Roberto Bolano: By Night in Chile

There is not much overlap these days between the worlds of literature and politics. The president is illiterate, only ever referring to a couple of books, and even the marginalized theoreticians do not have a great grounding in the humanities, dismissing the leftist/progressive trends of many fiction writers and poets as impractical and unhelpful. LaHaye and Jenkins’s Left Behind series does not qualify, since the books are total agitprop. Politics feeds the art, not the other way around, since LaHaye sketches out the plots based on fundamentalist Biblical prophecies he makes.

Roberto Bola&#xf1o (the link is to an excellent biographical overview) was in Chile during the transition from the socialist Allende to the authoritarian Pinochet, and the political landscape of By Night in Chile is one where church, state, and literature all mix together. The main character, Father Urrutia, is brought up in the seminary, associates with conservative priests who are also literary critics, hears them praise Neruda to the skies and damn Allende, and eventually get their wishes when Pinochet takes power. Urrutia himself is recruited at one point by mysterious figures to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so that he may know the enemy.

Bola&#xf1o, a socialist, is wholly unsympathetic to these people. Nearly everyone is sympathetic to the horrors around them, and the more distant figures, like Neruda, are painted as oblivious and self-satisfied in their complicity. The conservative upper-class of literature, the book screams at us, has cut itself off from humanity.

The key scene comes near the end, around a literary party hosted by a charming demimonde, Maria Canales, and her American husband Jimmy Thompson. Urrutia tells us that he later heard that one of the guests has wandered into the basement and found a tortured prisoner, and that indeed, Thompson has regularly been using the basement to imprison and interrogate anti-Pinochet elements (though not, as a rule, to kill them). Urrutia asks himself about it:

If Maria Canales knew what her husband was doing in the basement, why did she invite guests to her house? Because, normally, when she had a soiree, the basement was unoccupied. I asked myself the following quesiton: Why then, on that partiuclar night, did a guest who lost his way find that poor man? The answer was simple: Because with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine. I asked myself the following question: Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? The answer was simple: Because they were afraid. I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late.

The scene is apparently based on a true story about husband and wife Mariana Callejas and Michael Townley, which Ben Richards discusses in The Underside of the Dump, and the incident is described with such neutral detachment that it seemed plucked from reality before I knew that it was. The image of well-bred, religious Chilean poets and critics having a cocktail party while standing above a torture room is indelible. Urrutia’s haunted, half-guilty stream-of-consciousness is unreliable and self-justifying, but the images jump out from the muck as things that he cannot deny any longer.

And so it is with the role of literature. Bola&#xf1o deploys an unreliable narrator in a stream-of-consciousness (except for the last sentence, the whole book is a single paragraph) style, in order to knock down the hierarchy of Chilean literary culture: to say that this sad, dying man is the voice of Chilean literature, not the pompous words that were published publicly. Bola&#xf1o avoids setting down any specific criteria for what constitutes a literature of integrity; he is more concerned with indicting a certain style and voice, one that has stood for Chilean literature that he sees as hopelessly corrupted. Like the torture chamber beneath the cocktail party, he wants to find the authentic, evil voice beneath the genteel, socialized voice.

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