I cannot actually see him, but there he is in my mind’s eye, crouching or down on all fours, on a hillock, black clouds racing past over his head, and the hillock becomes a hill and the next minute it is the atrium of a church, an atrium as black as the clouds, charged with electricity like the clouds, and glistening with moisture or blood, and the wizened youth trembles more and more violently, wrinkles his nose and then pounces on the story. But only I know the story, the real story. And it is simple and cruel and true and it should make us laugh, it should make us die laughing. But we only know how to cry, the only thing we do wholeheartedly is cry.
Trevor and Lee here. Our first long post for the 2666 read-along is this Friday (don’t forget to join us with Part 1). But I know that Lee and I are not the only ones who have started something by Bolaño and, perhaps without even knowing why, have wanted to venture into everything else the man wrote. Consequently, inevitably, we’ve decided that, when the mood strikes us, we’ll reread some of our other favorites and perhaps finally hit a few of his works we have yet to read. Posting about it here, of course.
What is it about some authors — or artists of any kind, really — that makes us want to see everything? I don’t know for sure, but there must be something in the equation about the artist’s perspective. Bolaño definitely had a unique, powerful perspective from which he examined this world in our times. That perspective is grand, and is explored in the giant 2666. But Bolaño also explored his perspective in smaller works, such as this little masterpiece he published in 2000.
Unlike much of his work of the 1990s and even 2666, it is not particularly linked to any of Bolaño’s earlier plots or characters, though Pinochet makes an entrance. That said, there is quite a bit we can pull from By Night in Chile to help us understand 2666 better — well, ” to help us understand” is perhaps wrong — how about this: to cast shadows and light over 2666.
I first read By Night in Chile in 2009 (here), after I’d already read and been ignorantly dismissive of 2666. This was the book that converted me fully to Bolaño’s work , the book that made me realize Bolaño’s work was not just some passing fad but genuinely important, worth reading definitely, and also worth rereading and studying.
That’s not to say we’re going to be putting together anything majestic here on The Mookse and the Gripes. Our revisit is meant more as a personal reflection, made with an eye toward 2666. But maybe we’ll get out a few things of interest.
By Night in Chile is one of Bolaño’s late works, first published in 2000, just three years before Bolaño died. Interestingly, Bolaño apparently meant to publish this book as Tormenta de Mierda (or, in English, Storm of Shit), which ties it nicely to the book’s closing sentence. I am glad the name was changed, though, to Nocturno de Chile, which, it should be noted since the English translation doesn’t quite bring it over, refers to the nocturnes sung by the church and to the musical and poetic strains often classified as “nocturnes,” or night scenes, often recounted by a romantic character, traditionally in a single movement. By Night in Chile brings together these elements, and several beautiful night scenes, and turns the nocturne into a nightmare.
When the book begins, we meet a dying man: Father Urrutia Lacroix, who will speak to us in a single, 120-page paragraph. Here’s why:
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.
It’s a kind of deathbed confession, if we’re to believe that his death is imminent as he claims. Just a few lines later, we begin to distrust him and his motives:
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. But sometimes I even forget my own name.
He claims to want to make himself clear before God. He’s certainly disturbed. But if I say it’s a confession, I’m — again — using the wrong word. He doesn’t feel he has to confess anything to receive forgiveness. He wants to justify himself — he’s never done anything wrong.
And so he takes us through his life. I’ll let Lee introduce the basic plot of By Night in Chile.
By Night in Chile is — and I’ll stress this next word — basically put, the recollections of Chilean Father Urrutia Lacroix, but in it we get a kind of impressionistic, meandering interrogation of a nation’s psyche through a series of interludes and anecdotal digressions.
The Father in question — haunted by his youthful, mocking, agitating self who once imagined a career as a literary critic (he keeps his hand in writing a weekly column) — visits a renowned national critic, Farewell, who is hosting Pablo Neruda on his haunted, half-real country estate, where he is delivered by a taxi which abruptly speeds off as he contemplates turning back, and which feels a little like the stage for a Resnais film, ruptured at some point and reassembled slightly out of chronology or askew in a way it’s difficult to pinpoint, at the wrong speed or subject to waking dreams.
