“I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame” (p. 1)
These are the opening lines of By Night in Chile, in which the aged priest, poet, and literary critic Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix explains the purpose of his narrative, which is to defend his reputation from attack in his twilight hours. In one night-long deathbed confessional, Father Urrutia will attempt to justify his life’s actions and inactions—his words and his silences—and reject the “slanderous rumors” about him put forth by an unnamed “wizened youth.” The youth who has challenged the dying cleric could be read as Urrutia’s younger self, as the author, Roberto Bolaño, or more broadly, as the collective conscience of a nation. What Urrutia has actually done, or failed to do, is the subject of the rest of the novel.
“Sordel, Sordello, which Sordello?” (p. 17)
These are the mocking words of the critic Farewell, repeated several times throughout the novel as they are recalled by Urrutia. Farewell is conversing with the young priest about Italian poetry when he mentions Sordello, a troubadour praised by Dante and included in his Purgatorio. “Which Sordello?” Urrutia asks, being unfamiliar with the poet. Farewell mocks his protégé’s ignorance in words that will haunt Urrutia for the rest of his life. From that moment on, Urrutia is consumed with a desire to study more, to read more, and to learn everything about literature in order to impress literati like Farewell.
“The second woe is past, and, behold, the third woe cometh quickly” (p. 15)
These are the words of Father Urrutia, spoken after he is groped by the critic Farewell. The quote is taken from the Book of Revelation 11:14 in the New Testament of the Bible. In the Bible, the three “woes” are signs of the coming Apocalypse, the end of the world, at which time Jesus Christ returns to earth and a Judgment Day is held for all mortal souls. The righteous join God in Heaven, while the wicked are condemned to Hell. Urrutia is aware that in his eagerness to win Farewell’s approval and join the elite literary circle, he is selling out his moral values and risks the damnation of his soul.
“[T]hey were all ugly. The women were ugly and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly and his words were incoherent. The men who were walking away were ugly and their zigzag paths were incoherent. God have mercy on me and on them. Lost souls in the desert. I turned my back on them and walked away” (p. 21)
Although his schooling in Christianity should have taught him to love the poor, Father Urrutia is disgusted and alienated by the peasants on Farewell’s estate. When he turns his back on them, it is a betrayal, symbolic of the Church’s failure to support of the common people of Chile. In Bolaño’s opinion, the clergy should have aligned itself with socialists like Allende, who were intent on carrying out reforms to benefit the poor. Instead, they kept silent as fascism, in the form of Pinochet’s murderous regime, sunk its talons into their land. Like Urrutia, the Church failed to stand up for the poor, and under Pinochet, all were like “lost souls in the desert.”
“All conversation, all dialogue, is forbidden, said a voice. Sometimes I wondered about the nature of that voice. Was it the voice of an angel? … Was it the voice of a demon? It did not take me long to discover that it was my own voice, the voice of my super-ego guiding my dream like a pilot with nerves of steel, it was the super-I driving a refrigerated truck down the middle of a road engulfed in flames, while the id groaned and rambled on in a vaguely Mycenean jargon. My ego, of course, was sleeping. Sleeping and toiling” (p. 24).
Urrutia uses Freudian terms to describe his mentality as he embarked on his literary career. Freud conceived of the human psyche as composed of three distinct parts: the super-ego, the ego, and the id. 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 straight ahead without allowing for any dialogue or conversation. Urrutia allows himself to be led along blindly by what he thinks are higher ideals of literature and art, but in doing so, he insulates himself from the suffering in the real world all around him.
“I shall exist no longer or only as a reputation, and my reputation resembling a sunset…will contemplate through half-closed eyelids time’s little twitch and the devastation it wreaks, time…drowning writers in its whirlpools…the writers whose books I reviewed…whose work I criticized, the moribund of Chile and America whose voices called out my name, Father Ibacache, think of us….” (p. 56).
Throughout the novella, Father Urrutia is concerned with protecting his reputation, his good name that he hopes will live on after his death, bringing him a sort of literary immortality. And yet, as revealed in this quote, he is also aware that with time, all fame is erased and forgotten. This fact causes him and his friend Farewell great anxiety.
“Pigs suffer too, I said to myself…. Pigs suffer, it is true, and their pain purifies and ennobles them” (p. 63).
This is spoken by Father Urrutia as he enters a large, “barnlike” coffee house in Santiago and sees the masses of middle-class Chileans gathered there. Bolaño here provides a merciless satire of the arrogance of Chilean elites. Father Urrutia is a high-class snob, and he thinks of the ordinary white-collar workers that keep his country’s economy moving as no more than barnyard brutes. He cannot see their humanity, but is just able to admit to himself the idea that “Pigs suffer too.”
“[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” (p. 72).
Here, Father Urrutia describes the bloody practice of falconry. Falcons are used in the novel by European priests to hunt pigeons and other birds who leave their droppings on churches and monuments. Urrutia compares the blood of the innocent birds to the blood of the world in the clutches of fascism. In fact, the conservatives in the Church did tolerate and even support the rise of fascism in Europe and Latin America.
- “If someone doesn’t read or study, he’s not an intellectual, any fool can see that. And what do you think Allende used to read? … Magazines. All he read was magazines. Summaries of books. Articles his followers used to cut out for him. I have it from a reliable source, believe me” (p. 98).
This is spoken by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, as he explains to Father Urrutia why he thinks the late President Allende, and other leftist politicians, are not really intellectuals. Pinochet goes on to boast that he himself has written several books. His effort to portray himself as more of an intellectual than his political rivals is laughable, however, as the general requires a special tutor (Urrutia) to teach him the fundamentals of Marxist theory. The passage is also ominous as it shows Urrutia will not stand up to the General by contradicting what he knows to be lies and propaganda.
“The wizened youth has been quiet for a long time now. He has given up railing against me and writers generally. Is there a solution? That’s how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him. The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible no. The power of my thought has stopped him. Or maybe it was history. An individual is no match for history. The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side” (p. 128).
At the end of the novel, Urrutia finds that his accuser is nearly silent. The wizened youth is not just one person, but instead the collective conscience of the nation, repressed by the fascist military regime. Urrutia attempts to appease his conscience by telling him that the works of great literature come from horror and suffering. He further notes that “an individual is no match for history.” That is, history is written by the victors, while the dissident voices are silenced. General Pinochet is able to write history in any way he likes.
By Night in Chile: Top Ten Quotes