Thursday, November 25, 2010

By Night in Chile

Roberto Bolano

“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.”

So begins the confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, Jesuit priest, literary critic and poet, who believes he is dying and wants to spend his last moments justifying his life and work.

A true masterpiece that will remain one of the key readings of contemporary literature

Told over one night, the Father, a member of Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God"), rants and raves against some “wizened youth” to vindicate himself and to "belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread”. Slowly through this ragbag of memories, half memories and delusional ramblings, we build up the story of his life, from his early days in poverty dreaming of being a poet, through, at the age of thirteen, receiving Gods call to the priesthood  and on through his career as a literary critic.

Despite all his protestations, we soon become aware that what he says needs careful listening,  because he will tell you things like “my silences are immaculate” or “that life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth”. Yet we learn how he embarked on a literary career as a critic, how he became involved with some (shady) agents of opus Dei and is offered a tour of the churches of Europe, to report back on the methods used to preserve these dilapidated old buildings, which involves Falcons (to keep pigeons away). The father, laying on his deathbed, remembers/imagines these scenes in beautiful, feverish flights of prose.

“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 the beating of our hearts, until our quivering warrior came to rest upon his arm."

On arriving back from Chile, he discovers that the agents have another job for him - the real cost of his jaunt around Europe -  which is to teach Marxism to members of Pinochet’s Junta (to better “understand the enemy”). From this point on, Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, Jesuit priest, literary critic and poet’s star is in the ascendency. We see him now mixing with the intelligentsia, attending parties, literary events etc.. It’s whilst at one of these literary salons, held by Maria Canales (based on Mariana Callejas*), that we learn of the dark side, that the house used for the salon is a torture centre, although he claims to only know rumours or to have heard after the fact, all around him people were being tortured and killed he did nothing, claims to know nothing.

Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? the answer was simple; because they were afraid. I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out, but I didn’t see anything, i didn’t know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that have settled down over the years ?”

In fact, his only concern with the junta was a curfew they imposed. 

“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.”

The confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, reveals his life

“ like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape has been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but know one had the patience, or the strength or the courage to take it off….”.

Because to do so would expose the collusion inherent within the literary world he was part of, to do so would reveal

“that the landscapes usually turned out to contain unpleasant surprises like coffins, makeshift cemeteries, ghost towns ..”.

By night in Chile is only 130 pages long & reads as though it’s a single paragraph, as though the Father drew breathe once and spilt his guts, pouring out memories, some reworked, some wished for, some justifying, vindicating himself, in the end to the only one left to him - Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, or the young poet, idealist he once was.

by-night-in-chile-roberto-bolano3"Mordant, haunting and sometimes elegiac...takes the reader hurtling into the darkest psychological folds of one man and one country."
- Marc Cooper, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"A contemporary novel destined to have a permanent place in world literature."
- Susan Sontag, The Manchester Guardian

"Haunting and mordant ... written with unsettling art ... the most damning sentence ... has the pallor and stillness of a shroud."
- Richard Eder, The New York Times

* Mariana Callejas was married to Michael Townley - one of Pinochet’s notorious killers & member of the secret police. His  crimes included  the murder of Allende's ex-minister Orlando Letelier & American citizen Ronni Moffit.

Roberto Bolano(wikipedia)

Roberto Bolano(Bomb magazine Interview)

In lieu of a field guide (bolano info)


Whilst reading this, a certain song refrain kept intruding into my thoughts, after a while I paid  closer attention to it, and realised that it not only fitted this books subject matter, it sounded  like some thing from a Bolano novel.

Repent, Repent I wonder what they meant.


“All your lousy little poets coming round,

trying to sound like Charley Manson, 

see the white girl dancin”



Richard said...

I enjoyed By Night in Chile and hope to read it again someday, but I think it's second-tier Bolaño compared to The Savage Detectives, 2666, Nazi Literature in the Americas, and Distant Star. Of course, I wish all novelists could write second-tier stuff like that! Frightening to think that both the priest and the María Canales/Mariana Callejas figure were both based on real-life characters. Do you have a favorite Bolaño? Where does this rate in relation to that for you? Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed thisa but like richard think it was bolano just getting his feet as a writer ,but the trademarks that made him such a great writer are there ,all the best stu

Rise said...

Not my favorite by Roberto, too. But its relation to other books is very important. Have you established the character of the "wizened youth"? This surprising fact alone makes this novel a continuation of the masterpieces.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi richard, of the smaller books, I think I prefer "Last evenings on earth" & 2666 is so monumental it covers many time zones.

Hello Stu, I think for a writer finding his feet, this was some fantastic dance steps

Hello rise this seems to be a consensus of opinion & I'm with you on Last evenings.
as to the character of the wizened youth, I wrote this from the perspective that it was a younger more idealistic image of himself
haunting the his conscience. If you know better, or have a different perspective, I'd be interested in learning it

Rise said...

I think that's the right perspective. The "wizened youth" as the pricking conscience of the older man of experience.

But RB may have indicated another possibility: that the wizened youth is an actual character present in the other texts. I'll let you discover it as I don't want to spoil it for you. In any case, the alternative interpretation is itself problematic in terms of the consistency of the story, something that I think RB intentionally made as an open-ended question.