In his deathbed agony, Chilean Catholic priest Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix rightly figures he’s got a lot of explaining to do if he wants to clear his conscience. His nightlong confession, a hallucinatory, wildly veering, surreal rant that spins from Spain to Santiago to his encounters with communist Pablo Neruda and Nazi sympathizer Ernst Junger, sometimes strays but is never less than mesmerizing. Indeed, the late Roberto Bolano’s mordant, haunting and sometimes elegiac novella, “By Night in Chile,” consists solely of the ravings of the garrulous Urrutia during his last night on earth.
Urrutia’s feverish monologue -- flitting back and forth in time, populated with half-remembered images and outright ghosts, brimming with recrimination and remorse along with an industrial-sized dose of denial -- at first seems disjointed and random but soon takes the reader hurtling into the darkest psychological folds of one man and one country.
A frustrated poet (fondled by his mentor), a closeted homosexual and loyal member of the ultra-papist Opus Dei (which once sent him to Europe to salvage cathedrals from the ravages of pigeon droppings), a recognized literary critic, Urrutia finds that his final reckoning might come down to one question: How can he justify having served as a private tutor (on Marxism, no less) to bloody dictator Augusto Pinochet?
One self-serving answer from the dying cleric is that he was always “on the side of history,” so why not blow with the political winds? Of the murder and mayhem carried out by his student’s military regime, Urrutia cops the all-too-familiar moral plea: He would have spoken out against the terror if only he had known about it at the time. "[B]ut I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late,” he argues.
His memory is conveniently and selectively faulty. In another flashback -- the novel’s most compelling -- Urrutia remembers learning of the macabre and murderous practices of some of his best friends. During the most ruthless years of the dictatorship, he gathered with the Santiago literati in the elegant home of Maria Canales. When a regular, an avant-garde theater maven, wanders one night into Canales’ basement, he finds a hapless political prisoner tied to a metal bed frame. A common method of torture used by Pinochet’s minions, it is known as “la parilla” (the grill) for the electric current that is sent charging through the frame -- and the victim. All the alarmed basement visitor can do is shut off the light in the torture room, quietly close the door and quickly return upstairs to clink wine glasses and exchange the latest gossip.
“This is how literature is made in Chile,” his hostess later offhandedly remarks when Urrutia broaches the subject with her. “And everywhere else,” the priest reflects in his final hours.
The nexus of power and the arts, the willingness of some writers to make accommodation with even the most illegitimate and brutal of dictatorships, is a recurring theme in Bolano’s work but best developed in this novel. His “Literatura Nazi en America,” published in the mid-'90s, reads as a bitterly satirical sendup of the most obsequious of right-wing Latin American writers. His novella “Estrella,” chronicles the ventures of a psychotic Chilean air force pilot who cashes in on the Pinochet coup by creating his own school of modern poetry.
In “By Night in Chile,” Bolano goes a step further in his denunciations: He names names. Urrutia closely resembles another Opus Dei devotee, Jose Miguel Ibanez Langlois, who, writing under the pen name Father Ignacio Valente, was the lead literary critic of Chile’s rightist El Mercurio newspaper during the Pinochet regime and functioned for 26 years as a sort of unofficial gatekeeper to the world of Chilean letters.
Canales’ character is built on the notorious Mariana Callejas, a militant admirer of Pinochet who was embittered by her own unfulfilled literary dreams, and wife of Michael Townley. The U.S.-born Townley, working for Pinochet’s secret police, masterminded and carried out several of the regime’s overseas political assassinations, including the 1976 car bombing of Orlando Letelier and his associate Ronni Moffitt in Washington, D.C. A torture chamber much like the one described in Bolano’s novel was found in the Chilean couple’s upscale home, identified as the site of some the former dictatorship’s most horrendous high-profile murders.
Though one of Chile’s most prolific contemporary writers -- with nine novels, five poetry books and two short story collections -- Bolano won little acceptance from the literary establishment that he took so much pleasure in lambasting and mocking. The 1990 fall of Pinochet and the return of civilian rule did little to change his dim view.
Chileans have been unstintingly reluctant to fully come to terms with the legacy of Pinochet’s 17-year reign, and troublemakers like Bolano win few friends.
Little wonder that Santiago-born Bolano, who died at 50 last July of a liver disease in Barcelona, chose to live elsewhere. A high school dropout, but an insatiable reader, he had been living with his parents in Mexico in 1970 when socialist President Salvador Allende was first elected. Flying home to join Chile’s revolution, Bolano arrived just in time for Pinochet’s 1973 coup and wound up in jail. After his release from prison, he returned to Mexico, then took up residence in Spain.
Bolano’s work is hard to categorize, especially this final offering in its spot-on translation by Chris Andrews. But Urrutia’s observation that oppression and dictatorship are the most reliable incubators of fine literature, not just in Chile, but “in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy” is undeniably borne out in his last novel. Certainly he displays a remarkable knack for storytelling, his talent overshadowed only by his courageous tenacity in plumbing the unthinkable. *