on 12 May 2003
Forget Isabel Allende - Roberto Bolano's casutic, brilliant, satirical novel is far and away the best thing produced by a Chilean author since Neruda's lyrical poetry.
This short, haunting novel is narrated by a Chilean priest and sometime literary critic on what he takes to be the last night of his life. It is filled with strange cameo experiences, surreal memories (such as teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his junta), and is also deeply memorable for the way it unpicks the "normality" of the years of the Chilean military government, and unmasks the brutality which lay beneath the veneer.
Through Chile's particular story, Bolano achieves a truly global theme - that of how the sordid, terrible, brutal suffocation of the world's dispossessed goes on all the time while "normal life" continues. In doing so, he also takes hilarious sidesweeps at Catholic Chile, at the Chilean literarty establishment, and at literary conventions.
The brilliant reviews in the Spanish press were richly deserved - go out and buy this book and introduce yourself to a new master of international fiction; someone whose short novel masks prodigious range and brilliance - streets ahead of anything by contemporary British authors.
Some people may be put off by this short novel, after all it is only two paragraphs long the last paragraph being only one sentence; indeed strictly speaking this is a monologue.
Father Sebastian Urritia Lacroix thinking that he is dying spends a sleepless night going over his life. Lacroix is more than just a priest he is a poet, a critic on literature and, a member of Opus Dei. As we follow his story we are taken into a world of the Chilean intelligentsia, the critics, poets and novelists of his life. His reminisences take in before the rise of Pinochet through to his downfall and beyond. From his trip to Europe to look at the preservation of churches ( with lots of priests taking up falconry), to teaching Pinochet and his Junta the principles of Marxist theory Father Lacroix has led an interesting life. From being touched up by another male to attending parties with other intelligentsia whilst tortures are commited on a lower floor of the building, Lacroix has seen a lot. Lacroix's tale is told through conventional narrative as well as surrealism and dream sequences.
This book won't appeal to everyone but it is well worth reading. At only a 130 pages long it doesn't take that long to read, however there is a lot in it to keep you more than interested. In all, this book is an absorbing and thoughful look at the recent history of Chile through all its turmoils.
on 22 July 2013
A mere 130 pages and double-spaced this seemed like a suitable novel to read on a trip, which is how I first encountered it. Though interesting and unusual - it's one long paragraph - it was quickly put on one side to be eclipsed by other reading matter. Some 2-3 months later, however, a chance reference to Pablo Neruda came as a reminder that the great Chilean poet appears in `By Night in Chile' in surreal circumstances. Revisiting this scene convinced me that it alone was worth the price of the book.
Resolving to read it again more slowly, I was drawn into a strange and disturbing world. Who was Roberto Bolaño? And who his self-satisfied protagonist `Father' Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix? The name indicates/implicates The Church, and Bolaño's cryptic epigraph quoting G K Chesterton hints at the grand nightmarish conspiracy of `The Man Who Was Thursday'. The `night' of the title is Father Lacroix's last night on earth, or so he believes, during the course of which a flawed and squandered life returns to haunt him.
A precocious up and coming poet from a poor background, he is invited by the leading literary critic of the day - the aptly-named Farewell - to a literary house-party on his estate `Là-bas' where he chances to observe Neruda "reciting verses to the moon, addressing the minerals of the earth, and the stars, whose nature we can only know by intuition." Humiliated by his embarrassing encounters with real farmers and poets, seduced intellectually - and perhaps also physically - by the charming Farewell, Lacroix decides to assume the role of literary critic and adopt a new identity: "And little by little the reputation of H. Ibache outstripped that of Sebastián Urruturia Lacroix, and to my satisfaction, since Urruturia Lacroix was preparing a body of poetic work for posterity, an oeuvre of canonical ambition, which would take shape gradually as the years went by ... while Ibache read other peoples' books and explained them to the public ... endeavouring to elucidate our literature, a reasonable endeavour ... an endeavour pursued in a measured conciliatory tone, like a humble lighthouse on the fatal shore."
The fatal shore is Chile, which "was not in a healthy state." After the fall of Allende and mysterious death of Neruda, Lacroix/Ibache experienced a burst of creativity: "I wrote about women, hatefully, cruelly, I wrote about homosexuals and children lost in derelict railway stations. If I had to describe my poetry, I would say that, until then, it had always been Apollonian, yet I had begun to write in what might tentatively be described as a Dionysiac mode. But in fact it wasn't Dionysiac poetry. Or demonic poetry. It was raving mad. Those poor women who appeared in my poems, what had they ever done to me?"
