By Night in Chile: Summary
Summary of pages 1–22
The novella By Night in Chile takes the form of a deathbed confession by Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, an aged and dying Chilean priest, poet, and literary critic. Urrutia says that he was once at peace with himself, but now a “wizened youth” has spread “slanderous rumors” about him (1). The book is his attempt to defend himself from these charges.
Urrutia goes on to tell his life story. At age thirteen, he is called to enter the seminary and become a priest in the Catholic Church. Years later, around the time he is ordained, Urrutia meets Farewell, a famous Chilean literary critic. Urrutia tells Farewell that his greatest ambition is to follow in the older man’s footsteps. Farewell smiles and warns him sardonically that, in their “barbaric country…of estate owners” (4), literature is not respected. Actually, Farewell is an estate owner himself, and makes this comment to determine whether the young priest is a Marxist who believes that the wealthy should give their land to the poor. When Urrutia reveals no such political beliefs, Farewell invites Urrutia to his country estate for the weekend, where he will be entertaining distinguished guests from the Chilean literary community.
Urrutia, anxious to make a good impression, agonizes over whether to wear his priest’s cassock and wonders which books he should bring. A train and then a taxi take him as far as the nearest village; from there, a farmer brings him to Farewell’s estate in a horse-drawn carriage. Entering the critic’s spacious living room, described as a combination of a hunting lodge and a library, he finds Farewell with a young poet. Urrutia, who also writes poetry, feels insecure about joining their conversation, so he goes out for a walk in Farewell’s gardens, where he stumbles on the homely cabin of the estate’s farmhands. To his great discomfort, the peasants treat him as an honored guest, as he is still wearing his priest’s cassock. They offer him bread and ask his advice about a sick child. Due to their poor diction, Urrutia is unable to understand whether the child is dying or has already died. He tells them that as long as the child has been baptized, all is in order. He hastily blesses the home and makes a quick exit.
Returning to the main house, Urrutia encounters the honored guest, famed poet Pablo Neruda, who has come to stay along with his wife. Neruda recites a poem over a lavish dinner. Afterward, Urrutia feels sick and goes out onto the terrace. He is joined by Farewell, who talks to him about Italian poetry. Farewell sneers when Urrutia doesn’t recognize the name of Sordello, a thirteenth-century troubadour praised by Dante. To Urrutia’s greater humiliation, the critic places his hand on the priest’s belt, then moves it down to his hip and finally his buttocks.
Just then, Neruda interrupts, asking who Sordello is. Farewell recites lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the two men hug and recite poetry together, while Urrutia and the young poet propose toasts to Neruda, Chile’s “finest poet” and to Farewell, the country’s “finest literary critic” (16).
The second night, more guests arrive, and Urrutia again slips away to explore the estate, following a path that winds through the fields and vineyards. There he sees a girl and a boy, “naked like Adam and Eve” (18), tilling in the field. The boy has a string of snot from his nose to his chest, which nauseates Urrutia. Continuing on, he meets more farmhands who recognize him as a priest, even though this time, he is not wearing a cassock. Disconcerted, he becomes tangled in some laundry and the peasants help him up. It occurs to Urrutia that the peasants are probably hoping to hear Mass at the estate’s chapel. He knows, however, that Farewell would never arrange such a thing, especially as that weekend’s honored guest, Neruda, claims to be an atheist (although Urrutia suspects he is not). He looks into the eyes of the peasant women and sees in them an almost otherworldly, alien patience. He finds the peasants ugly and their words and actions incoherent. Urrutia turns his back on them and walks away briskly, laughing wildly as he reaches a safe distance.
Back at the house, he finds Farewell’s guests listening to Neruda recite. At six that evening, his visit comes to an end, and he takes a train back to Santiago. “My literary baptism had reached its conclusion” (22), he says.
Analysis of pages 1–22
The novella By Night in Chile is a social satire, written to expose what author Roberto Bolaño saw as the failure of the Church and the intellectual elites to stand up against fascism in Chile in the form of brutal military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the South American nation from 1973 to 1990. Himself a poet and writer, Bolaño was especially critical of the Chilean literary establishment, including poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda is presented in a less-than-flattering light in this novella. But the main focus of Bolaño’s satire is the poet-critic-priest Urrutia, a representative of both the Church and the intellectual elite who betrayed justice in Chile.
By Night in Chile is narrated by Father Urrutia in one long paragraph, with no chapter or section breaks. This contributes to the novella’s sense of urgency and immediacy—the sense that these are the words of a dying man, uttered over the course of one long, sleepless night. Indeed, the novella was published just a few years before Bolaño’s own premature death, at age fifty, of liver failure. In the opening sentences of the book, Father Urrutia claims that he has been slandered by “a wizened youth” (1) and seeks to defend his reputation. As the novella continues, however, it is suggested that this shriveled or wrinkled young man may be none other than Urrutia himself, or rather, the idealistic boy he once was, calling him to account for the sins he has committed throughout his life. Alternately, the wizened youth may be seen to represent Bolaño himself, or more broadly, the collective conscience of Chile crying out for justice. In his dying hours, Urrutia rails against this voice of morality in an attempt to justify his own actions or inactions, his “words and silences” (1). What he did or did not do becomes clear over the course of the novella.
