By Night in Chile – Roberto Bolano

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.

Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix is not a likeable fellow, I tried, I tried all the way through the book to warm to him, I just couldn’t manage to do it, not even though he was a man of the cloth, not even though he was in his respectable old age.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that I didn’t like about Lacroix, As he recounts his life, trying to put to rest the wound opened by the wizened youth, who, buzzes around his recollection like a mosquito, you never see him but he’s always there, and he’s just as annoying. After joining the seminary and proclaiming his ambition to be a literary critic, Lacroix falls under the wing of Farewell, the most prominent critic in Chile at the time.
The anecdotes flow in clear detail, revealing a pretentiousness and arrogance that the wizened youth appears to have popped.
There is, as usual, a wave of literary references, the love of the mediocre poet, the kind most beloved of Bolano. And I have to say, it is to Bolano’s credit that he has crafted a character so well in Lacroix, that I read on past my dislike, past the buzzing in my head from the continued, flitting presence of the wizened youth, to enjoy the prose, that rolled on like a giant river, sometimes choppy, but mostly smooth and endless.

After his sojourn to Europe, Lacroix returns to Chile in time to see Allende elected. He buries himself in his reading, and the Presidents brief and bright reign is reduced to a page and half of events, puncturing the Greek Classics that Lacroix devours, until he revels in the peace following the coup d’etat and Allende’s suicide. After reading The Savage Detectives and Last Evenings on Earth, it was strange reading a book where a character is not in exile. While Lacroix still feels terror when his teaching assignment comes up, in the end he believes himself intellectual, and does manage to put that above politics, the last anecdote regarding Maria Canales, seems to offer him some salvation, although seemingly little hope. In fact, the novel, aside from the alternative view of what happened in Chile seems to lament the death of literature during the turbulent years, when it was pushed to the extremes, to the exiles, except for those few, such as Lacroix, who dreamed and dared a little to keep it alive.

While I can’t say I enjoyed By Night in Chile, it was fascinating to read and absorb, a prickly novel that is saved by Bolano’s smooth prose.

…and I also reread Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle and Plato (whom one cannot read too often), and there were strikes and the colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a cameraman recorded his own death on film, and then Allende’s naval aide-de-camp was assassinated and there were riots, swearing, Chileans blaspheming, painting on walls, and then nearly half a million people marched in support of Allende, and then came the coup d’etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last.

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