As the night draws to a close, he recalls all-night literary soirées at a strange mansion in the suburbs during the Junta-imposed curfew. Here "up and coming artists ... were preparing to create the New Chilean Scene" to replace those writers who had been forced to emigrate or had disappeared. He subsequently discovered `by chance' that the mansion concealed a horrific secret. Visited one last time by "the wizened youth" - his former, true, self - the critic attempts to justify himself: "... that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him. The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible `no'. The power of my thought has stopped him. Or maybe it was history. An individual is no match for history. The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history's side."
A profound and unsettling work by one who belongs in that distinguished league of writers who, like Albert Camus, questioned the inevitability of `history' - and also, tragically, died too young.
on 2 January 2013
This short book is a first person 'memoir' from the death-bed of a Chilean poet and priest, looking back on his literary career. The whole novel is told in two paragraphs, which could be exhausting to read were it not for the frequent flashes of poetic intensity and imaginative allusion.
The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago writes in a similar style, but with less deftness of touch and usually with a more cloyingly self-obsessed narrator. Bolano's narrator is sad - for he has achieved and loved little - and yet he is full of vanity about the small part which he played in the literary life of his country over many decades. His fluent soliloquy nevertheless rises above the level of disguised self-pity because his words are suffused with a dim awareness of the suffering of others. He asks 'Is there a solution?' to the cruelties inflicted by those in political power, and knows there is no answer.
I found the narrator entirely unconvincing as a priest. Apart from a few cliches, such as hearing 'God's call' aged thirteen, no substance is given to the narrator's religious calling, which is conceived as an undemanding retreat from life. Similarly, one of the two main devices whereby the Chilean literary establishment during General Pinochet's time is condemned by implication, is rather contrived: the literati are imagined to have dined out weekly in the home of a hostess whose American husband tortured opponents of the regime in the basement of the same house. However, the casual and thinly described scenes where the narrator teaches Marxism to Pinochet and a few of his fellow generals creates a plausible shadowland, where a feeble neutrality teeters into a form of collaboration.
Read this for the beauty of the style and the sustained aura created by the narrator's voice. The translator, Chris Andrews, is also to be congratulated.
This novel is narrated in the first person by the ill and ageing Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix over the course of a single evening. Father Urrutia believes that he is dying, and in a feverish monologue, with a not entirely reliable memory, he revisits some of the crucial events of his life as a Chilean priest, member of Opus Dei, a literary critic and a mediocre poet.
`Words emerging from one dream and entering another.'
In his delirium, Father Urrutia sees various characters, both real and imaginary, as monsters. Monsters they may be, many of them, in life as well as in fiction. As Father Urrutia's monologue ranges from Opus Dei to falconry, to private lessons on Marxism for General Augusto Pinochet, the `wizened youth' reminds him of his shortcomings. And during this long night, while we hear Father Urrutia's `confession' and feel his need to find himself without blame in the events he describes, the imagery signals differently. If the `wizened youth' represents both dormant conscience and repressed consciousness, then it is not a burden for Father Urrutia to bear alone.
`One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one's actions, and that includes one's words and silences...'
The Chilean literary establishment is also complicit: how else can a house used by those with literary aspirations double as a torture centre? This may be satire, but it is highly disturbing as well.
`.. a white shirt as immaculate as my hopes..'
I am currently reading my way through Roberto Bolaño's work. This novel was first published in 2000, and was the first of Bolaño's novels to be published in English (in 2003).
on 11 May 2014
Bolaño is not an easy read. There are few paragraph breaks in this novel so it requires your full attention, both emotionally and mentally. A lot of the storyline is tied to Chile's history, Pinochet's dictatorship (1970's-90's) and the role of the church and the Americans in consolidating his power. However if you are up to the task, this is a fantastic read.
on 18 December 2014
First book I've ever been unable to finish. As another reviewer wrote, the author has experimented with writing as a continuous block of text. Paragraphs exist for a reason, not using them makes reading tiresome as you pick the story apart manually. I got about half way through the book and gave up, having not formed any attachment to any of the characters. The story seemingly rambling around various locations with no particular plot, and the individual events not of any real interest. I was hoping to learn a little about Chile, but it didn't do that because it assumes knowledge and I suspect this book will only be of interest to those who already know of the personalities that appear and the recent history of Chile. For this reason the satire mentioned by other reviewers went over my head. Perhaps if I had persisted the genius of the piece would be revealed to me, but I lost all will to care about the protagonist and what he gets up to. I've purposely not used paragraphs in my review to give a taste of what you'll be getting if you read this book.
on 16 January 2015
Give it a try, interesting insight into Chile and the Chilean mind-set.Also addresses some of the crimes committed by the Americans in Chile under Pinochet.
on 12 January 2016
on 10 March 2010
I read this one based on amazon reviews and my enjoyment of 'Last Evenings on Earth' also by Bolano. I found it to be quite unpleasant to read, not so much because of the content but the style. I realise Roberto is being experimental here, but he can experiment on someone else.