Roberto Bolaño, “By Night in Chile”
I jokingly made the comment to a friend of mine that English majors, like myself, seem to revel in literature that’s hard to get the first time round. That doesn’t mean second readings don’t enhance our understanding of a work. It’s just that we sometimes distrust our I-get-it reactions as being superficial because they’re too immediate. For some reason, we seem to require wallowing around in the miasma of linguistic challenges.
Maybe it’s masochism or maybe we just have to prove to the world that we have some kind of secret knowledge of texts that are just beyond the ken of most mortals. And “stream of consciousness” writing is often one of our favorite genres. Similar to academic art theorists commenting on abstract painting, it leaves us ample room to show others just how brilliant we are when the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue what the hell we’re talking about.
That being said, Roberto Bolaño’s In Chile By Night is another stream-of consciousness novel, which, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, will probably appeal to those who continue to elevate the more obscure and difficult fictional texts to the literary land of the sacred. Bolaño’s literary output also seems to have been enhanced by the author’s brief life (the short-life-of-an-artist archetype is deeply embedded in our English-major Byronic souls).
The central character, Father Sebastían Urrutia Lacroix, is an effete Chilean priest who recounts his life as a poet, a literary critic, an Opus-Dei-lite member, a lover of classical literature, and a social-climber among the Chilean bourgeois, the intellectuals, the artists, and Pinochet groupies. He has a kind of Proustian otherworldliness that feels quite at home in the mystical realm of the transcendent as he reads his classics and denies to his homosexual literary-critic and friend, Farewell, that he ever had sex in the seminary: “I studied and prayed, prayed and studied…I read St. Augustine, I read St. Thomas.” It is in his affirmative claims of innocence that he damns himself as a man incapable of expressing his own humanity.
There is not much to like about the central character who floats through the worlds of an out-of-touch Church worried more about its deteriorating churches than its starving poor. Sent on an Opus-Dei mission to Europe to investigate the deterioration, he discovers that pigeon shit is the culprit. In scenes reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, Father Sebastían encounters a number of priests who have become expert falconers training their classically named falcons to destroy the pigeons (starlings often become the collateral damages of the falcon attacks).
When he returns to Chile, after the Pinochet military coup and the suicide of Allende, he is asked to give brief seminars on Marxism to Pinochet and his followers. In another Strangelove-like scene of gallows humor, we encounter a kind of drive-through, study-for-the-exams team of Pinochet and his followers trying to get all the up-front facts of Marxism, like contestants preparing for Jeapardy.
We can only assume that Bolaño wanted to make it clear that the Catholic Church had tacitly conspired with Pinochet in this classroom parody of an enlightened, Catholic-priest teacher and a classroom full of indifferent students. The priest, of course, could deny any collusion as the teacher who merely dispensed information; the dictator could sympathetically claim that he really wanted to understand a social philosophy totally antithetical to his own.
“I am no longer at peace,” Father Sebastían says on the first page of the novel. “I will lift up my noble head,” he continues, “to turn up deeds that shall vindicate me.” But Sebastían is far from vindicated as he recounts a life’s journey of tacit conspiracies in spite of denying to a “wizened youth” that he is guilty of any misdeeds
Bolaño makes it clear at the end of the novel that the wizened youth is, in fact, the alter ego of Sebastían, his moral conscience gnawing away at all of his denials. And the truths of his life—those he loved and despised, those he protected, those he admired, those he envied—flash before him in a contrasting collage of his own imperfections and good deeds. But there is little hope for this man, as he callously admits, “And then the storm of shit begins.”
There are just far too many literary excursions in Bolaño’s novel that would make it impossible to miss the heavy collusions that had gone on between the Chilean intelligentsia and the Pinochet regime during the civil war. Although the socialist forces of Allende eventually lost out to Pinochet and his followers, including the priest’s friend, Farewell. and the literary socialite, María Canales, the wheel comes full circle when Pinochet’s forces are ultimately defeated at the end of the novel.
The priest develops his own alliances with his decadent friend, Farewell, whose physical and emotional descent occurs almost exactly after the defeat of Pinochet; the fall of María Canales, the wealthy local writer, begins shortly after a persecuted UNESCO prisoner is found in the basement of her estate (María’s husband, we are told by the narrator, worked for the Chilean Secret Police during Pinochet’s Presidency); and, more significantly, Sebastían’s own effete interest in the literary classics places him at the forefront as a literary defender of an ancien régime that has been sucked dry of its own relevance. At the end of the novel, when Sebastían says, “I could rise from this bed now and start living again, giving classes, writing reviews,” we are not convinced that the old, golden world will ever return in all of its effete splendor after the defeat of Pinochet.
And it is the old regime that Sebastían either allies himself with or gives inordinate attention to throughout the novel, including the secret, reactionary Opus Dei society, the Chilean landed aristocracy and literary figures who supported Pinochet, and the brutal world of clerical falconers—who, in any 101-primer of literary symbolism could easily be allegorized into Fascist predators or as the clerical surrogates of Pinochet’s brutal persecutions of his own people.
