By Night in Chile – review
Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night In Chile is a slim volume, 130 pages in the English translation by Chris Andrews, and is a narrative comprised of only two paragraphs.
It reads like this:
In the fifth class I talked about Wages, Price and Profits and discussed the (Communist) Manifesto again. After an hour General Mendoza was sleeping soundly. Don’t worry said General Pinochet, come with me. I followed him to a large window, which looked out over the gardens behind the house. A full moon illuminated the smooth surface of a swimming pool. He opened the window. Behind us I could hear the muffled voices of the generals talking about Marta Harnecker. A delicious perfume given off by clumps of flowers was wafting all through the gardens. A bird called out and straight away, from somewhere within the walls or from an adjoining property, a bird of the same species replied, then I heard a flapping of wings that seemed to rip through the night and then the deep silence returned, unscathed. Let’s take a walk, said the general. As if he were a magician, as soon as we stepped through the window-frame and entered the enchanted gardens, lights came on, exquisitely scattered here and there among the plants. Then I talked about The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which Engels wrote on his own, and the General nodded at each stage of my explanation, now and then asking a pertinent question, and from time to time both of us fell silent and looked at the moon sailing on alone through infinite space. Perhaps it was that vision that gave me the nerve to ask him if he knew Leopardi. He said he didn’t. He asked who Leopardi was. We stopped for a moment. Standing at the window, the other generals were looking out into the night. A nineteenth-century Italian poet, I said. If I may be so bold, sir, I said, this moon reminds me of two of his poems. “The Infinite” and “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia”. General Pinochet did not express the slightest interest. Walking beside him I recited what I knew by heart of “The Infinite”. Nice poetry, he said.
Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix is a Catholic priest, a failed poet, a literary critic, and a member of Opus Dei. On his deathbed he attempts to justify his own complacency, condemning himself by failing to convince us of the goodness in his life. We perceive him as a quintessentially modern villain, one who is marked out by his silence in the face of evil.
There are wonderful images produced throughout the novel; our hapless priest involves himself in a programme to save the decaying churches of Europe from pigeon shit by the use of birds of prey, where it seems almost every parish priest harbours his own falcon. Pablo Neruda addresses the moon with his poetry. And in the final section of the book a literary soirée is held in the upper rooms of a house while a working torture chamber takes apart political prisoners in the cellar.
In this short novel Bolaño brings together church, state, and literature in a magical and extraordinary way. He is an astonishing writer.