By Night in Chile – Andy knows a paragraph when he sees it.February 9, 2014
And By Night in Chile is not a paragraph. It’s not even two paragraphs (if you’re counting the last line). Or at least it shouldn”t be. That’s probably the first thing that struck me as I started reading this book: Roberto Bolano had composed the entire 130-page novel as a single paragraph (with one separate line at the end) when, clearly, it could easily and should have been broken up, conventionally, into a series of shorter paragraphs.
The next thing that struck me, perhaps even more annoyingly, was that it didn’t actually matter. Bolano, here at least, is so readable that a 130-page paragraph passes like a dream. This is the first Bolano I’ve read, but I previously had the impression he was quite a difficult writer. By Night in Chile is not a difficult book.
That said, while it’s beautiful to read and relatively easy to comprehend on a superficial level, trying to nut out what Bolano’s getting at is more difficult – certainly early on. A dying priest’s memories of meeting poet Pablo Neruda at a country estate in the ’50s, and another person’s recollections of an impoverished Guatamalan artist in wartime Paris, are interesting and amusing enough, but why Bolano includes them is harder to fathom. Later accounts of the priest’s visit to Europe and his encounters with Pinochet shed some light on what Bolano is up to. In exploring the life of a priest who has been prepared to compromise his principles, if in fact he has any, from the outset, Bolano is apparently critiquing his home country and its history over the last half of the 20th century.
Or at least I think that’s what he’s up to. There are some early clues: Lacroix’s deathbed willingness to take responsibility for his “immaculate” silences, his concern at the country estate about whether to wear his cassock or a suit – a concern that resurfaces later as he is driven to meet General Pinochet – suggest a man who does not speak when he knows he should, and who is more concerned with what the world sees him to be than who he actually is. And of course there’s the persecuting “wizened youth”, presumably Lacroix’s own, dessicated, conscience. But this is on another level a novel about Chile, and as Netty and I both said when we chatted about it, it would help if you knew a bit – quite a bit, actually – about Chilean history and culture. Of the handful or so Latin American books I have read, this is arguably the most insular – although, paradoxically, it’s also one of the more enjoyable.
There were a few things about the book that surprised me, for fairly mundane reasons. Father Lacroix belongs to Chile’s literary elite – an average poet, a better literary critic. His best, older friend is Chile’s most highly regarded literary critic. And yet they react with horror to the election of the Socialist Allende government and relief to the Pinochet coup. I had foolishly assumed that this sort of intelligentsia would be left-leaning, not fascist sympathisers. Silly me. Later in the novel Lacroix teaches Pinochet and his minions about Marxism and communism so they may know their enemies better. Still later Lacroix realises he has been attending literary soirees at a house used by an American operative to torture leftists – a section based on historical fact.
Although I may be misreading this element of the book somewhat. Bolano was a leftist – he was arrested after Pinochet’s coup – and in critiquing the Chilean artistic elite’s conservatism he’s maybe condemning their refusal to support and engage with society more widely. But this may relate to Chile specifically, and again probably requires more detailed knowledge of Chilean history and culture than I possess.
Some of the writing about this book assumes Lacroix is gay and repressed. This surprised me a bit, although it might make sense. His friend the literary critic is certainly gay and occasionally betrays his sexual infatuation for his younger friend, an infatuation which the priest awkwardly fends off. His sexuality did not strike me in particular, and I read the book twice; but then there are almost no women in the book, and none of them are discussed in terms that suggest he finds them sexually attractive (quite the opposite, usually). And on his European jaunt he becomes “good friends” with “the splendid” Fr Charles, and they go on bike rides together and have picnics and drink wine, and I suppose “heard my confession on the bank of a small river that flowed into a big river, on the grass, surrounded by wildflowers and tall oak trees” might be a euphemism. Actually now that I look at that again it pretty obviously is a euphemism. Dirty fucking papists.
Bolano is best known for his “big” books, The Savage Detectives and 2666. He does have a couple of other, shorter ones, though. I’ll be tempted to check those out before I head for the behemoths. But By Night in Chile gets a not-particularly-tentative thumbs up from me.