Summary of pages 101–130
Shortly after Urrutia spills his secret to Farewell about the classes on Marxism, the story is all over Santiago. Although Urrutia urged his friend to keep the secret, Farewell obviously did not. Urrutia is terrified of what will happen to him now, but nothing does. Nobody cares, and life goes on. Years later, on his deathbed, Urrutia reflects that the socialists are in power, but it makes no difference. Apparently, there are no real absolutes or convictions. Everything is back to normal as if the brutality never happened. Urrutia’s poetry earns praise, and people ask him for favors. “Sometimes, at night, I would sit on the chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel,” he says. “Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all” (103).
Urrutia publishes books, gives classes and lectures, and travels around Europe. People call him “that splendid Chilean” (104). Like everyone else, he prefers not to look too closely at what is happening in Chile, knowing that what he will find are “coffins, makeshift cemeteries, ghost towns, the void and the horror” (105). The intellectuals, meanwhile, need a place to gather, and there is a curfew in place under Pinochet, so they cannot stay out late in public places. Then he meets María Canales, a young, pretty, inexperienced writer, whose talent as a writer is not clearly to be seen. As he tells the story of María Canales, he sees the wizened youth in his mind’s eye, “crouching or down on all fours, on a hillock, black clouds racing past over his head” (106).
Canales has a big house on the outskirts of the city and invites all the literati to gather there for parties. She has two young sons and is married to an American named James Thompson, or “Jimmy.” The older of her two sons is named Sebastián, and Father Urrutia takes a special liking to that boy, who shares his name. One day, little Sebastián looks unwell, and as he gazes at the priest, Urrutia thinks that his big blue eyes are “seeing something they [do] not want to see” (110).
Canales wins a literary prize, and Urrutia tells the reader in a curiously doublespeak kind of way that her story is not “a positively bad story, but it certainly wasn’t good” (111). Farewell thinks the story is frightfully bad and laments that contemporary literature is terrible now. Urrutia agrees, but quietly. With María Canales, he discusses a feminist writer she really likes. Urrutia thinks the feminist writer is a bad writer and plagiarized many of her ideas from French women writers of the 1950, but he doesn’t say so directly; instead, he uses veiled, overly diplomatic, double-speak type language. Canales looks at him curiously, as if she sees through him, and he quickly says that of course he likes the feminist writer’s stories, but he’s “just critically noting their weaknesses” (113). As he says this, he knows how absurd he has become, how fake.
One night, Urrutia has a dream that Father Antonio—the old priest who died in Spain—beckons him to look up at a leafless tree. Proudly perched in the tree is the falcon Rodrigo, whom he released on the night of Father Antonio’s death. Father Antonio is crying and trembling inconsolably. Finally he says, “It’s the Judas Tree!” (117). Father Urrutia thinks he is going to die right then.
In the days after, Urrutia cannot stop thinking about the image. He finally realizes that the Judas Tree is the state of Chile after fascism. Poetry and art are stifled in a police state in which everyone is afraid to speak out, and critics cannot say what they really mean. He realizes: “Chile itself, the whole country, had become the Judas Tree, a leafless, dead-looking tree” (118).
He returns to María Canales’s house and in a conversation, he tells her that life is more important than literature. She says she has always known that, and he feels that she has finally won; she is now supreme and he—once the great critic—has no more authority. He leaves her house, never to return. Months later he hears a rumor about Canales. A guest of one of her parties had wandered off into the corridors of the basement, and there in a room had found a man tied to a metal bed. The story is repeated many times until democracy finally returns to Chile and the story comes out—Canales’s husband, Jimmy Thompson, was an agent for the DINA, or Chilean secret police under Pinochet, and he used their home to torture and interrogate prisoners. All the while the literary elite were hobnobbing upstairs, torture was going on just below their feet.
Jimmy is arrested and jailed, but then taken out of jail and put in the witness protection program after he names several Chilean generals. María Canales is left all alone in her house in Chile. Her friends no longer visit. One day, Father Urrutia goes to see her and finds her house decrepit and her garden overrun by weeds. She tells him that the house is set to be taken from her and demolished. Perversely, she asks if he’d like to see the basement where Jimmy and his men killed people. She says she knew what was happening:
Sometimes I’d be watching television with the children, and the lights would go out for a while. We never heard anyone yell, the electricity just cut out and then came back. Do you want to go and see the basement? … That’s how literature is made in Chile (126).
