Friday, October 16, 2009


I decided it was time that I tried to tackle Roberto Bolaño. Actually this is my second attempt. I started “The Savage Detectives” but it was too confusing and overwhelming. So this time I started small with his novella By Night in Chile. The entire book is the deathbed rant of Father Sebastien Urrutia, a Chilean priest, poet and literary critic.

This book is hard to put down for two reasons. The first is the practical one – since there are no chapter or paragraph breaks it's hard to pick up where you left off. But the more powerful reason is that it picks you up and sweeps you along as Sebastien revisits his past. At first his reminiscences are about literary evenings with Chilean writers and intellectuals, most notably poet Pablo Neruda. But then he meets the mysterious figures Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef (surely the backwards spelling of their names is no accident), who generously send him on a trip to Europe to study the deterioration of churches. In his travels he discovers that the main cause of the damage is pigeon droppings, and that the elegant solution employed European priests is falcons, which swoop down from steeple tops to bloody and kill their prey. What a surreal image.

Urrutia returns to Chile in time to witness the Allende government (he studies Greek classics and keeps a low profile) and the Pinochet coup (he instructs Pinochet and his generals in the basic tenets of Marxism). He eventually confesses to having attended literary evenings at the home of a glamorous hostess (he claims the visits were “infrequent” although we sense this is not the truth), not knowing, or perhaps ignoring, the brutal interrogations of political dissidents taking place in her basement.

Sometimes Bolaño's prose read like poetry, with a rhythm that carries you along with its urgency. At other times Urrutia's self-justifying confession is a biting satiric condemnation of the silence of the intellectual elite. It's a book that needs to be read in big gulps. I may have to try "The Savage Detectives" again.

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