Saturday, January 7, 2017

By Night in ChileBy Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] my cassock flapping in the wind, my cassock like a shadow, my black flag, my prim and proper music, clean, dark cloth, a well in which the sins of Chile sank without a trace."

While Roberto Bolaño's famous 2666 languishes on my shelf intimidating in its 900-pages volume his novella By Night in Chile (2000) has been just the right size for me - fewer than 120 pages! And it is a fascinating read despite the somewhat unusual form: the entire novella, except for its last stunning sentence, is written as one paragraph without any line breaks, and without dialogues. Although the reader needs to focus and pay closer attention than with more conventional prose the effort is richly rewarding.

The novella is a stream of thoughts, an inner monologue of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest and a member of Opus Dei, but also a poet, literary critic and a teacher. He has "many things to say" and not too long to live. The monologue - which at times sounds more like a confession - offers the reader a vast and fascinating panorama of literary life in Chile, a landscape of events happening amidst political turmoil. These are the times of the left-wing government of Salvador Allende, its overthrow in the 1973 coup-d'état, and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet's right-wing military regime.

The Chilean politics enters the novella quite late, about the midpoint, but once it does it holds the reader's interest in a tight grip and leads to an extraordinary and powerful ending, when we learn the secret of María Canales' house. But before politics makes its horrific entry into the plot the reader is treated with several delightful and captivating stories. Very early in the text comes the hypnotic and almost hallucinatory account of an evening and night that the narrator spent with Chile's top literary critic and when he also met the legendary poet and politician Pablo Neruda. Father Lacroix's "literary baptism" will remain in the reader's memory. As will the story of a Guatemalan painter in Paris, the extraordinary tale of the shoemaker of Vienna and his Heroes' Hill project, and the account of the narrator's trip to Europe to study "the preservation of buildings of national historical interest, with special emphasis on the use of falcons". How can one not like the names of Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, the narrator's "supervisors" in his European assignment? And the stunning tutoring sessions with his very unusual students?

Bolaño's "run-on" prose is impressive and, in fact, not as challenging as it might at first seem. Alas, I do not read Spanish to enjoy the original, but the English translation sounds to me completely natural. I have found many remarkable phrases, sentences and passages, such as
"[...] Chile itself, the whole country, had become the Judas Tree, a leafless dead-looking tree, but still deeply rooted in the black earth, our rich black earth with its famous 40-centimeter earthworms."
It is an honor to be privy to Father Lacroix's stream of consciousness and share his thoughts on the variety of levels, personal, political, historical, and artistic. Some of the monologue is framed as a conversation between the narrator and the "wizened youth." This literary device reminds me a little of my beloved author, Cees Nooteboom, and his literary games with time and passing.

(My personal favorite is Father Lacroix's sentence
"[...] for me nothing on earth could be more fulfilling than to read, and to present the results of my reading in good prose [...]"
Except for the "good prose" bit this could describe me as well.)

Extraordinary novella and beautiful writing! Strongly recommended!

Four and a half stars.

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