I remember we drank cognac and at one point, while I was looking over the hefty tomes of Farewell’s library, I felt deeply disconsolate. Every now and then, Farewell burst into excessively sonorous laughter. At each of these guffaws, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He looked like the God Pan, or Bacchus in his den, or some demented Spanish conquistador ensconced in a southern fort. [. . .] Later I went out for a stroll in the gardens of the estate. I must have lost my way. I felt cold. Beyond the gardens lay the country, wilderness, the shadows of the trees that seemed to be calling me. It was unbearably damp. I came across a cabin or maybe it was a shed with a light shining in one of its windows. I went up to it. I heard a man laughing and a woman protesting. The door of the cabin was ajar. I heard a dog barking. I knocked and went in without waiting for a reply. There were three men sitting around a table, three of Farewell’s farm-hands, and, beside a wood stove, two women, one old, the other young, who, as soon as they saw me, came and took my hands in theirs. Their hands were rough. How good of you to come, Father, said the older woman, kneeling before me and pressing my hand to her lips. I was afraid and disgusted, but I let her do it. The men had risen from their seats. Sit yourself down, son, I mean Father, said one of them. Only then did I realize with a shudder that I was still wearing the cassock I had travelled in. I could have sworn I had changed when I went up to the room Farewell had set aside for me.
It’s a place slippery, sensually invoked, at which and in which we travel as we do internally, slipping from Chile to numerous other locations and into the labyrinths of nostalgia, a place that’s elemental and likely to evaporate at any moment but strangely vivid and intoxicating and silently dangerous, like the Santa Teresa of 2666. He creates lacunas within environments that are ripe for coalescent dread, externalizing “pregnant pauses” and solidifying them as parts of a febrile landscape. His remembrance of the priest’s visit is plagued by the interruptions of other events and moments from his past that slide in (as in cinematic montage) amongst those recollections, commingling and creating a kind of post-worldly sense of feverish, synapse-reconfigured memories, and anything might impose itself, murderous or magical, at any point, as both are always present, one and the same, and the reading of any scene, loaded with countless interpretations, is crucial.
And I: Can you see our Palatine Anthology in that shadow play? Can you read any names? Or recognize any profiles? And Farewell: I see Neruda’s profile and my own, but, no, I’m mistaken , it’s just a tree, I see a tree, the multiple, monstrous silhouette of its dead leaves, like a sea drying up, it looks like a sketch of two profiles, but actually it’s a tomb out in the open, cloven by an angel’s sword or a giant’s club. And I: What else? And Farewell: Whores coming and going, a river of tears. And I: Be more precise.
That “Be more precise” is important: Bolaño continually looks at the same things but sees far more than most in them, adjusting his focus, again altering the angles and reconsidering, a camera-eye privy to what’s through skin and bones and outside linearity and beyond the “three dimensions when there are more likely four, or even five” to what’s really there, that we can never see fully, existing as it all does on so many different planes and inside all the diminishing brain cells of those still alive and on the pages of countless books, prisms upon prisms. And is there, within lines such as “a tomb out in the open” and “Whores coming and going, a river of tears” a kernel or suggestion of what might lead to 2666? There are other such moments that hint at that much later book.
As we move forward, in that dreamlike way Lee nicely described, we see the Father getting more and more tied up with Chile’s problems. He is approached by two men, whose names, if you spell them backwards, are Fear and Hate. They’d like him to travel to Europe and learn how the churches there are fighting against decay (decay brought on by pigeon droppings, in what surely must be one of Bolaño’s richest and most subversive images). They’re using, as it turns out, hawks. The hawks fly in and kill the pigeons, causing a bit of distress considering the pigeon’s pacific qualities and metaphorical ties to the Holy Spirit, but this is a time for such measures.
We won’t go into all of the particulars that follow, which include Opus Dei, tutoring for Pinochet, and the nightmarish labyrinth that leads to a historically real torture chamber, all while literary guests party through the night, flouting curfew laws. I’d like to ask Lee to generalize a bit, let us know some of what Bolaño is doing here that we’ll see in 2666.
With Bolaño, you often feel as though you’re observing the earth from space, all the timelines of history laid out for parsing and reconsideration at all levels, from sub-atomic to corporeal and beyond. He can’t escape Borges’ refusal to accept earthly limitations and the paucity of language as a means of capturing the unfolding madness.
Yes, madness, both the madness of a lunatic and the madness we feel as we look at the chaos of existence. I think many people get frustrated when the read Bolaño because this can come off, at first glance, as random writing, when actually it’s incredibly precise.
