By Night in Chile: Essay Q&A
1. Explain the point of Urrutia’s deathbed confession. What are the “slanderous rumors” Urrutia feels he must defend himself against, and who is the “wizened youth” spreading these rumors? Is Urrutia actually guilty of the things the youth accuses him of?
The novella By Night in Chile takes the form of a deathbed confession narrated by the literary priest Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix. He indicates that he has been at peace with his life until recently, when a “wizened youth” has begun spreading slanderous rumors about him. In the last night of his life, Urrutia wishes to explain himself and clear up his name.
The “slanderous rumors” about Urrutia probably include the accusation that, in order to further his career, he cozied up to the literary elites and turned his back on the common people; that he worked secretly with the controversial Catholic organization Opus Dei to support fascist tactics; that he aided Pinochet’s government; and that he partied away with the literati while ignoring the evil acts of Pinochet’s regime that were taking place right under his feet. The “wizened youth” who makes the accusations is never identified. He seems to be a younger writer—probably representing Bolaño himself—who uncovers Urrutia’s hypocrisy in the interest of justice. But at the end of the book, Urrutia realizes that the wizened youth is also the voice of conscience in his own mind. He is the voice of truth that nobody hears and that in the end, nobody can escape completely.
Urrutia defends himself, then, against the accusations of the world around him but also of his own conscience. Is he guilty? Yes. Although Urrutia attempts to justify and qualify each one of his actions, he does not attempt to deny what he did and did not do. His actions and inactions, words and silences, speak for themselves.
2. Analyze the character of Father Urrutia. Is he evil or immoral? What motivates him? Evaluate him as both a priest and as a poet/critic.
Father Urrutia is not an evil man, but he is an immoral one. Urrutia’s moral compass goes awry soon after he leaves the seminary. Although called into the priesthood, the young Urrutia is ambivalent about his role as a man of the cloth. He is horrified when his mother addresses him as “Father,” agonizes over whether to wear his priest’s cassock while hobnobbing with literati, and is disgusted when peasants revere him as a holy man. In fact, Urrutia is more ambitious than pious.
Urrutia aspires to become a great literary critic like his idol Farewell, and his desire for “literary immortality” leads him to sell his soul out repeatedly—first to the literary elite, then to the higher-ups in the powerful Catholic organization Opus Dei, then to the fascist generals who lead Chile, and finally to the immoral and talentless hypocrites like María Canales who rise to prominence in fascist Chile. It is suggested that part of Urrutia’s drive for approval stems from his lack of a strong father figure. He describes his father’s as having slipped in and out of rooms like an eel or weasel—obviously not a strong role model.
As a priest, Urrutia fails because he does not offer aid and support to the common people who need him most. Far from that, he becomes an accessory to their murder by writing a report about the techniques to be used against opponents of the Church. When the murderous nature of Pinochet’s regime becomes evident, Urrutia writes about the classics and goes on lecture tours of Europe.
As a critic and poet, Urrutia also fails because he does not use his powerful voice to criticize the injustice taking place around him, nor does he write poetry that is politically relevant. In fact, his poetry appears to mirror the hatefulness of the regime itself. He writes against women, against homosexuals. As fascism continues, his poetry becomes inane and sentimental. He writes a poem about a blue-eyed boy looking out a window which he calls “Awful, ridiculous” (116). Afraid to speak out, Urrutia fails to effectively criticize works and writers that he knows to be hopelessly bad.
Despite the good name Urrutia was able to develop for himself, it is clear that by the end of the novel, he knows the truth about his life: he sold out, and his legacy will be covered in shit.
3. Discuss the metaphor of falconry with reference to Bolaño’s criticisms of the Catholic Church. Who or what do the falcons represent? Who or what are the pigeons? What does it signify that Urrutia sees falcons flying from Europe to Latin America?
The sport of falconry appears as a metaphor in Bolaño’s novel for the cruelty of fascism. Falcons are birds of prey, trained by falconers to hunt on command. In the book, the priests of Europe employ falcons to kill all the pigeons, who they believe are desecrating the Church’s buildings with their droppings. The pigeons here represent people—Marxists in particular—who question the absolute power of the Church and the State. In participating in the killing/silencing of these pigeons, the Church also becomes the enemy of peace (as doves represent peace).
