Page 20


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Requiem for Roberto BY DIANA ANHALT By Night in Chile Roberto Bolan Translated by Chris Andrews New Directions 144 pages, $13.95 11, eading the celebrated Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolan, \(1953divingbe a risky enterprise. By Night in Chile, his first novel to be translated into English is, as the author told Spanish journalist Luis Garcia-Santillan, “a tale of terror, a situation comedy, and a combination pastoral-gothic novel:’ It is also awash in imagery, symbols, surrealism, and ambiguity. Here is a deceptively transparent text, one you can plunge into as deeply as you dare and, like all allegory, it can be read on a superficial level. But a shark-like apparition lurks just below the surface and leaves the reader with the queasy sensation that events are not quite what they appear. This ambitious novel is written as an interior monologue and employs parables, dream sequences and hallucinatory episodes. It records the fevered deathbed retrospection of Sebastian La Croix Urrutia, a Chilean priest of humble origin. His narrative, while grotesque, disjointed, and unreliable, is an obvious attempt to ease his conscience, justify the choices he has made, and find redemption before the nighthis last, perhapshas ended. \(Like Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, this too is the tale of a dying man involved in the agonizing struggle of coming to is up against a mighty foe, “the wizened youth,” his idealistic counterpart or superego, a phantom-like reminder of himself as a young man, who prevents him from dying before he is willing to confront the truth. We learn that shortly after leaving the seminary as a young priest, he was invited, along with Pablo Neruda and several other writers, to spend a weekend at the finca of the famous literary critic, Farewellnot his real name a man who assiduously cultivates friendships with young men. Years after what Urrutia refers to as his “literary baptism” by Farewell, he becomes a writer, critic, teacher, and poet and assumes the name H. kabache. \(His “baptism,” I should time, his reputation surpasses his mentor’s, his fame spreads, and he becomes “probably the most liberal member of the Opus Dei in the republic…” When Pinochet seizes control in 1973, the apolitical priestwho has spent years outside the countryis charged with instructing the General and his Junta in Marxism so that “they will better understand their enemy.” \(Such irony is typical of Bolatio, and this is just one of many instances where he suggests close Urrutia’s recruitment as Pinochet’s teacher had been maneuvered by two mysterious agents, Etah and Raef \(Hate men who years earlier, had sent him to Europe to investigate techniques employed in preserving churches against the torrents of shit produced by old world pigeons. \(Here, the reader is free to interpret the word “shit” both literally the most expeditious method involves the use of falcons, and he describes the process: “I removed the falcon’s hood and said to him, “Fly, Rodrigo, fly”… I heard a sound of crazy, multitudinous flight, and the folds of my cassock covered my eyes while the wind swept the church and its surroundings clean, and when I managed to remove my own hood, so to speak, I saw bundles of feathers on the ground, the small bloody bodies of several pigeons, which the falcon had deposited at my feet.” Such savage imagery evokes a voracious Church that devours its followers. This, in turn, is compounded by the representation of the “hooded” priest and brings to mind the “falcon” Urrutia has become. \(Elsewhere in the book, the “wizened youth” is compared to the dove, and in describing Urrutia as a young ered my eyes like a wounded fledgling.” But the priests, and by extension the Church, aren’t the only targets of Bolano’s scorn. Because he is concerned primarily with the nature of evil and its relationship with power, he scrutinizes and often attacks those in positions of control: the military, Chilean politicians, historic figures, writers, even literary critics. Critics, like priests, are portrayed as predators, as well: Farewell, for exama prolific Chilean writer known by his pen name Alone, has “falcon eyes” and “the voice of a large bird of prey?’ In addition to being censorious and outspoken, Bolatio also introduces actual characters and events into his work. As he explained to Garcia-Santillan: “There was a writer who held literary reunions in her Santiago mansion while her husband, an American, the guy who placed the bomb in Letelier’s car in the United States and one of those who assassinated [Chilean General Carlos] Prats in Buenos Aires, tortured his prisoners in the cellar?’ Bolatio incorporates that incident into By Night in Chile: In one scene, the torturer’s wife tells Urrutia that this tragic state of affairs illustrates “…how literature was made in Chile.” And he finds himself thinking: “That is how literature is made in Chile, but not just in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/5/03