unable to like let alone identify with, we have a hard time finding the beauty in this very unusual and dense work. Though once we step back and see it for what it is: a satire rather than a precise historic account, and a collection of loosely connected stories rather than tightly knit plot, we may come to appreciate its unusual structure and content and see the mastery with which Bolaño interweaves them. We may follow the intelligence and humor in the numerous side stories, be it on literary giants such as Pablo Neruda or Ernst Jünger, or on topics as bizarre as falconry in churches across Europe, or an Austrian shoemaker’s dream of building a grandiose mausoleum to the world’s heros.
In prose at times overly intellectual, and at times profane, Bolaño has built something highly unusual, which even if we cannot come to love may still appreciate for being something very different, meticulously crafted and exceptionally executed. In his own life, Bolaño was an author who much struggled with his country’s crimes and wrongdoings, an author who did stand up, and in doing so had to find exile in Mexico and later settled in Spain. Today, knowing that he died in 2003 of cirrhosis of the liver only three years after its publication, we may read “By Night in Chile” from a slightly different perspective.
So to us, this short novel may appear almost as if it was Bolaño himself speaking to us in its very first line, saying: “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say.”
Felix Haas grew up in Berlin and went to grad school for both physics and mathematics. Over the years, he has lived in several countries in Europe, Northern and Central America. Besides science and languages he has always had a strong passion for literature. His writing has appeared on literatur-blog.at and fairobserver.com. He currently lives and works in Zurich and London.