Roberto Bolano, By Night in Chile (New Directions, 130 pages, 2000, tr. by Chris Andrews, 2003)
I first encountered Roberto Bolano (there’s a tilda over the “n,” so it’s pronounced Bolahn-yo) as a character in the Spanish writer Javier Cercas’s unforgettable novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001, tr. 2003). Cercas presents Bolano as a “softly-spoken, curly-haired, scruffy, unshaven Chilean” who offers the Spaniard indispensable advice about writing, advice which rescues the novel in which Cercas is stuck, the very novel that we’re reading. In Soldiers of Salamis, Cercas portrays himself as a failing novelist and struggling journalist, who is doing a series of interviews with various transplanted intellectuals, businessmen and athletes who have settled in Catalonia, the part of Spain where Cercas lives and works. Bolano, a Chilean writer, is one of the interviewees.
Cercas gives a thumbnail sketch of Bolano’s life, which included a stint as a revolutionary in Allende’s Chile in the early 1970s, prison in Pinochet’s Chile, exile in Mexico and France, travel, some complicated medical problems, and finally a rather ascetic literary life with his wife and children in a small Catalonian town. They’re having a drink at a bar and talking about Pinochet. “Naturally, I asked him what it’d been like to live through Pinochet’s coup and the fall of Allende. Naturally, he regarded me with an expression of utter boredom,” Cercas reports.
Then Bolano replies, “Like a Marx Brothers’ movie, but with corpses. Unimaginable pandemonium… Look, I’ll tell you the truth. For years I spat on Allende’s name every chance I got. I thought it was all his fault, for not giving us weapons. Now I kick myself for having said that about Allende. Fuck, the bastard thought about us as if we were his kids, you know? He didn’t want them to kill us. And if he’d let us have those guns we would have died like flies. So… I think Allende was a hero.”
“And what’s a hero?” Cercas asks.
Bolano pauses, then says, “I don’t know. Someone who considers himself a hero and gets it right. Or someone who has courage and an instinct for virtue, and therefore never makes a mistake, or at least doesn’t make a mistake the one time when it matters, and therefore can’t not be a hero. Or someone, like Allende, who understands that a hero isn’t the one who kills, but the one who doesn’t kill or who lets himself get killed. I don’t know. What’s a hero to you?”
Trying to answer that question is what allows Cercas to finish Soldiers of Salamis. One of the many interesting things about Cercas’s novel, which is nonetheless “a true tale,” is the way Cercas plays with fictional and real persons. (In that sense, Soldiers of Salamis bears some affinity to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, another masterpiece.) When, upon finishing Cercas’s book, I asked my Spanish-language-novel mentor, Alberto Manguel, who was fictional and who was real in the book, I was reassured to learn that Bolano was a real person, although I’d never read any of his work, or indeed even heard of him until I ran into him in the pages of Cercas’s writing.
Then, by sad coincidence, a couple of months later, in July 2003, I read in a newspaper that Roberto Bolano had died, at age 50, of liver failure, in Barcelona, and I felt that little stab of grief one feels when mortality assaults an acquaintance, an acquaintance whom I’d never met but who nonetheless I’d become fond of in the pages of a fiction. When, by further coincidence, I learned that a novel by Bolano had been translated into English, I immediately read it.
Naturally—to use that word as Cercas does—I wouldn’t be bothering you with this rather elaborate lead-up if Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile wasn’t magic.
Bolano’s narrative is framed as a deathbed (or deathboat) confession by Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, literary critic and poet. His night-long vision-riddled rant tells the tale of a poor boy who wants to be a poet, but who ends up as a Jesuit priest and a conservative literary critic, a member of Opus Dei who travels in the circles of Chile’s rich and powerful cultural elite. It’s by the favours of one such person, a major Chilean critic whose pen-name is Farewell, that the young and apparently cute priest is introduced to important literary figures like the communist poet Pablo Neruda and the ultra-conservative German war chronicler and novelist Ernst Junger. Father Sebastian is invited to a weekend at Farewell’s country estate, La-Bas (named for Huysman’s novel of ill-repute), which is where he meets the great Neruda and gets a hint of his own cuteness from his host. The meeting with Junger comes later, during a tour of Europe provided by agents of Opus Dei, the ultra-right Catholic organization. And Pinochet comes after that.
That’s about all I can tell you about the plot without spoiling it. The pure magic is in the way one story psychodelically (is that a word?) and unpredictably, but with absolute accuracy, melds into another, somewhat in the manner of the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi’s equally hallucinatory novel about Lisbon and Pessoa, Requiem. The deeper literary sources are, almost inevitably I suppose, Borges, with a twist of Kafka. For a while, I thought that By Night in Chile was primarily a fantastical literary tale, a story about writing and writers, and that would have been enough, I assure you, to keep me at my desk reading it in one sitting, as I did. But no, there’s much more than that. By Night in Chile also gives a substantial and chilling account of Chilean politics during the neo-fascist (is that right term?) Pinochet period. Bolano’s book is also funny, bizarre, sexy, hypnotic.
As Father Sebastian’s bed/boat moves across the swirling waters of the River Styx toward the far, final shore, the “faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied, and despised”–including the face of the now "wizened youth" that once belonged to himself. The only destruction that Bolano’s narrator resists is forgetting.
Naturally—that word again—as with Vargas Llosa’s Storyteller, Tabucchi’s Requiem, Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, if you don’t read Bolano’s By Night in Chile, there’s no point to reading at all.
Vancouver, Jan. 10, 2004