A spellbinding and hypnotically numbing story, By Night In Chile, is a first-person account of the narrator’s life recollections as he is facing his final days. Speaking in a lyrical and often dream-like single paragraph that spans 130 pages, Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix begins his story with this captivating opening:
“I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with my life. 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. ” (1)
And from there Fr. Urrutia launches into a meandering telling of his life experiences amidst the backdrop of the Chilean history of the latter part of the 20th century. This is as much the story of Fr. Urrutia as it is the story of Chile. With a driving and forward moving lyricism this story flows from Urrutia’s early days in the priesthood, to his days traveling in Europe, to the post revolutionary period when Urrutia finds himself teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his generals.
Through these many happenings Urrutia has a lifelong love affair with literature, acting as a literary critic as well as a poet under a pseudonym. Urrutia’s literary passions allow him to bump elbows with Pablo Nerruda through the acquaintance of his friend and fellow critic Farewell. Farewell makes many sexual advances on Urrutia, but these advances hardly bother him, what wears down upon his heart is the decline of literature in the Chilean culture. He longs for a Chile that celebrates Tolstoy, Pound, Whitman, and Borges, but that Chile is an underground culture subject to the rules and structures imposed by the formerly socialist government of Allende and the dictatorship of Pinochet. Although there are political undertones throughout the book, this isn’t a political book. From the somber tone of many of his digressions the reader gets the sense that Urrutia pays little mind to the politics of his country, for what he simply longs for is a country that can look beyond the temporarility of politics and reflect upon the greater truths of beauty provided through the arts.
This being my second book by Bolaño, I’ll say that I enjoyed it much more that The Savage Detectives. I found that The Savage Detectives was too audacious in scope, too broad and with too many seemingly disconnected ideas to make it a favorite of mine. On the contrary, By Night in Chile, is direct and simple, and although the book is told in a single meandering paragraph, it never feels run-on or burdensome. There is a poetic nature to the writing that promotes the narrator’s ability to blend many short stories into a single work that reflects his life as well as the history of Chile in a reflective account. I found the choice to use a priest as the narrator/confessor to be well played because as a priest his character is able to be less concerned with the newest flavor of politics – it is very believable that he is concerned about the cultural and literary identity of Chile because the cultural identity is much closer to the soul of Chile than the newest political movement ever would be.
The weaknesses I found in By Night in Chile were many of the same weaknesses that I found in The Savage Detectives, that being that Bolaño uses excessive name dropping of literary authors in ways that does not progress the story. It is as though Bolaño is attempting to eulogize his love for the many authors he has read and known by referencing him in his works. I could do without that, yet it is only a minor weakness in this spellbinding novella. It is a book I will turn to again in the years to come.