Book Review: The underside of the dump, ‘By Night in Chile’ by Roberto Bolaño

Ben Richards

BolanoFather Sebastian Urrutia is dying. Or believes that he is dying. In a single night – with sometimes querulous voice and not entirely reliable memory – he revisits scenes from his life as a failed poet but eminent literary critic. And through the character of Urrutia, the Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño produces a brilliant analysis of Chilean literature and the contaminated soil out of which it has emerged.

Urrutia is a member of Opus Dei, repelled by everyday humanity, twisted by the semi-repression of his homosexuality and tormented about his shortcomings by an engimatic shadow figure, a “wizened youth”. Urrutia’s odyssey begins with his arse being fondled by his literary mentor after listening awe-struck to Pablo Neruda declaiming poetry at the moon on a country estate. A succession of European episodes culminates in a return to Chile as Urrutia reads Greek tragedy through the heady days of Allende’s Popular Unity government. He ends up instructing General Pinochet and the military junta in Marxist doctrine (although they are often more interested in the physical appearance of Chilean theorist Marta Harnecker). Urrutia is concerned that people might be alarmed by this opportunist supping with the devil, but his worries evaporate when he realises that people do not care or even consider that he is morally compromised. In fact, both his early Neruda-worship and his collusion with the dictatorship are wholly consistent with a man who claims to be “on the side of history”.

Bolaño’s satire reaches its apex with the last section of the novel, which is based partly on real events. Maria Canales is a woman with literary aspirations who hosts one of the salons that mushroom in Santiago. Just as Urrutia himself may be partly inspired by an influential Opus Dei literary critic of the newspaper El Mercurio, so Canales is clearly modelled on Mariana Callejas, who was married to Michael Townley – one of the most notorious killers of Pinochet’s secret police. Among other crimes, Townley was responsible for the murder of Allende’s ex-minister Orlando Letelier and American citizen Ronni Moffit in Washington DC.

Bolaño uses this to illustrate the supine nature of the Chilean literary establishment under the dictatorship. The house in which Canales promotes her literary aspirations is not only used as a salon but also as a torture centre. An avant-garde theorist of theatre wanders into the basement and discovers a torture victim tied to a metal bed. So disturbed is he by this discovery that he shuts the door delicately and remembers to turn off the lights before leaving the basement. Urrutia, of course, does not know about this until “later”, offering the familiar defence: “I was not afraid, I would have been able to speak out but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late.”

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews. 144pp, Harvill, £10.99

Link to the full review: The Guardian Books


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