By Night in Chile
Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile doesn't play by the rules of narration as it determines to play fair instead to the rambling thoughts of its first person narrator: Chilean priest Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix. As he details stories from his own past and the past of others, about meeting Pablo Neruda, teaching Marxism to Pinochet, of hearing stories concerning the German writer Ernst Junger in Paris, or of people being tortured in the basement of a Santiago literary salon, so Bolano tells it all in little more than one long paragraph. The lengthy unblocked paragraph is a literary device used by others - Thomas Bernhard, Jose Saramago, W. G. Sebald, and indebted to stream of consciousness techniques going back to Joyce and Woolf - but it is one Bolano uses here as not so much stream of consciousness; more as stream of false consciousness. Father Sebastian is a man in denial, a figure who cannot confront his demons, and so constantly drifts into the anecdotal, into tales of himself and others that hint at the figure he happens to be but that he is wary of revealing. Father Sebastian is now an old man, telling his story to a figment of his own imagination, conjuring up people real and imagined as he makes sense of a life that was ostensibly lived for literature, but that sacrificed much that makes literature meaningful.
In one exchange between Sebastian and the woman who would host these literary salons during Pinochet's regime, he tells Maria Canale that "life was much more important than literature, and she looked me in the eyes with that bovine face of hers and said she knew, she had always known that. My authority collapsed like a house of cards, while hers, or rather her supremacy, towered irresistibly." Why his authority collapses isn't explained, but what is detailed is someone coming across a torture victim in the basement of Canales' house during the Pinochet years. It wasn't as if the priest was oblivious to what happened: during the era more and more people were talking of it, but Sebastian is someone for whom pragmatism and obliviousness come together to create the opposite of a strong personality. As the priest meanders and digresses throughout the book, as he hallucinates a figure of conscience to whom he talks, as he explains and justifies himself with weak reasoning, so Bolano presents to us the priest as clearly a man without qualities, but also as a figure of complexity caught in the flux of the historical. As he says at the end of the book, realizing the wizened youth is himself: "And then faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The faces I protected, those I attacked, the faces I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain. And then the storm of shit begins."
In various places, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and the essay collection Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera is fascinated by people being placed on the stage of history. There are several passages in the latter, however, which are of especial interest here. In one, Kundera talks of certain great figures like Hamsun, Celine, Pound and Heidegger who got caught in Fascist and Communist politics that greatly damaged their reputations as he mentions their dubious beliefs without condemning the figures themselves. As he says, when addressing a French newspaper that in 1991 asked "why are our streets still named after Picasso, Aragon, Elaurd, Sartre?" "Because of the value of their works!" These are figures that may have got caught in the flow of politics, but Kundera finally would seem to respect more the writers who misguidedly held strong convictions, than those who unthinkingly went with the flow of history. An erroneous belief deeply held is still more 'true' than an idea casually adhered to. Where we might ask does the problem so often lie in historical atrocity: in the strong personalities involved in historical change on the level of politics, art, literature and philosophy, or on those too weak to offer another perspective?
Of course there are all sorts of problems with this type of argument potentially: should we have more respect for Hitler than for the person who timidly and casually obeyed his dictates noticing that everyone around is doing likewise? Perhaps - if we see the problem of twentieth century politics not as that of charismatic individuals, but of passive crowds, where it is the culpability of the crowd and not especially the villainy of the individual that is the problem. There were many tyrants before Hitler, but the mass media meeting a demoralised people created what is now a byword for the ultimate in evil. Indeed many a post-war psychological experiment has been based not on the despicability and individuality of the evil act, but its banality: the capacity of groups to act amorally out of conformity, and perhaps most famously in Milgram's 'Obedience Experiment'. Here a person is strapped to a chair with electrodes and the subjects of the experiment are persuaded to up the voltage steadily. Of course no actual electricity is being used, but the subjects of the experiment don't know that.
From this point of view the individualist acts of Hamsun, Picasso and others are seen as erroneous, but at least individuated; the acts of the crowd superficial and potentially much more troublesome. The former we can credit, however worryingly, to the strength of an individual as we see various values evident in the work that would coincide with troublesome values in the society. Heidegger's notion of the homeland wasn't the same as Hitler's ideas on lebensraum, but the similarities could lead a philosopher fascinated by the notion of dwelling and land to feel an affinity, briefly, with the National Socialists. By the same reckoning Picasso's membership of the Communist party was hardly a weak decision. "My joining the Communist Party is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning. Through design and color, I have tried to penetrate deeper into a knowledge of the world and of men so that this knowledge might free us. In my own ways I have always said what I considered most true, most just and best and, therefore, most beautiful. But during the oppression and the insurrection I felt that that was not enough, that I had to fight now not only with painting but with my whole being." (Why I Joined the Communist Party) If in very different ways Heidegger and Picasso were Nazi and Communist for deep reasons, surely those involved in what they supposed were the electrocution of a man they didn't know were for very weak ones.
