John Pistelli

writer

Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile

By Night in ChileBy Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back when Bolaño first broke in the US, I tried to hop aboard the bandwagon. I read Amulet and the first 100 pages of The Savage Detectives, and liked them very well for their atmosphere, their urgency, but I also couldn’t help feel that I was missing something for not sharing their contexts more intimately, the agonies of the Left in Latin America—and not to mention the literary scenes of Mexico and Chile, about which I knew—know—next to nothing.

But I thought the time had come to try again; before finishing TSD or scaling the heights—descending into the depths?—of 2666, it seemed like a good idea to get back in gently with Bolaño’s short masterpiece. This paragraph-long monologue of the dying right-wing priest/poet/critic is not only an indictment out of his own mouth of clerical fascism but also a examination of literature’s essential complicity with authority and terror.

What I liked about it:

Again and again, the atmosphere. Bolaño can create the most uncanny effects—the shadows of the hurrying citizens on the cafe wall, the various visions of the wizened youth, the whole long account of church falconry in Europe, the climactic account of the literary “evenings” where everything feels slightly wrong (and we soon find out why).

The suggestions of double-meaning also moved me: the falcon, for instance, as unforgettable symbol of the church’s predation, its death-dealing protection of its moribund authority. The pigeon-shit, then, the “storm of shit” that descends, might evoke Bolaño’s ideal for literature: everything excluded and outcast but also natural and necessary, the revolution of the wretched that frees the earth from decrepit and murderous structures. Or maybe I’m wrong about that.

What I didn’t like:

The one-paragraph trick. Seems like a surface effect borrowed maybe from Bernhard, but not an organic part of the novel’s meaning or even feeling. The priest’s monologue is certainly without the hypnotic ranting repetitive quality of Bernhard’s texts. In fact, there are lengthy passages of perfectly conventional narration/description/dialogue, some of which wouldn’t be out of place in a genre thriller (“A shiver ran down my spine,” etc.), and I uncharitably wonder if the no-paragraph-break device is just there to class them up.

What about the politics? Well, I’m not a historian of Chile, so no doubt a lot of this went over my head. And no one who reads it can forget the novel’s climactic revelation—the torture chamber in the basement of the literary soiree. But then the priest informs us that, “That is how literature is made. That is how the great works of Western literature are made”—i.e., by oblivious collaborationist aesthetes drinking and gossiping above a man being tortured. The wizened youth, the narrator’s conscience, silently protests this, no doubt hoping for some other, better definition of literature, one that sides with the pigeons, the doves, and the shit targeted by the falcons of Church and State. (The whole passage, I’m guessing, is meant to recall Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”) But I want to ask Bolaño how far you can take the pro-art but anti-civilization stance. Is this a posture one can meaningfully adopt in the modern and differentiated world? I don’t know. If you take the anti-civilization idea to the end of the line, you won’t get Pinochet—you’ll get Pol Pot. Or maybe some novels that sell to a well-heeled global readership nostalgic over the dreams of the New Left. Our author is asking the right question, but is there any answer? I suppose—don’t hate me, gentle reader—that I worry this is fashionable antinomianism, not very well thought-out, even as I too respond to it with wistful emotion, having myself been reared by my teachers on those very ’60s dreams. I will have to read more Bolaño to find out.

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