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. He aspires to become a great literary critic like his idol Farewell. His desire to be accepted into Farewell’s highbrow intellectual circle leads Urrutia to sell out in both body and soul.
Bolaño uses striking imagery to make it clear that by taking up with Farewell, Urrutia is on a path to his own doom. The relationship between the two men is presented as that of predator and prey, or more accurately, that of a falconer and the young falcon he trains to hunt for him. When recounting the young priest’s first meeting with the august critic, Bolaño describes Farewell’s voice as “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.” Urrutia responds “with the naïveté of a fledgling,” and Farewell places a hand on his shoulder—a hand “as heavy as if it were encased in an iron gauntlet” (4). (A gauntlet is a type of glove worn by falconers—people who train falcons to hunt.) When Urrutia arrives at the critic’s estate, he finds a living room similar to a hunting lodge, decorated with “at least a dozen mounted heads, including those of a pair of pumas bagged by Farewell’s father” (8). Farewell, as a wealthy aristocrat, comes from a long tradition of those who prey on the weak. He lives off the blood and toil of the landless peasants who work on his estate. When Urrutia enters Farewell’s home, he automatically becomes part of that system.
Even more menacing is the description of the carriage that takes Urrutia to the estate as “ruinous, as if that equipage were coming to take someone away to Hell” (7). The references to the Italian poet Dante (who famously described the many levels of Hell in his Divine Comedy) and the image of Neruda’s “oblong-shaped shadow like a coffin” (12), seen by Urrutia as the famous poet crosses the yard, emphasize the idea of death and damnation. Over the course of the weekend, the newly ordained priest turns his back repeatedly on the vocation of the priesthood, retreating in disgust from the peasants who seek his aid and comfort straight into the corrupting hands of the literary elite, embodied by Neruda and Farewell. Neruda, a staunch Communist normally viewed as a poet of the people, is shown here enjoying fine foods and intoning praise to the moon while, along with the others, blissfully ignoring the suffering of the workers on his host’s estate. Farewell, meanwhile, is like the very devil, seducing his young protégé sexually as well as intellectually.
Urrutia describes his downfall in terms taken from the Bible in Revelation 11:14: “the second woe is past, behold, the third woe is coming quickly.” In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the three “woes” are three things that happen before the Apocalypse, or the end of the world, at which point Jesus Christ returns to Earth and all human souls face divine judgment. The wicked are thrown into Hell and the righteous join God in Heaven. For Urrutia, Farewell’s sexual advances are one of the “woes” that point to a coming Apocalypse. But just as he begins to have visions, straight from the Bible, warning him of the danger ahead—just as he envisions “a beast [rising] up out of the sea” and “seven angels which had the seven vials”—he hears the voice of Pablo Neruda, like the voice of God. From this point on, Bolaño suggests, the young priest will serve literary gods like Neruda and Farewell, while turning his back on God in Heaven. He now toasts Neruda’s greatness, even while being aware of the poet’s hypocrisy. He will even break his priestly vow of chastity to tolerate Farewell’s lustful groping, all because of his desire to be accepted by the intellectual community.
Significantly, on the second day at Farewell’s estate, Urrutia does not wear his cassock. He finds the peasants even more grotesque and alien than on the day before, and although he knows they would like to hear him give Mass, he won’t do so, because he knows the weekend gathering is “literary rather than religious” (20). Father Urrutia now feels he belongs with the aristocrats in the mansion, enjoying rich meals and high conversation, and not among the peasants with their poor diction and their humble bread. He been baptized anew into the religion of the literary and cultural elite.
Roberto Bolaño, the author, of course, does not approve. As the reader can guess by reading his description of the poor peasants on Farewell’s estate, Bolaño supported the ideas of nineteenth-century German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), who held that the lower classes of society—the laborers and farmers—needed to be uplifted, not kept down. He also believed that poets and writers like himself (and like his protagonist Urrutia) had a moral obligation to be a part of that social revolution. In 1973, Bolaño (who had spent his teenage years in Mexico City) returned to his native Chile to support Marxist-Socialist President Salvador Allende, who had begun radical reforms that would redistribute land owned by the Church and the wealthy to poor farmers. But a month after Bolaño arrived, Allende was dead. General Augusto Pinochet had taken over the government in a bloody coup organized by the CIA. Naturally, many Church leaders and elites supported Pinochet, who had prevented Allende from taking their property. But the military regime caused a bloody nightmare for Chile, as some 30,000 people believed to be supporters of Allende were imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet’s agents. More than 3,000 citizens were killed or disappeared, their bodies dumped into mass graves. Hundreds of people fled into exile. Now the Church and the elites had blood on their hands. This horrible truth is the central focus of By Night in Chile, as the poet-priest Urrutia faces his moment of reckoning.