Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Roberto Bolaño, “By Night in Chile”

 – Nocturno de Chile. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2003; ISBN 978-0-8112-1547-3 ; 130 p.

Read from  December 29th 2017 to January 9th 2018

My rating:

“Take off your wig” says Chesterton in the motto of Roberto Bolaño’s novella, By Night in Chile. Then tell the truth, the bald truth, and nothing but the truth.

But what truth? On his deathbed, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, priest, literary critic and aspiring poet, mightily takes responsibility for his actions, words and even silences, in a fractured confession that has both the appearance of truth and the suggestion of delusion, although he always seems sanctioned by the spectre of a mysterious, slightly menacing wizened youth:

The wizened youth is watching from a yellow street corner and yelling at me. (…) I can see his jaws and his lips moving and I know he’s shouting, but I cannot hear his words. He can see me whispering, propped up on one elbow, while my bed negotiates the meanders of my fever, but he cannot hear my words either.

But does he? Take responsibility, that is? His confession, a long monologue without paragraphs, is told by night, a stormy night whose lightning covers and uncovers past events Lacroix tries to explain, justify or conveniently minimalize, not unlike any unreliable narrator literature and life acquainted us with. For night is not only the other part of the day, is also the other part of the memory, that part of the memory better left alone no matter what the wizened youth has to yell.

The auto-portrait the narrator rises from these shadows is that of a victim, both from an intellectual and social point of view: on one hand he cultivates the figure of the damned poet, of the genius misunderstood by a society not yet prepared for his fine poetry despite his efforts, as a literary critic, to educate them, and on the other hand he implies he was an oppressed citizen, forced to obey and dutifully serve the political regime like any faithful Opus Dei member (that is to say, following the example of the support this conservative Roman Catholic group had showed for Franco’s regime).

There are four main stories Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix remembers on his deathbed: the first encounter with his mentor, Farewell, who will test both his literary and sexual talents, the trip to Europe with the mission entrusted to him by his superiors to try and save European churches menaced with decay by pigeon shit, the nine Marxist lessons given to Pinochet and his generals and the literary meetings in María Canales’s house, house that was secretly used by the secret police for imprisonment and torture. These four stories, subtly interconnected, offer not only a dramatic image of Chilean literature under the dictatorship but also a dramatic image of the intellectual’s behaviour under the terror.

The first tale, which happened in the relatively normal times before Pinochet’s coup, is a foreshadowing of the narrator’s destiny, stressing his penchant for ambivalence and opportunism: his ambition is to become an authority as a literary critic while pretending he is truly a poet in disguise; he offers the image of the candid priest, unconcerned with the pleasures of the flesh, while concealing his homosexuality.

Later on, his ability in concealing his thoughts will protect him during his time as an ad-hoc teacher of the Junta, “smiling beatifically” in approval whenever one of the generals will speak to him, and solemnly promising Pinochet, whom he had listened boasting that he was more literate than the most important national figures because he had written three books, to look for those books and read them all. Now, believing he is dying, he mimics a metaphysical anxiety to justify his controversial role in the tale:

Nine classes. Nine lessons. Not much of a bibliography. Was it all right? Did they learn anything? Did I teach them anything? Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done? Is Marxism a kind of humanism? Or a diabolical theory? If I told my literary friends what I had done, would they approve? Would some condemn my actions out of hand? Would some understand and forgive me?

On the contrary, for what happened in María Canales’s house, he is in denial. He repeatedly says that he was not so frequent a visitor, that he had not encouraged mediocrity by helping her to win some literary national prize although, in his opinion “she was not without talent”, and above all and most importantly, that he did not know what was happening in the basement of the house, for had he known, he would have surely spoken up. However, the words of the same Canales, whom he visits once long after the infamous events, that "That is how literature is made in Chile," are met with the narrator strong approval, as the only way of redemption, since one’s suffering, and one’s ignominy and one’s cowardice we can call it all literature "to prevent ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump".

I let on purpose the second story to be discussed last, because it is in the very end that its whole meaning is revealed: like the Church institution that needs hawks to protect it from the metaphorical decay caused by the pigeon shit (wasn’t the pigeon also a metaphor of the Holy spirit?), humankind needs the wizened face of remorse to keep itself going, to redeem itself a little, to offer some protection against the “storm of shit” that menaces to decay forever its own moral values.

And then in the half-light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I that wizened youth? Is that the true, the supreme terror, to discover that I am the wizened youth whose cries no one can hear? And that the poor wizened youth is me? And then the faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The faces I protected, those I attacked, the faces I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.

And then the storm of shit begins.

Roberto Bolaño’s splendid novella does not impress, however, only because of its brilliant satirical depiction of the intellectual condition (in Chile and elsewhere), but also because its stylistic accomplishments. As Ben Richard said in his review  published by The Guardian in 2003, “this is a wonderful and beautifully written book by a writer who has an enviable control over every beat, every change of tempo, every image. The prose is constantly exciting and challenging - at times lyrical and allusive, at others filled with a biting wit…”

Therefore, I could not finish my review without a last example of this perfect cadence of the phrase, of this strange and powerful combination between irony and lyricism:

The young bard’s laugh, by contrast, was slender as a wire, nervous wire, and always followed Farewell’s guffaw, like a dragonfly following a snake.

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