When Urrutia sees the falcons flying from Europe to Latin America, this symbolizes the move of fascist ideology from the old continent to the new. Fascism would take hold in Chile and lead to the bloody coup staged by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Urrutia is clearly implicated for helping spread the fascism from Europe to America—literally through the report he prepares for Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef (who, it is strongly implied, are Opus Dei members who work as agents of Pinochet’s DINA, or secret police) and figuratively through the falcon Rodrigo, which he lets free one night in Spain and which represents fascism under Francisco Franco (dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975).
4. Explain Bolaño’s criticism of literary figures in Chile, including Pablo Neruda, Farewell, Urrutia, and María Canales.
In By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño implicates the Chilean literati as elitist and out of touch with the needs of the common people. He sees their actions and inactions as having aided the rise of fascism in Chile and to the atrocities under dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The famed poet Pablo Neruda does not even escape Bolaño’s critical pen. A Communist, he is typically portrayed as a poet of the people. However, in Bolaño’s novel he intones poems to the moon and enjoys fine dining and high conversation on a grand estate, not paying any attention to the suffering of the poor farmers all around him. Bolaño describes his “[o]blong-shaped shadow like a coffin” (12). The image refers to the moribund state of Chilean literature as it fails to be politically relevant.
Farewell, a famed literary critic and wealthy landowner, is the consummate elitist and enemy of Socialist reform. He is likened to a falcon or a hunter: “Farewell’s voice was like the voice of a large bird of prey soaring over rivers and mountains and valleys and ravines, never at a loss for the appropriate expression.” In his country home are mounted heads, including pumas bagged by his father, indicating that Farewell comes from a long line of wealthy estate owners accustomed to preying on the weak. Farewell welcomes the fall of Allende and the rise of Pinochet.
Urrutia, taken under Farewell’s wing, adopts the older man’s values in an attempt to gain approval. His desire for literary success leads him to sell his soul—first to the literary elite, then to leaders in the powerful Catholic organization Opus Dei (who offer him help in publishing a book), then to the fascist generals who lead Chile, and finally to immoral and talentless hypocrites like María Canales who rise to prominence in fascist Chile. All the while injustice is going on in Pinochet’s Chile, Urrutia writes about classical literature and pens “awful” poetry, rather than using his voice to speak out against what is happening.
María Canales and those who attend her glittering salons are the final object of Bolaño’s satire. At María Canales’s parties, the literati gather to hobnob about literature while there is torture going on under their feet. The horrifying sequence is not just a metaphor, but a true story about would-be writer Mariana Callejas and her assassin husband Michael Townley. To Bolaño, writers have a moral obligation to expose injustice, but in the sick society under Pinochet, they ignore the injustice to hold decadent parties and praise mediocre literature. By doing so, they betray their country, and their legacy is a deadened Chile, symbolized by the leafless, fruitless Judas Tree in Urrutia’s dream.
5. What vision of “literary immortality” is given in the novel? Why is Urrutia’s reputation so important to him? What does Bolaño indicate Urrutia’s legacy will ultimately be?
The literary priest seeks immortality not in Heaven, but through his worldly accomplishments. An ambitious man, he wishes to be remembered for his poems and criticism, like his idols Neruda and Farewell. However, the pursuit of fame is portrayed by Bolaño as foolish, futile, and even evil. Two anecdotes in the second part of the novel illustrate this. In the first anecdote, Urrutia is awed when hearing a story told by Chilean diplomat/writer Salvador Reyes, about how he brushed with the great German writer Ernst Jünger. What especially awes Urrutia is that Jünger even noted Reyes in his memoirs. What glory! But in fact, there is little glory in the tale. Jünger and Reyes met in occupied Paris, where Jünger was stationed as a captain in the Nazi army. In Reyes’s eagerness to impress his German hero, he ignored the specter of human suffering right before his eyes, in the form of a Guatemalan painter, who symbolized Paris in the grip of the Nazis.
In the second anecdote, told by Farewell, a shoemaker who should be satisfied with his own legacy as a maker of wonderful shoes wants to create, and become a part of, a grandiose monument to the world’s heroes. His fate is to be a gaping skeleton on a forgotten hill. Although Urrutia can recall the lives of the popes down to the smallest detail, he must face the fact that time erases the memory of even the mighty pontiffs, and much more so of the lowly shoemakers and critics. Farewell realizes what Urrutia does not—in reality, the world will forget them soon after they are dead.
Bolaño suggests that Urrutia’s legacy will be sullied as his failure to act against fascism comes to light. Further on, he will be forgotten completely with the tides of time. In the end, all that he did for his reputation throughout his life caused a lot of harm and no lasting good.