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In which Netty discovers that good things sometimes do come in small packages …

February 11, 2014
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You really should read this guy and Imma tell you why …

Really, this was a bit of a cop-out on our behalf. Or should I say my behalf, seeing I was dead keen on adding Roberto Bolano – an author in whom I have long been interested, but had never previously read – to this year’s Reading Challenge.

I would love to read 2666 or The Savage Detectives, but those babies clock in at 900-plus and 700-odd pages, respectively. Maybe I’ll get around to it some day; I hope that I will. I suppose I could have even plumped for Distant Star or Amulet, both at a far more respectable less-than-200 pages.

So for those in a similar position to me – wanting in, but unsure of where to start – American writer Junot Diaz reckons Amulet is a better starting point into Bolano’s canon (you can listen to Diaz’s thoughtful treatise about the author and his work on Jennifer Byrne’s The Book Club here). In fact, Diaz urges his fellow panellists to read Amulet, then reread By Night In Chile. And seeing the latter – the book that kicks off this year’s Reading Challenge – is a mere slip of a thing at 130 pages, it’s a perfectly feasible proposition.

However, be not fooled by its brevity. There is a helluva lot of meat on this novella’s seemingly slim frame. It’s not the easiest book I have ever tackled, but that owes a lot to its format. As Andy noted, it is one paragraph. Well, two, actually – but the second paragraph is a seven-word sentence right at the end of the book. It is obviously meant to be read in one sitting, which is a perfectly viable proposition, but the lack of breaks, of pauses, ratchets up the degree of difficulty. Think of it as the literary equivalent of traversing a slight incline – it’s not steep by any stretch of imagination, but you’ll still be out of breath and really feeling it when you finally reach the top.

The other thing about By Night in Chile – you will get so much more of it if you’re familiar with the country’s recent political and social history. I have never been to Chile and have only a very nodding acquaintance with its immediate back story – Allende, Pinochet, “the disappeared”, all of which come into play in these pages. Bolano, who was born in Santiago, moved to Mexico with his family at the age of 15, but returned five years later as a young political activist to support then-president Salvador Allende’s socialist regime. After Augusto Pinochet’s September 1973 coup d’etat, Bolano was arrested and briefly jailed on terrorism suspicions. He was released and returned to Mexico, before relocating to Spain five years later; he died there in 2003 at the age of 50, as a result of liver failure.

Much of Bolano’s work is political in nature, and draws heavily on the Latin American/Spanish traditions, as expected. He crammed a lot into a 30-year writing career, producing a dozen novels and several collections of short stories and poetry – some published posthumously. Interestingly, about half of Bolano’s books – including our copy of By Night In Chile – were translated by Australian academic Chris Andrews. I have long pondered the influence of a translator on a particular work, especially as I am not proficient enough in any foreign language to read a whole book in it! I suppose the fact that so many of Bolano’s works were translated by Andrews is its validation.

The premise is a simple one: Chilean priest Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix lies alone in bed, dying (or, at least, he thinks he is dying). What follows is fevered reverie; a lengthy confession to a nearby mocking “wizened youth” who probably represents the young Lacroix; a flood of past incidents and memories of a lifetime now undergoing hasty re-evaluation as the father believes his final breath draws near. There is nonetheless an order to this seemingly random jumble of thoughts as Lacroix looks back over his life, from his teenage entry into the seminary, to his parallel career as a literary critic and sometime poet, and his involvement in the Chilean literary intelligentsia.

The turning point comes when Lacroix is sought out by a pair of men, Mr Raef and Mr Etah, who supposedly represent an import-export company. They prevail upon the father to embark on a European voyage to evaluate the state of the continent’s churches and their preservation methods. This, fantastically and satirically enough, involves the deployment of falcons to counteract the pigeons whose shit is having an acid-like effect on the physical structures, hastening their decay. Mission accomplished, Raef and Etah later return to co-opt Lacroix to tutor General Pinochet and his minions in Marxism. Meanwhile, the father starts to attend literary salons, hosted by a writer, Maria Canales, in her home on the outskirts of the city. In time he becomes aware of the atrocities behind the civilised veneer of the society he inhabits – but he can, and does, seek shelter behind his cassock, as he has done throughout his life. Much like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the veil is removed at the end; while Kurtz was left to lament “The horror! The horror!”, Lacroix’s final words are, “And then the storm of shit begins”.

The impracticality and difficultness of the one-paragraph presentation aside, and the criss-crossing across time and country, the story still unfolds beautifully; there is definitely an order to the chaos. The words are languid, and often take on a somnambulant quality – a testament, I guess, to both author and translator. Marieke Hardy notes in the aforementioned The Book Club episode that it like being lulled to sleep, and I can hardly add a better description.

So if you’re a newcomer to Bolano, perhaps take Diaz’s advice and start with Amulet. Andy read By Night In Chile twice; I am going to seek out Amulet, then reread Night. Then there’s 2666 – and hopefully I won’t have to wait that long to getting around to reading it …

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