Former Chilean dictator General Pinochet, the country’s most famous poet Pablo Neruda and the German writer Ernst Junger all appear in this novel alongside fictional poets, artists and writers.
The narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest from Chile, lying on his death bed and recalling scenes from his life.
Lacroix is a poet and a critic, although it is the latter that his reputation is built on. He travels in Chile and in Europe and retells not just stories from his own past but those of others he has met or heard of on his way.
Lacroix recounts with unnerving dispassion the overthrow of the left leaning President Allende in Chile in 1973 by Pinochet and the surreal attempts at normality during abnormal times, how the seemingly respectable can hide dark secrets and how those who try to stay out of it all are wracked with guilt at their own stance.
Bolaño is very much a writer’s writer, focusing on literary themes and experimenting with different styles.
Throughout the novel there are no paragraph breaks although the style of writing changes along with each scene or period of time.
One section takes a question and answer format, another has a sentence that runs over several pages before a full stop is inserted, while others have more conventional narratives.
This is a short novel, running at just under 130 pages, compared to the much longer (900 pages) and more compactly spaced 2666 which I am also reading at present.
By Night in Chile is a good introduction to Bolaño – shifting narrative perspectives, stories within stories, casual violence and philosophical musings yet somehow it seemed to take an age to read and I found myself putting it down everytime I had read a few pages.
2666 by contrast flows past and it is easy to cover 70 or 80 pages in a sitting. Perhaps it is because Bolaño spreads out his material in the longer novel and trying to pack the same breadth and intensity into his novella.
I might be able to call that one better when I finish 2666.