Saturday, September 23, 2006

Roberto Bolano: By Night in Chile

Roberto Bolano, the Chilean poet and novelist, died three years ago just when his literary stars were rising higher and higher. I had come across his name recently in the book review sections of some newspaper and I was a little intrigued but then it went off my radar. It was only after I encountered his name again on Bhupinder's excellent blog and after his recommendation that I decided to pick up his book. By Night in Chile was his first work to be translated into English. After that in the last two years two of his other books have been translated, Distant Stars, another short novel like By Night in Chile and a story collection called Last Evenings on Earth. According to reports two of his latest novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, the latter of which was published posthumously, are being translated and will appear sometime next year. Also these two novels are more ambitious works, 2666 runs to more than a thousand pages. Based on my impressions of By Night in Chile I will really be looking forward to these works.

By Night in Chile is a 130 page short novel narrated by a priest and literary critic who believes he is dying. In fact it is almost as if he feels he is short of time and wants to justify his actions of his past to somebody in a hurry, who he calls "the wizened youth." Bolano creates this feeling of impatience by making his voice querulous and feverish and by making sure that there are no paragraph breaks in the entire text! The whole book is one sustained monologue, or rather a rant, without any break in thought. Also the sentences vary wildly in length, some are short and truncated and some go on and on. For example this is how the novel starts:


I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up. So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name. Or so he intended. One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one's actions, and that includes one's words and silences, yes, one's silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one's silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all. The rest I can forego. But not God. I don't know how I got on to this. Sometimes I find myself propped up on one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself.

And then there are these long sentences which beautifully create the feeling of someone thinking and writing it down both at the same time. In that sense these long sentences differ from, say, those in Proust which are very well chiseled and thought through. This is one of the random examples...I like the way it starts from one thought and observation and then completely veers off to an entirely unrelated scene, all within a single sentence giving a sense of continuity of thought...
And the Catholic church can do without the Father and the Son, but not the Holy Spirit, who is far more important than most lay people suspect, more important than the Son who died on the cross, more important than the Father who made the stars and the earth and all the universe, and then with the tips of my fingers I touched the forehead and temples of the Castilian priest and realized immediately that he was running a temperature of at least forty degrees, and I called his housekeeper and sent her to fetch a doctor, and while I was waiting for the doctor to arrive, for something to do I examined the falcon, with his hood on, and seeing him there like that I felt it was wrong, so after getting another blanket from the sacristy and wrapping it around Fr Antonio, I found the gauntlet and took the falcon and went out on the patio where I contemplated the cold, crystal-clear night, and I removed the falcon's hood ....

And it goes on and on to almost two pages! I just loved these long sentences. It creates a feeling of immediacy and you are compelled to just go on reading. Content wise the book seems to be an indictment of Chilean literary elite for its role during the Pinochet regime. In an episode it is revealed that a fashionable literary hostess also runs a torture chamber in the same building where the literary soirees take place. In another scene General Pinochet is shown to indulge in petty games of one-upmanship. He claims that Allende, whose only claim to his fame as an intellectual is that he wrote second hand articles unlike him who wrote books, although meant for specialists!

I think the book also raises questions about the role of artists and intellectuals in politics, certainly one of the major questions in Latin American Literature. I was surprised to read that Bolano was a high-school drop-out because this book is packed with dense allusions to literature from all over the world (there is an episode involving an obscure German novelist Ernst Junger, who I didn't know existed) and he drops names all around (Baudelaire, Pount, Eliot..). And of course Pablo Neruda himself makes an appearance, as himself! I don't think I appreciated it fully, it was a little too dense and I thought it required some familiarity with Chilean politics to fully understand and put everything in right perspective.

For more. Here is a review from guardian and one in new york times. Long articles about his life and career here and here. And an obituary here.

10 comments:

adhyayan said...

Thanks for Bhupinder's blog link. I have already started reading few pages of 'The Unknown Masterpiece'.. by Balzac...despite having an upcoming exam...

Alok said...

I'm glad you liked it!

Antonia said...

this book sounds very interesting, but alas...time
my idea of Latin America's literature is still formed by Cortazar somehow

"In an episode it is revealed that a fashionable literary hostess also runs a torture chamber in the same building where the literary soirees take place."
and that reminds me of Ariel Dorfman..

bhupinder singh said...

Thanks for the link, Alok.

It was pretty quick of you to procure, read and review the book within a week !

Antonia: Ariel Dorfman has dealt with the same theme, but I found his The Last Song of Manuel Sandro long winded and oblique, Bolano is far more readable. In this book as well as in Distant Stars.

Perhaps it a matter of personal taste, but Hopscotch by Cortazar left me cold. Not so with most other Latin American writers that I have read.

Alok said...

pretty quick? ah, some consolation for a solitary life! :)

km said...

Good reco. Oh well...another stop at the library today....

Antonia said...

strange bhupinder....about Hopscotch.. I found it a touch beginning, but in the end quite some great epidsodes and the nice 'jump' metaphor which makes it so very tempting to apply Kierkegaards jump to it....not that I dare to do so...
thanks for the Bolano hint,too...when I ever will have some time I know what to read...

Fausto Maijstral said...

Bolaño was certainly the best writer to have come out of Sout America in the last 20 years. I hope someone will translate "Los detectivos salvajes" in english, because it's a stunning book.

Alok said...

I have heard it is being translated. It should be out sometime next year.

Anonymous said...

Natasha Wimmer has translated ''Los Detectives Salvajes''.
And Chris Andrews has translated ''La Literatura Nazi en América''.
I'm reading the first book.

For those who are unfamiliar with this author, ''Last Evenings On Earth'' is a fine place to begin.