Roberto Bolaño: Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile)
Reading this novel makes you even more sad that Bolaño tragically died at the age of 50 and also sad that there are still some of his novels not translated into English. Of course, he isn’t an easy writer. A knowledge of Chilean literature and politics is important, if not essential. Nevertheless, he is one of the most rewarding Latin American post-boom writers.
The story is the apparent deathbed testament of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix. Apparent, because he does not seem to die at the end. He more or less tells us his story or, more particularly, the highlights of his life. He is a priest, and a member of Opus Dei which, in Bolaño’s eyes, is not very positive. Despite the fact that Bolaño clearly is opposed both to his religious views and his political ones (he tends to be pro-Pinochet), Bolaño’s portrait tends to be not too unsympathetic, probably because Sebastián’s main love is literature.
Sebastián comes from a fairly poor family and is shunted into the priesthood (not unwillingly), though he is just as interested in literature and in becoming a poet. After becoming a priest, he takes up with Chile’s best-known literary critic, known to everyone as Farewell (Bolaño uses the English word). Most of the highlights of his life involve Farewell and literature. At Farewell’s house – called Là-bas, after Huysman‘s novel – he meets the poet Salvador Reyes and the first of Bolaño’s stories is told. This recounts how Reyes helped a Guatemalan painter in Paris during World War II but could do nothing to stop the painter slowly dying for no apparent reason. Sebastián also meets Pablo Neruda who is Farewell’s hero and whom we follow till the death of first Neruda and then Farewell himself. Not all the stories are literary. Sebastián is asked by Mr. Oido and Mr. Odeim – two Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like characters, who recall Lima and Belano from Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) to go on a journey to Europe to discover how churches in Europe deal with pollution and where he spends most of his time learning about how falcons are used by churches to attack birds, as bird droppings are apparently the main cause of damage for churches. Later they ask him to teach Pinochet and his generals about Marxism and Bolaño gives us a fascinating portrait of the dictator. And, all the time, Farewell is there, slowly getting old, accompanying Sebastián or meeting him, even in the house of the woman who is a literary groupie but, as they later find out, whose husband is using the house to torture Pinochet’s victims.
Sebastián himself is, of course, torn between his vocation and his right-wing views. He loves poetry and writes poetry and criticism. But he is also a priest and member of Opus Dei. His way of dealing with any crisis of faith is to plunge into literature, be it contemporary Chilean poetry or classical Greek literature (Bolaño gives us lists of both, which will make most readers feel profoundly ignorant). Nevertheless, this is a fascinating though intellectually deep novel.
First published 2000 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
First English translation 2003 by Harvill, London and New Directions, New York
Translated by Chris Andrews