By Night in Chile is not an easy novel. It is not a tender novel. It is not a narrative that draws you into a central character you really want to know, except in a very tight, cerebral, sardonic way. Bolaño certainly crafts the character of Father Sebastían, but a crafted character is not enough to make a reader want to wade through all of the priest’s effetely narrated observations.
No author, in my mind, has ever been able to match the sweet, poignant mental deterioration of Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness characters and narrators. Joined at the hip of their sufferings, you walk with them through the briers of their own undoings.
There is a tenderness in all of their pain, a tenderness that Bolaño, quite frankly, is never able to evoke in his first-person narrator regardless of the priest’s pleas to be understood—and a reader easily wearies of the tight-fisted irony and controlled rage of a character who, quite simply, seems to be used by the author to vent his spleen against the Catholic Church, the intelligentsia, and the Pinochet regime (I don’t quibble with Bolaño’s enemy’s list here, but the writing suffers from too much clinical detachment to sustain itself for any long period of time). And Sebastían’s world-weariness is just too exhausting a force to give the novel any life-sustaining momentum.
In the end, all of Bolaño’s characters are frozen inside of their own cardboard malignancies. They cannot escape the prisons of their own fallowness—Farewell, Don Salvador Reyes (who has a diplomatic posting at the Chilean Embassy in Germany during World War II), Ernst Jünger (a World War I hero), and the two Bud-Abbott-and-Lou-Costello Opus-Dei followers, Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef, the cruel falcon-trainer priests, and the two characters, María Canales and her husband, who seem to be Pinochet sympathizers. They suffer their own will-driven descents into defeat, and that, at a disappointingly passionless level.
Even Father Sebastían himself is nothing more than a disinterested observer, a man who is consistently caught off-guard by the peasants and working class, a man who painfully drags you through his list of classical authors, falcon-training priests, de rigeur literary celebrities , Pinochet followers, and the narrator’s own whining defenses. And Neruda’s presence at Farewell’s literary gathering is, at best, a kind of literary insider’s joke reminiscent of the tedious litany of salon chatterers and social intrigues in an Alexander Pope satire.
One of my closest friends once remarked to me that if she doesn’t want to know the central character in a novel, she just gives the work up to a night-stand, a coffee table, or a used-book-store. Leave it to masochistic me to want to find out what the fuss is all about with Bolaño’s devotees. I just would not give By Night up to my own boredom. In doing so, I waded turtle-like into all the waters of Bolaño’s desperate frenzy to overwhelm his readers with scenes or a central character that, ultimately, just didn’t matter.
Yes, yes, we all get the connection the writer wanted to make between the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Pinochet’s brutal dictatorial rule over Chile (the Germany-Chile connection is sufficiently amplified in the novel), but did the first-person narrator have to detail the excruciating story of Don Salvador’s stay in Paris during the occupation? Does anyone really care that he drank cognac with Ernst Jünger or that Don Salvador was the only Chilean writer Jünger ever mentioned in his writings? And how much literary license does a writer have for a first-person narrator to exactly transcribe another character’s story in vivid detail?
Except for some tedious connections Bolaño seemed at pains to make, why did the author slip in an anecdote about a Viennese shoe-maker who had a dream to build a monument to the heroes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a dream that had failed through the Emperor’s indifference and the shoe-maker’s inability to raise funds for the Heroes’ Hill? In a typical Bolaño understatement, we are simply told, “The Emperor Died. A war broke out and the Empire collapsed.” The Russians enter Vienna only to scratch their heads after finding the ruins of the Hill (Are you still awake?)
To his credit, the author does follow through in his imagery of an old world under siege after a new regime enters the scene—after Pinochet’s defeat, María Canales’ house is going to be torn down and Farewell’s “old estate,” Là-bas, becomes just another ruin of the land-owning Pinochet aristocracy.
Like so many victims of a new world order, María’s plight is described by Bolaño in painful simplicity: “Her friends were gone, her money was gone, her husband had forgotten her…” And one could certainly find a parallel in the deteriorating Catholic Churches as post-Reformation failures under the new regimes of modernism and relevance.
Roberto Balaño, like A.S. Byatt, has become the darling of academics. I cannot pick up a literary journal or a book review without seeing some reference to the Chilean writer’s “meteoric ascent,” his “Goya darkness,” or to a brilliant craftsman who “has an enviable control over every beat” (These were all phrases on the back cover of By Night in Chile).
Let’s just say that I may hold my breath a long time before I plunge into another Bolaño dream-world. Maybe next year—after I hope to get through 2666 or Savage Detectives—I’ll be in a different place. After all, I keep telling myself, I sometimes return to Faulkner and can still feel the dark gothic world of Yoknapatawpa County where evil never morphs into redemption. It is epic nihilism in all of its relentless darkness.
On the other hand, given all the content for an epic battle of primal forces to be reckoned with—the Catholic Church, Pinochet, the Chilean intelligentsia—Bolaño’s By Chile world is hopelessly mired in its own crafted brilliance and self-referential irony.