By 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 know next to nothing.
But I thought the time had come to try again; before finishing The Savage Detectives or 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 a dying right-wing priest/poet/critic is not only an indictment out of his own mouth of a clerical fascist but is also a examination of literature’s essential complicity with authority and terror.
It is a novella of admirable atmosphere. Bolaño can create the most uncanny effects—the shadows of the hurrying citizens on a cafe wall, the narrator’s various visions of a wizened youth, the priest’s whole long account of church falconry in Europe, the climactic story of the literary “evenings” where everything feels slightly wrong (and we soon find out why).
Bolaño’s suggestions of double-meaning also moved me: the falcon, for instance, is an unforgettable symbol of the church’s predation, its death-dealing protection of its moribund authority. The pigeon-shit, by contrast, the “storm of shit” that descends at the novella’s conclusion, evokes 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.
On the other hand, Bolaño’s one-paragraph trick seems like a mere surface gimmick borrowed, perhaps, from Bernhard, but not an organic part of the novel’s meaning or 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, and dialogue that 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 novella’s politics? I am not a historian of Chile, so no doubt a lot of such subtext remained beneath my awareness. And no one who reads it can forget the novella’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 fact, no doubt hoping for some other, better definition of literature, one that sides with the pigeons and doves 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 world? 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. I worry that this is fashionable antinomianism, aestheticized revolutionism, 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.