In By Night in Chile the priest is perhaps the man so utterly without qualities because he lacks the convictions of the socio-politically erroneous great artist, yet also nevertheless finds himself a political figure. He is neither one thing nor the other; neither a Picasso nor a Heidegger, but not the casual bystander unthinkingly drawn into potential atrocity either. He is neither a banal person caught in the social flux and barely aware of the political at all, as often happens to people acting according to social norms, nor a major artist determined to change those norms. If one respects Sartre, Picasso and even the much more problematic Heidegger for their convictions if not their political position, where does that leave Father Sebastian, working for Pinochet's regime but unable to claim that he was one of the minions going with the times, yet not quite actively involved with them? He is halfway between an unthinking figure of political machination, and a person actively involved in the political process. This comes through in the passage where his old friend and mentor, the literary critic Farewell, says, talking of Pinochet, "a man like that, he must have something that makes him stand out. And I shrugged my shoulders again. And Farewell said: Think, Sebastian, in a tone of voice that might just as well have accompanied other words such as Think, you little shit of a priest." The priest doesn't have the acumen of the great thinker nor of the person who has but the role of an extra in history, and it is as though Bolano has chosen a figure that can be seen as most culpable by creating someone who is neither great nor insignificant.
He is a man for whom disquiet comes very late, as if Bolano is saying we never know when our conscience will visit us. The book's opening few lines are: "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." As he tells anecdote after anecdote in a constant digression that allows for no paragraph breaks, so at the end of the book "...in the half light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I that wizened youth?" This is a dialogue with one's own consciousness, a stream of conscience, constantly refusing to confront oneself but with hints of its inevitability coming through. "Then came the elections and Allende won. And I stood before the mirror in my room and tried to formulate the crucial question, which I had saved for just that moment, and the question refused to emerge from my bloodless lips. It was absolutely unbearable. The night of Allende's victory..." Here a popular national consciousness flies in the face of the narrator's political position and it is as though his country has betrayed him, rather than that he is betraying his country. A few lines before he has told us, "I am not a fanatical nationalist, but I do sincerely love the land of my birth". But on what terms does he love it?
Shortly afterwards, with Allende in power, he decides to read and reread many of the classics. "...I also reread Demoshenes and Menander and Aristotle and Plato (whom one cannot read too often), and there were strikes and the colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a cameraman recorded his own death on film..." There is no sense however that the narrator's reading augments the political; It seems more designed to deny it. This is reading as refusing reality, just as a few pages later we notice with politicians it is often the reverse. Pinochet reckons Allende wasn't much of a mind: "If someone doesn't read or study, he's not an intellectual, any fool can see that," while Pinochet offers himself up as a reader but for manipulative gain. "Why do you think I want to learn the fundamentals of Marxism", Pinochet asks, and answers by saying "...in order to understand Chile's enemies, to find out how they think, to get an idea of how far they are prepared to go." He might say "...I'm not afraid of studying. One should aim to learn something new every day. I'm always reading and writing. All the time," and he has written lots of articles and several books, "...but always of course related to military matters." Whether Allende read little, Pinochet's readings seem to be more for personal, social and national gain than for personal insight. Is he another man without qualities, another figure for whom the internal life is not faced, if for very different reasons from those of Sebastian?
Earlier in the novella there is a long passage where the writer Ernst Junger is described by a character as "one of the purest men he had ever met." This is the same figure who Bruce Chatwin describes in his essay collection What Am I Doing Here? "Certainly the scale of his erudition is titanic: his singularity of purpose unswerving, and even at eight-five he continues to elaborate on the themes that have held his attention for sixty years." Chatwin also notes though that many of his admirers believe that Junger's "political leanings towards the extreme right have robbed him of the recognition he deserves." Yet Bolano presents him in By Night in Chile as an undeniably impressive figure, as someone with the very inner integrity Kundera says ought to be respected even in major artists and thinkers whose views we despise. There is we might suppose greater purity in dogmatism than pragmatism, even if the latter leads to problems as great as the former. Not that Junger is presented unambivalently, evident when we're told that Junger did not think "the Guatemalan [painter Junger meets] would live until the following winter, an odd remark for him to make, since by then it was obvious to everyone that many thousands of people were not going to live until the following winter, most of them much healthier than the Guatemalan, most of them happier, most of them unmistakably endowed with a stronger will to live, but Junger made the remark all the same, perhaps without thinking, or not wishing to confuse separate issues..."
Is this Junger's insensitivity at work or a deeper sensitivity, comprehending that these are distinct: a starving painter and those who will be killed in war? Perhaps it is instead his sense of perspective, taking into account a comment he makes in an interview The Details of Time, where Junger talks of a battle he was involved in during WWI and "at regular intervals, there were pauses lasting one or two hours, during which I would read Sterne. Then the gunfire resumed, then I went back to Sterne. And, astonishingly enough, the book left a deeper mark in my memory than all the combat." Immediately afterwards Junger makes a statement antithetical to the one Maria Canales and Sebastian make that we quoted earlier. "Literature is indeed more important to me than personal experience, no matter how concentrated. I was wounded during the offensive, and I continued reading at the military hospital." We may ask then, what is the difference between Junger's awareness of the importance of literature over life, and Sebastian's assumption that literature has been more significant. Perhaps it rests on literature seen as soporific or first principle; an escape from life or its validation. If Junger is admired for his purity, and we might dismiss the priest for its absence, it rests chiefly here. And by the same token all those writers and thinkers Kundera admires for their work, if not for their politics, again rests on first principles over the socially secondary. If Sebastian is a man without qualities whilst anyone from Junger to Sartre, even Pound and Celine, are possessed of them, it rests on a first principle of creativity that misguidedly leads to erroneous politics. But a figure like Sebastian has no such alibi, nothing but a pragmatic life that he tries to justify with digression and irrelevancies, in more or less a long dark, paragraph of the soul before, finally "the storm of shit begins". This is the man without merit morally or aesthetically meeting the stream of unconsciousness as Bolano offers up a novel in one breath, a literary death rattle.
© Tony McKibbin