In By Night in Chile, Bolaño offers a scathing critique of the Catholic Church for what he sees as its role in aiding the rise of fascism in Europe and in his native Chile. While it is true that many liberal priests in Latin America fought for workers’ and peasants’ rights, Urrutia is not one of them. In the earliest scenes of the book, Urrutia turns his back on the poor farmhands on Farewell’s estate who seek the aid and comfort of a priest. And yet he still wears his priestly cassock when he feels it might benefit or protect him, as when teaching Marxism to the junta of generals who lead Chile’s police state. The priests of Europe are shown unleashing bloodthirsty predators on the “pigeons,” or common people, who speak out against the Church. Clearly, the falconer priests are hypocrites when they represent themselves as the keepers of peace, while actually being its enemies.
Moral Responsibility of Art
One major theme developed by Bolaño throughout the novel is the moral responsibility of artists and writers to speak out against injustice. In the beginning of the novella, he faults Urrutia, Farewell, and even the great Chilean poet for their elitism, as they enjoy intellectual conversation and fine food at Farewell’s estate while ignoring the impoverished farmworkers who make their high life possible. Later in the novel, Bolaño condemns Urrutia and Farewell, as well as other members of their elite circle, for failing to use their voices to criticize the Pinochet regime. Indeed, Urrutia and Farewell support Pinochet when he first comes to power, and even after the regime’s crimes are known, Urrutia assists the General by giving him private lessons on Marxist thought. María Canales states that it is through cruelty and suffering—such as the torture in her basement—that “literature is made.” However, Bolaño rejects that idea as a justification.
Evanescence of Fame
The evanescence, or impermanence, of fame is a common theme in literature. Urrutia and Farewell both desire “literary immortality.” Urrutia’s desire to become a prominent critic and poet leads him to strike a Faustian bargain whereby he silences his moral voice to be accepted first among the Chilean literary elite, next among the European higher-ups of the Catholic organization Opus Dei, and finally among the military generals who rule his nation. Near the end of his life, Urrutia has what he desired—he is famous, and considered “that great Chilean.” But his legacy is tainted, and he knows it. As the political winds shift and the truth comes out, his good name is liable to be “shit” upon, and there is nothing he can do. The story of Father Urrutia illustrates the folly—and evil—of seeking fame for fame’s sake.