Summary of pages 56–79
The “wizened youth”—Urrutia’s own conscience—next accuses him of having been a member of Opus Dei, a secretive Roman Catholic organization. Urrutia protests that he never tried to hide that fact and points out that he was “probably the most liberal member” of the conservative sect in Chile, even praising some Communist poets. He goes on to explain how he became involved in Opus Dei.
While still at the beginning of a “brilliant career” (56), Urrutia recalls becoming deeply bored and exhausted. He sleeps little and wanders the streets of Santiago by night, modifying his route after being mugged in a bad neighborhood. Around this time he meets two shadowy men, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, who work for an import-export firm. Mr. Raef brings Urrutia to a large, “barnlike” coffee house called Haiti, frequented by masses of middle-class Chileans, which the snobbish Urrutia sees as “the scum of the city offices, vice-this, assistant-that, and deputy-the-other-thing” (62). Disgusted by the vulgar bourgeoisie, the priest forces himself to admit the idea that “Pigs suffer too” (63). They leave the coffee shop for an office, where Mr. Raef introduces his colleague, Mr. Etah.
Raef and Etah have a proposal for Urrutia. They are working for the Archiepiscopal College, which needs someone to write a report on the preservation of churches. They will send Urrutia on a sort of fellowship to Europe, where he will spend up to a year learning what is being done to preserve churches there. Urrutia gladly accepts the assignment.
The priest travels by ship from Valparaiso, Chile, to Genoa, Italy, passing through the Panama Canal. He says mass on board ship and regains his passion for literature while reading in the ship’s library.
In Italy, he learns that the principal damage to churches is caused by pigeon shit. Priests are dealing with the problem by training falcons to kill the pigeons. He travels to the great cathedrals in Italy, France, and Spain, where he meets the priests and their various killer falcons, with names like Turk, Othello, Xenophon, and Ta Gueule. In Avignon, France, the falcon Ta Gueule (whose name means “shut up” in French), kills flocks of starlings. Father Urrutia describes the scene:
[The falcon] stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies…and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like sunsets seen from an aeroplane…like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings (72).
In Spain, after meeting with his Opus Dei colleagues, Urrutia encounters an aged and dying priest named Father Antonio who has given up hunting with his falcon, Rodrigo. The aged priest questions the brutal practice of falconry, pointing out that after all, pigeons, or doves, are symbols of the Holy Spirit. Urrutia attributes the priest’s ravings to a high fever. While the old man rails in his bed, he lets Rodrigo out, where the bird hunts again, letting fall the bodies of many bloodied pigeons. That night, Father Antonio dies.
Shortly after, Urrutia leaves Spain for Belgium and then France, where he meets more falcons. In Saint Quentin, France, a falcon kills a white dove that is meant as a mascot for a sporting event. There is a public outcry and the falcon’s owner, Father Paul, smoothly apologizes for the mistake.
Urrutia goes on to Paris, where he writes poetry and works on his special report about church preservation with the use of falcons. He then travels to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, returns to Spain again, and thence to Rome, where he meets the Pope. He cries and has disturbing dreams. He sees a flock of falcons flying over the Atlantic, headed for America. The sun goes black. In another dream, he hears a fat German priest telling a joke. The joke is that the Pope is conversing with a German theologian when two French archaeologists burst in to announce an amazing discovery. They have found the Holy Sepulchre with the body of Christ inside. When the Pope learns of the discovery, he passes out from shock—according to Holy Scripture, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. The German theologian merely expresses surprise that Jesus really existed.
Urrutia flies back to Chile, and finds that things are not going well in his homeland.
Analysis of pages 56–79
In this section of the book, Bolaño targets the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei for its alleged support of fascist leaders including Germany’s Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Italy’s Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975), and ultimately Chilean Augusto Pinochet. Although some members of Opus Dei did in fact reach high levels of government under Franco, Opus Dei is not a political organization, and allegations that it was pro-fascist simply cannot be proved. But in the twentieth century, fascism was the enemy of Communism and Socialism. Since Communists and Socialists generally opposed religion and advocated redistributing Church property, the Church would have a reason to side with Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. They may have seen it as the only way to preserve the Church.
Significantly, the agents of Opus Dei who recruit Urrutia are named Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah (their names are backwards for Hate and Fear), so on a symbolic level, they are the agents of hate and fear. The priest certainly shares in this hate and fear. His recent poems are full of insults and blasphemy, and he is mugged in the streets, giving him a fear of the dangerous parts of the city. At the coffee shop, Urrutia shows his hatred for the middle-class workers, whom he calls “pigs.” He tries to remind himself that “Pigs suffer too,” but his effort to conjure up empathy is laughable. Urrutia is clearly a snob. He is no Marxist Socialist; he cannot connect across class lines.
Urrutia’s elitist attitudes—his fear and hatred of the lower classes—make him a good candidate for Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah’s project. Their goal is to find a means to preserve the Church in Chile. The Church’s problem, although it is presented symbolically, is the rise in popularity of Marxist Socialism, which has led many of the common people to question the Church’s wealth, power, and control. The solution being used in Europe, Urrutia finds, is a brutal one—the “pigeons” (common people) who “shit on” (criticize) the Church are killed or silenced. The falcons who kill these pigeons (significantly also known as doves, symbols of peace) are the agents of fascism. They do the Church’s dirty work. In Spain, where dictator Francisco Franco ruled from 1939 to 1975, Urrutia finds the only priest who questions these tactics, but then he dies and Urrutia sets his falcon free to kill again. In Urrutia’s dream, the falcons (the agents of fascism) fly across the Atlantic and settle in the Americas, where they will gradually gain power in Chile.
Urrutia’s nightmares after meeting the Pope in Rome indicate that he is experiencing serious doubt and his faith is being shaken by what he has seen. He knows that the “falconry” is cruel; in the description of the Avignon sky after the falcon Ta Gueule has killed a flock of starlings, he suggests that it threatens the entire world (the “femoral artery” or “aorta” of the planet). And yet, he will return to Chile to deliver his report.