A first-person narration novella, By Night in Chile is a deathbed confession of Father Urrutia, a.k.a. Father Ibacache, a half-hearted Jesuit priest and literary critic. Set during the transition from Allende to Pinochet, and written in one single paragraph except for the last sentence, the novel paints the turbulent political landscape with particular emphasis on the state, the church, and the literary/artistic figures.
Admitted to the seminary at the age of thirteen and later adopted by the country’s eminent and aristocratic critic (Farewell), Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix mixes in a literary circle linked to visions of the right-wing order that both nurtures and disgusts him. After the coup comes, in an almost grotesque, absurd sequence, he was given a “secret” assignment to give quick seminars to Pinochet and other members of the junta on Marxism, where at the end of the seminar Pinochet rants on the (lack of) intellectualism of his predecessors.
This hypocritical, grotesque undercurrents in intellectualism run through the novella, and Father Urrutia is — as he is consciously aware — just as representative as any of them. He is not a reliable narrator, his confessions are laden with hollow self-justifications. Claiming himself as a mere occasional visitor to the fashionable salon frequented by artists and writers patroned by Maria Canales, he recounts the story of one visitor who wanders down the house and finds himself in a torture chamber for secret police interrogations in the basement (this, apparently, is based on a real character of Mariana Callejas) , and resignedly Urrutia declares that that is how literature (and art) is made, not just in Chile, but all over the world.
Although Bolaño’s stories are heavily encased in real-world history and politics, with figures making occasional appearances in the foreground, they do not dominate. The characters and the story move almost nonchalantly (Urrutia discovering that nobody gives a damn about him teaching Marxism to the Junta), quietly and silently dealing with the unsettling bleakness.
Post-script: Bolaño’s 2666 has just been released posthumously last year with a great buzz, but some reviews have noted the similarities to The Savage Detectives, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (at least, not as much as I did Last Evenings on Earth and By Night in Chile).