Thursday, August 27, 2009

By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño
2000, 130 pp.

While reading reviews of Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, I could not help but notice that everyone who writes anything about Bolaño mentions By Night in Chile at some point. It is frequently the reviewer's introduction to Bolaño (James Wood seems to have stolen his copy from a friend) and is referred to in hushed tones, like a powerful talisman or a frightening bouncer, often using phrases like "glittering perfection." It is a short book, and I was greatly enjoying The Savage Detectives, so I obtained it immediately to see what Bolaño can do with the notoriously difficult novella form.

The answer is, he can do anything he wants. Novellas are tricky creatures: too long to be a short story which has only one sustained theme and few scenes, but too short to develop subplots and major complications as in a novel. Bolaño solves the problem by structuring the novella as a rambling deathbed monologue, delivered in a single 130-page paragraph. The dying man was a conservative Jesuit priest named Father Urrita, who was something of a toady and a hanger-on to the conservatives who supported and constituted the Pinochet regime. He fawns on a famous literary critic, meets Pablo Neruda, goes on absurd missions for Opus Dei, and gives Pinochet and his generals lessons in Marxism. He seems a bit unhinged, alternately boastful and defensive, and all the while plagued by visions of a "wizened youth," who follows him through his life, judging him.

Bolaño presents this in long, coiled, lovely sentences, almost precisely in the style of the great José Saramago. This seems like an almost gratuitous demonstration of skill. In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño proves that he can mimic anyone's voice with precision: here he proves he can adopt the voice of one of the century's finest writers. Bolaño lived in Barcelona for some time and was immensely well-read, so I cannot assume he was unfamiliar with Saramago's work, but instead recognized the beauty and grace of the long, eventful sentence demonstrated in Saramago's work, and in the work of Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald. He apparently was not content simply to show off his control of the novella as a form, he also is demonstrating his mastery of style and the sublime improvements that choice of style lends to his solutions to the difficulties of the form. Have a look at this, a small fragment broken off from a giant, powerful sentence:

"and in its own way the painting was an altar for human sacrifice, and in its own way the painting was an acknowledgement of defeat, not the defeat of Paris or the defeat of European culture bravely determined to burn itself down, not the political defeat of certain ideals that the painter tepidly espoused, but his personal defeat, the defeat of an obscure, poor Guatemalan, who had come to the City of Light determined to make his name in its artistic circles, and the way in which the Guatemalan accepted his defeat, with a clear-sightedness reaching far beyond the realm of the particular and anecdotal..."

That sentence goes on for about three pages, telling the story of an artist dying alone in an attic. There are lots of lengthy stories in the book, all of them ending in failure and loss. When another story ends, we are treated to a startling simile: "And when I finished telling this story, Farewell was still staring at me, his half-closed eyes like empty bear traps ruined by time and rain and freezing cold."

Bolaño is also, as ever, scathingly political. Bolaño was an outspoken leftist, once jailed by the Pinochet regime, and lived a long time in exile. His work shows enormous, monolithic contempt for writers he considers to be government stooges or "neo-Stalinists," like Neruda, as well as for the so-called "peasant poets" or (or to Bolaño, merchants of "otherness" or "neo-PRI-ists") like Octavio Paz. His guerrilla "infrarealist" movement, parodied lovingly and sadly in The Savage Detectives was something of a literary Left Opposition, an anti-authoritarian left movement whose enemies were everyone in power, everyone with institutional backing, regardless of their position on the political spectrum. Here, in a slightly unfair but fiercely polemical bit of moral equivalence, he seems to suggest that an affection for Neruda is but the first step on the road to Pinochet.

Ultimately, By Night in Chile is a scathing condemnation of the sort of anxious intellectuals who, desperate for reassurance and self-preservation, ally themselves to power and proceed to utilize their intellects to rationalize and explain away their self-serving perfidy. There can be little doubt that the "wizened youth" is anyone other than Bolaño himself, sitting in judgment on a whole generation of moral cowardice and received opinions. By Night in Chile is a beautiful, savage, angry book, and it proves its author a writer of the very first rank, and a formidable man of conscience.

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