I’m getting on better with Roberto Bolaño now than I was before. By that I mean that I am converted. After finding 2666 a brilliantly written mess and Nazi Literature in the Americas a horrific human mess (again, brilliantly written), I wanted to go back and read the first of his books translated into English: By Night in Chile. What I found here was a clearer vision of the savage politics of the last century, particularly of Latin America. Bolaño has a way of presenting the politics in an almost farcical way . . . for a while — and then it becomes a horrific climax (sadly missing in 2666; but there the horror was throughout in clinical understatement).
In a way, By Night in Chile is the first conventional novel I’ve read by Bolaño. It has a beginning and an end and narrative cohesion. Still it is not that conventional. On a first look, stylistically it reminded me of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child — both are powerfully stated first person narratives laid out in a virtually unbroken style. By Night in Chile is a 130-page single paragraph (Kaddish is around the same length but was mostly one long sentence — but it did have a few paragraph breaks!). This might be offputting, or at least intimidating, to some people. It is both to me because somehow you have to navigate through all that text. What I’ve found time and again, however, is that the authors who attempt this style are usually very good at utilizing it for purpose, and somehow they pull it off without making it a cumbersome mass.
Here, the style is definitely not cumbersome. It produces a narrative pace that gives the reader little time to breath, let alone think, an effective device in this context where the speaker doesn’t want you to have time to consider his words to see what he is and is not saying. Our narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest who has served the church, even entering the ranks of Opus Dei, and who has served the Chilean government. Sometimes he has served one through the other. He’s pulled himself up on his death bed, “propped up on one elbow” and lifting his “noble, trembling head,” to offer a final confession.
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.
The confessional tone, however, is misleading because ultimately he admits to no wrong, and we know he’ll be ellusive from the start. In the middle of the first page we see that we are dealing with someone who is weighed down by something he is unwilling to name and therefore unwilling to accept.
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.
Father Urrutia Lacroix then narrates his youth, and we know that he recognizes he was a more innocent person then, indeed he constantly feels chastized by his memories of his youth. But even at this point of his narrative he avoids responsibility for what was to follow:
And a year later, at the age of fourteen, I entered the seminary, and when I came out again, much later on, my mother kissed my hand and called me Father or I thought I heard her say Father, and when, in my astonishment, I protested, saying Don’t call me Father, mother, I am your son, or maybe I didn’t say Your son but The son, she began to cry or weep and then I thought, or maybe the thought has only occurred to me now, that life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth.
While attending seminary and after, our narrator wanted to be a literary critic. He had enough talen to become attractive (mentally and physically) to the prominent critic Farewell. Through Farewell he meets the other prominent figures of the arts and politics of his youth, including Pablo Nerruda. There is something compelling in these people, and it affects how he feels about his responsibilities flowing from his station in the church.
And I heard one of the women saying Father, won’t you try some of this or that. And someone was talking to me about a sick child, but with such poor diction I couldn’t tell if the child was sick or dead already. What did they need me for? If the child was dying, they should have called a doctor. If the child had already been dead for some time, they should have been saying novenas.
This back story eventually leads our narrator to a special assignment to help preserve the European cathedrals, which are being soiled by pigeon droppings. When he arrives in Europe, Father Urrutia Lacroix is surprised but unaffected by the manner the custodians of the cathedrals have chosen to fix the problem: they have become falconers, and they send their hawks up to violently purge the area of the pigeons (the irony of the church’s killing doves is not lost in the text).
This episode leads directly to the next episode both literally and figuratively. In a way, Father Urrutia Lacroix’s assignment can be seen as a primer for more important political work that is no less violent and disturbing. It ultimately leads him to Maria Canales, whom he now says was merely an acquaintance, no one he knew well, no one who knew him well. (Maria Canales is a stand-in for Mariana Callejas.) This is the horrific climax. This is the complicity our narrator seeks to strip from himself. However, though we never know just how complicit our narrator was, whether he had an active role in the horrors is a side note for Bolaño. Much more important to him here (and in Nazi Literature in the Americas) is his and others’ passive role in the horrors, particularly those who can hide under aesthetics. Our narrator sums it up nicely in one line:
That’s how literature is made in Chile.