Summary of pages 23–55
In the nights that follow, Father Urrutia recalls images from his stay at Farewell’s estate. He pictures Farewell sitting in a chair at his club, “speaking of literary immortality” (23) and envisions a conga-line of dancing socialites, including Farewell. He recalls his father’s shadow “slipping away down the corridors of the house as if it were a weasel, a ferret, or…an eel” (23). Then he hears a voice in his head saying that all conversation, all dialogue, is forbidden. He wonders whether the voice is an angel or demon—but then recognizes it as his own voice, that of his own “super-ego.”
Urrutia begins working at the Catholic University and publishes poems, reviews, and articles about literary life in Santiago. He adopts the pen name of H. Ibacache for his critical work, while under his own name, he prepares a collection of poems that he hopes will ensure his own literary immortality.
At a party Urrutia attends, Chilean writer and diplomat Don Salvador Reyes tells about his meeting with the German novelist and World War I hero Ernst Jünger. Reyes and Jünger met at a party in Paris during World War II. Soon after, they met again by chance in the attic hovel of a Guatemalan painter, trapped in the foreign city because of the war. The Guatemalan was suffering from severe depression and had ceased to eat. Reyes had brought him food, wine, and other supplies, but the painter never thanked him. On one occasion, Reyes brought him a copy of one of his novels, but was dismayed when the painter never even opened the book. Jünger and Reyes examined a work by the Guatemalan entitled Mexico City an Hour Before Dawn, a haunting landscape of suffering that depicted the skeletons of humans or animals amid the buildings of the vast city. They expressed alarm at the Guatemalan’s ever more emaciated figure, but eventually they ignored him entirely, absorbed by their conversation about art and literature, war and peace, and diverse other subjects. As Jünger held forth, Reyes agreed with everything his German hero said. Eventually they left, Jünger commenting that the Guatemalan would not live until the following winter. The next time the two met, they dined and drank in style at Reyes’s own house. And the great Ernst Jünger not only read Reyes’s book, but praised it in his memoirs. In fact, the only Chilean mentioned in Jünger’s tale of his illustrious life was Don Salvador Reyes—something truly to be proud of, Urrutia believes.
Urrutia is greatly impressed by the story of the two literary heroes, Reyes and Jünger, whose destinies had intersected. He tries to share his enthusiasm with Farewell as they leave Reyes’s party, but the older man responds with a tale of his own. He tells of an Austro-Hungarian shoemaker, maker of high-quality shoes for the European elite. The shoemaker, not content to leave the legacy of his marvelous shoes, became obsessed with creating a great monument on a hill to serve as a museum and cemetery for all the world’s heroes. He even presented his proposal for the “Heroes’ Hill” to the Emperor, and used his own savings to begin building it. However, his dream never came to pass, as the Emperor failed to lend monetary support and eventually the great Empire itself dissolved in war. One day, many years later, Russian troops encountered the remains of Heroes’ Hill and found the skeleton of the shoemaker encased there in a vault, his eye-sockets empty and his jaw hanging open “as if he were still laughing after having glimpsed immortality” (48).
After recounting the story, Farewell is depressed. He comments that Pablo Neruda is going to win the Nobel Prize and that Chile and America will change, but that he won’t live to see it. He fears his legacy as a critic will be forgotten while Neruda will be remembered. As Father Urrutia tries to comfort him, Farewell says he’d like to take Urrutia to the bathroom and have sex with him. Urrutia blushes and protests that he has never done such things, certainly not in the seminary, when he was absorbed with studying the lives of the popes.
At Farewell’s request, Urrutia recounts the lives of several popes in great detail. Farewell is comforted for the moment, but, as he reflects on the incident years later on his deathbed, Father Urrutia himself is haunted. All the poets whose work he praised are being forgotten. When he himself is gone, he will exist only as a reputation, like a sunset, until all is consumed by the whirlpools of time.
Analysis of pages 23–55
Following his “literary baptism” at Farewell’s country estate, Urrutia seeks eternal life not in Heaven as taught in the Bible, but in the form of his own poetry and criticism—a sort of “literary immortality.” Urrutia speaks of his mentality at the time in the Freudian terms of ego, id, and super-ego. Urrutia says that his ego (his conscious self) was asleep or working and his id, or primitive, instinct-driven self, groaned and rambled incoherently in its ancient “Mycenean jargon.” Meanwhile, his super-ego, or conscience, was driving his dreams without allowing for any dialogue or conversation, like “a refrigerated truck down the middle of a road engulfed in flames” (24). In other words, Urrutia blindly pursues his dreams of achieving glory as a poet (like Neruda) and as a great literary critic (like Farewell), while insulating himself from the suffering in the real world all around him, which according to Bolaño, should be the true concerns of artists and critics.
The literary priest seeks immortality through his worldly accomplishments, but the two anecdotes in this section serve to illustrate the evil and folly of such a pursuit. In the first anecdote, the great writers Jünger and Reyes congratulate each other and gratify one another’s egos, while ignoring the specter of human suffering (symbolized by the Guatemalan) that sits right before their eyes. The eagerness of Reyes and Urrutia to idolize Jünger takes on a greater moral dimension since, aside from being a novelist, Jünger was an army captain with Hitler’s Wehrmacht, stationed in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Although he later turned against Hitler and the Nazis, his detractors consider Jünger a fascist.
In the second anecdote, told by Farewell, a shoemaker who should be satisfied with his own legacy as a maker of wonderful shoes wants to create, and become a part of, a grandiose monument to the world’s heroes. His fate is to be a gaping skeleton on a forgotten hill. Although Urrutia can recall the lives of the popes down to the smallest detail, he must face the fact that time erases the memory of even the mighty pontiffs, and much more so of the lowly shoemakers and critics.
In this section, then, Bolaño satirizes elite intellectuals as vain and out of touch. Reyes and Jünger are concerned with promoting their own books and fame in the midst of a Paris crushed in the fist of Nazi Germany. Farewell and Urrutia emerge as pathetic figures, like the obsessed shoemaker. Their work as critics is to erect monuments that glorify the writing of others. But rather than accept their humble station, they seek glory for themselves. Farewell realizes what Urrutia does not—in reality, the world will forget them, rendering their efforts meaningless.