And thankfully he didn’t give up. Bolaño couldn’t stop trying to apprehend that madness, and will, as the following passage exemplifies, weave a fabric of speculative, eidetic dreamlogic in order to try and get at the essence of history versus the individual as knowingly helpless pawn, and then upbraid the futility of the attempt, a kind of bashful disclaimer that runs through By Night in Chile and most of his work. He famously derided his fiction: “Only the poems don’t make me blush.” He is less comfortable than as a poet, but the discomfort produces incomparable results. He is half in, half out of his fictional worlds and, rather than this being a limitation, affords him instead a vital vantage point. This constant paradox, a battle between the desperate chain-link of language as a means of constructing something within which the writer can immortalise himself; and the garbage chute of time collecting and junking everything, nations, popes, Roman Emperors, poets, meteorites, and rendering such desperation meaningless. Bolaño’s manifestation of that struggle is the incomparably feverish multifariousness, a kind of seething defiance always on the verge of self-ridicule.
[. . .] but still I cannot have been properly awake, for deep in my brain I could hear the voices of the popes, like the distant screeching of a flock of birds, a clear sign that part of my mind was still dreaming or obstinately refusing to emerge from the labyrinth of dreams, that parade ground where the wizened youth is hiding, along with the dead poets who were living then, and who now, against the certainty of imminent oblivion, are erecting a miserable crypt in my cranial vault, building it with their names, their silhouettes cut from black cardboard and the debris of their works, and although the wizened youth is not among them, since in those days he was just a kid from the south, the rainy border-lands, the banks of our nation’s mightiest river, the fearsome Bío-Bío, all the same I sometimes confuse him with the swarm of Chilean poets whose works implacable time was demolishing even then, as I walked away from Farewell’s house through the Santiago night, and continues to demolish now, as I prop myself up on one elbow, and will go on demolishing when I am gone, that is, when I shall exist no longer or only as a reputation, and my reputation resembling a sunset, as the reputations of others resemble a whale, a bare hill, a boat, a trail of smoke or a labyrinthine city, my reputation like a sunset will contemplate through half-closed eyelids time’s little twitch and the devastation it wreaks, time that sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze, drowning writers in its whirlpools like figures in a painting by Delville, the writers whose books I reviewed, the writers whose work I criticized, the moribund of Chile and America whose voices called out my name, Father Ibacache, Father Ibacache, think of us as you walk away from Farewell’s house with a dancer’s sprightly gait, think of us as your steps lead you into the inexorable Santiago night, Father Ibacache, Father Ibacache, think of our ambitions and our hopes, think of our mute, inglorious lot as men and citizens, compatriots and writers, as you penetrate the phantasmagoric folds of time, time that we perceive in three dimensions only, although in fact it has four or maybe five, like the castellated shadow of Sordello, which Sordello? a shadow not even the sun can obliterate. Nonsense. I know. Twaddle. Piffle. Balderdash. Rot. Figments of the imagination that throng unbidden as one goes into the night of one’s destiny.
That passage, to me, illuminates a lot of 2666, which we’ll get into soon enough. For now, enough to say that one of the strongest images for me from that book is the slow destruction of a geometry book left out on a clothesline, all of the graphs, all of the control, eaten up by the elements. Those hawks might temporarily stave off the destruction of those churches, but in the end, nothing will stand.
Time will win and destroy everything until the end, all things must pass, the brain never sleeps, and terrible dreams will emerge out of the miasma, regardless of our intent. All beauty is doomed and therefore more beautiful than if it were eternal. The “wizened youth,” the necessarily precocious personification of arrogance and ignorant fearlessness that initiates and nurtures any enduring artistic sensibility, must be given his due but ultimately cast aside. Only the real, full-grown artist, who understands the world and his meagre place in it, who without such initial bombastic innocence would be impossible, is worthy of respect: a respect that also invites ridicule as all art is a daub of time on a fading canvas. Bolaño’s world of necessary paradoxes that By Night in Chile offers a masterful prelude and standalone testament to and which 2666 will embody fullest of all right at his own end.
I’d like to end by taking you up on that wizened youth and Bolaño’s sense of his own art. By this time in his career, Bolaño knew he was dying. There’s more than a little of the author’s own trepidation in the face of time here and, certainly, in 2666. When people talk about his work they often talk about him staring into the void. It might sound a bit cliché, but it is definitely applicable. He’s not the Father, giving a deathbed confession/justification; he’s, in some ways, the wizened youth, looking from some other vantage point at the futility, mocking the work and life of the Father. And there’s a line that suggests Bolaño felt the wizened youth, which Lee perfectly described above, would be mocking him as well.
The wizened youth is watching from a yellow street corner and yelling at me. I can hear some of his words. He is saying I belong to Opus Dei. I have never hidden that, I say. But of course he’s not even listening to me. I can see his jaws and his lips moving and I know he’s shouting, but I cannot hear his words. He can see me whispering, propped up on one elbow, while my bed negotiates the meanders of my fever, but he cannot hear my words either. I would like to tell him this is getting us nowhere.