Father Urrutia leaves her and thinks about what she has said. He reflects:
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 and carefree Italy. That is how literature is made. Or at least what we call literature, to keep ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump (127).
Farewell dies, and after his death, Urrutia goes to his old estate with a few friends. The sheds where the farmers once lived are now empty. Nothing in Chile is as it was. A young novelist who knew María Canales pretend he has never met her. Former peasants claim they never worked the land; they’ve worked in the city all their lives. History is erased. The wizened youth’s voice is no more, and Urrutia wonders where he has gone.
And then, “like a dead body” (129), the truth rises up: The wizened youth is Urrutia himself, the voice of conscience no one can hear. Father Urrutia is dying. Before his eyes flash the faces of friends and enemies throughout his life. Then, he says, “the storm of shit begins” (130).
Analysis of pages 101–130
Urrutia turns a blind eye to the horrors of the Pinochet regime, and in doing so, he becomes irrelevant. He is a critic who cannot criticize. Rather than exposing the injustice all around him, he writes opinions on classic art. On the first page of the novel, Urrutia says that “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences” (1). Now is the time that his silences, more than his words, damn him, because he does not speak out.
When Urrutia does speak, he does so in careful, doublespeak-like language that fails to say what it really means. He is too afraid to give his real opinion even on literature now. Not only can’t he tell the difference between what is right and wrong, he is now unable to say what is good and bad in his own area of expertise. Clearly he thinks that María Canales is a mediocre writer, but he won’t say it directly; he says that her talent is “sheathed” or hidden. And he’s not the only voice afraid to speak up. As Farewell points out, literature is bad in Chile, and nobody will say anything. Writers and poets and thinkers all just carry on as if nothing is wrong.
And that leads to the climax of the novel, its ultimate horror in the home of María Canales: the writers are all, figuratively and literally, partying and chattering at cocktail parties while torture and death are going on just below their feet. It is a powerful and haunting metaphor for the failure of the literary elite to do anything in the face of injustice. But it’s not just a metaphor: the story is absolutely true. The character of María Canales is based on real-life author Mariana Callejas, whose American husband Michael Townley was a political assassin and an agent of Pinochet who used their basement as a secret prison for interrogations.
The sad plight of a new generation of Chileans is suggested in the pallid face of Urrutia’s young namesake and surrogate child, Sebastián. He is born into a sick world, with sick parents, and is made to see what he does not wish to see, through no fault of his own. Sebastián Urrutia has failed to do his duty as a “Father” to this new generation. All along, however, Urrutia seeks to avoid responsibility and minimize his guilt. He emphasizes repeatedly that he only had two meaningful conversations with Canales; he didn’t go to her house frequently as others did. And he cannot be blamed for teaching Pinochet, can he? He did what he had to do—or so he would like to believe.
Urrutia’s dreams, however, will not leave him alone. The dream of the Judas tree shows that he is well aware of his own guilt. In the Bible, Judas was the apostle of Jesus Christ who betrayed him to the Roman soldiers in exchange for money. Jesus was then captured and crucified. In the Book of Acts, Judas then hangs himself in a tree out of shame for what he did. This tree is known as the “Judas Tree.” Like Judas, Urrutia and other literary elites and conservative clerics have betrayed their country by supporting fascism. The result is that Chile is now like that leafless tree, appearing dead, with the proud falcon of fascism perched in its branches. Art and literature cannot flourish here. Nothing new and green can survive.
The final pages of the book indicate that the “wizened youth” who accused Urrutia is actually Urrutia’s own conscience. He cannot forgive himself in his final moments, nor can he cleanse his reputation in the eyes of the world. The book ends on a note of darkly humorous revenge, as Urrutia’s legacy is covered in shit. The “storm of shit” that begins as he dies harkens back to the pigeons who shit on the Church. It indicates that however much Urrutia, or the powerful oppressors he placed himself in league with, may have tried to silence the common people, there is no escaping the truth.