Shadow play and the “whirlpool of history” – Book Review: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Publisher: Vintage
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-099-45939-2
Published: 2009 [2000]
No. of Pages: 130
Price: £7.99

I recently listened to a Guardian Books podcast which discussed modern Latin American literature, and the name Roberto Bolaño popped up a few times. I had heard of his novel 2666 and have even picked it up in bookshops a couple of times but have felt slightly daunted by its size. After hearing about him again, I had a look for some of his work in my local library and came across his novella By Night in Chile.

The novella follows the thoughts and memories of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix who thinks he is on his death bed and sees the more prominent parts of his life flashing up before him. There are some memorable episodes; his encounter with the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, his employment by shady characters to gather information of practices of church preservation across Europe (including falconry to scare off pigeons and doves and their toxic faeces from damaging the buildings), and his employment as an educator of Marxist theories to General Pinochet and his cabinet ministers.

The novella is very Latin American in its feel, by which I mean there are moments which seem a little outlandish, there is an artistic licence taken with certain figures and times of history that I think is a big feature of Latin American writing. It reminded me very much of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende and their talent for weaving real historical events into their narratives with additional, fictional, details.

It is quite a quick read, one reason being that in this novella, Bolaño seems to dispense with the full stop. Some sentences run on over pages, the Father’s recollections running away with him, adding more and more details to stories as he remembers them. At times I found this a bit tiresome and it required greater concentration than I could give it on my morning commute, but when I took the time to sit down and concentrate on the narrative, I really enjoyed the fluid style, how drawn in you became to the Father’s consciousness.

Another of the main characters in the story is a literary critic named Farewell, who he visits as a young man, having just recently become a priest. On his arrival, he remembers the scene:

Our Lady of Suffering, Our Lady of Insight, Our Lady of Poetry, do not leave your devoted subject at the mercy of the elements, I murmured, while several tiny birds, magenta, black, fuchsia, yellow and blue in colour, wailed quién, quién, quién [who, who, who], at which point a cold wind sprang up suddenly, chilling me to the bone.

In small piece of the narrative, you can get a sense of the Father, his interests in religion and literature, and his troubles finding his own path in life and deciding who he really is, whilst showing his memory plucking images and experiences back as he lies dying. The presence of death is always following him, showing up in a peasant boy lurking in a doorway, or a dying painter, or most obviously, in the name of his friend and mentor, Farewell. Death is heavy on his mind and you wonder if all of these thoughts are just hallucinations, his mind wandering, filled with the books and the words of writers and poets that have influenced him throughout his life.

He does come to question the point of reading and writing, displayed in a conversation between himself and Farewell:

[Farewell]: What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows.
[…]
And I: Can you make out anything clearly in the shadow play? Can you see particular scenes, or the whirlpool of history, or a crazy ellipse? […] Can you see anything there about Chile? Can you see the future of our land?
[…]
And Farewell: I see Neruda’s profile and my own, but, no, I’m mistaken, it’s just a tree, I see a tree, the multiple, monstrous silhouette of its dead leaves, like a sea drying up, it looks like a sketch of two profiles, but actually it’s a tomb out in the open
[…]
And I: How odd, it doesn’t look like anything to me, just shadows, electric shadows, as if time had speeded up.

This exchange is much lengthier and detailed in the book, but the part I have chosen shows the layout of the whole novel and its preoccupations: death, Chile, and literature. The novel is itself filled with shadows of the past, and takes you on a journey through Urrutia’s personal version of history. It is a cleverly written and, if it’s possible to describe a novella as such, quite dense. It might take a little concentration but it is a rewarding read, comic and at times hard to believe, but entertaining and educating too. Another Latin American writer that I want read more of!

If you’re interested, have a listen to the Guardian Books podcast I mentioned earlier, and read Ingrid Bejerman’s recommendations of Latin American books to read here.

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