Discussed in this essay:
By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions. 144pp, $13.95.
Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions. 149pp, $14.95.
Amulet, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions. 192pp, $14.95.
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Natasha Wimmer. FSG. 672pp, $15.00.
This story is also that of a mother so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal—an animal whose belly is being ripped apart—she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life, from the very life that had been taken from her. A terrible cry, a cry of terror at the utter evil that can befall a human being; the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal, the death of a son.
La Noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico)
Only four years after he was introduced to American readers via By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño has become a genuine phenomenon. Although Bolaño is no longer alive and is read in translation, his books have attained prominence at a rate most living, English-language authors can only envy. Chris Andrews, who has translated four of Bolaño’s books and is working on a fifth, compared the American response to the British where “reviews have been good but sales relatively slow. . . . The enthusiasm of [American] critics and the reading public has been very heartening. There seems to be a real appetite for it.”
By Night in Chile was something of an auspicious debut. A slight work (its 130 pages go by in a matter of hours), the book consists of a single paragraph, the purported deathbed confession of a guilt-racked Chilean priest trying to justify his complicity in the Pinochet regime. The unadorned yet undeniably beautiful prose meanders through forty years of the priest’s life, and its impenetrable clarity and multi-page sentences bring to mind Thomas Bernhard. A somewhat difficult wordsmith writing an esoteric short novel—in Spanish—about one of his country’s darkest moments. This is not the stuff of a bestseller.
Yet the critics liked it, casually sliding it into the ballooning category of “overseas political novel.” Writing in The Guardian, Ben Richards stated that By Night in Chile skillfully demonstrated “the supine nature of the Chilean literary establishment under the [Pinochet] dictatorship.” In The New York Times Richard Eder found it “a thinly disguised history” of Chile’s intellectuals’ “accommodation with privilege.” And in The Nation Kate Levin concluded that “By Night in Chile conveys powerfully [that there is] simply no such thing as neutrality when it comes to regimes like Pinochet’s.”
There is nothing wrong with reading By Night in Chile as a book about politics, but Bolaño is after much more here than a condemnation of Chile’s intellectuals. The literary angle to this story is unmistakable: For starters, the narrator is an elderly priest/poet/literary critic. He is bedeviled by a young, rising writer whom he refers to only as “the wizened youth.” And the priest’s story contains just as much literature as it does politics: Neruda makes a cameo; the first twenty-five pages—one-fifth of the book—deal with the priest’s “literary baptism”; throughout there are anecdotes about famous writers and aspiring newcomers. Lastly, after perhaps realizing that he cannot excuse himself for his complicity in the Pinochet regime, the priest finally repeats as though it were his last justification, “That’s how literature is made.”
True, Bolaño might have made his confessional priest a member of the literati simply so that he could better reveal the literary class’s complicity with Pinochet, but the three novels of Bolaño’s translated into English since By Night in Chile belie this assessment; they make it clear that in Chile, as in Bolaño’s other books, politics and literature are inextricable. Take Carlos Weider, Distant Star’s “villain,” a young man who combines the categories of fascist, daredevil aviator, and poet. He likes to write poems in the sky out of his military plane and exhibit art photos of torture victims. “An approximation, a modest one, of pure evil,” Bolaño called him. Then there is Amulet’s Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan poetry-lover who sustains herself for days in a toilet stall in Mexico City’s National Autonomous University during the small-scale terror being unleashed just before the Olympics in 1968. As with By Night in Chile and Distant Star, in Amulet we again find a literary artist pulled inextricably into politics via terror.
Most recently there’s The Savage Detectives, a book that eschews politics more than any of the previous ones, yet one in which politics leaves an indelible mark. It stars Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two poet youths of the 1970s who live in Mexico and enthusiastically but ineptly minister over the dying body of “visceral realism.” Eventually they go in search of its creator (a female poet of the ’30s who may or may not have existed) and end up wandering Europe. Providing a panoramic perspective of the generation that was adolescents during the terrors of 1968 and 1973 (as opposed to those who lived through it as adults), The Savage Detectives clearly includes politics, but it is subordinated to the primary narrative of Belano and Lima’s pursuit of political and literary parents.
What unites all these novels is that they deal with the pain of parents failing their children and children without parents. With this in mind, Bolaño’s interests in By Night in Chile begin to look different. The story of one guilt-ridden priest bemoaning his part in Pinochet’s regime begins to look like the story of a man who realizes he has not only failed his country, but has also failed the generation of writers that follows him. As we begin to see the priest as a “father” who has failed his children, his miserable pain becomes the natural extension of this realization. The terror unleashed by the coup becomes something intimately related to art, politics, and parenting, a crucible for forging the parents who would groom the next generation of authors and citizens.
By Night in Chile is a book full of confusions between fathers and sons. On the second page, our narrator, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, recounts the moment when he became a priest: “my mother kissed my hand and called me Father . . . I protested, saying Don’t call me Father, mother, I am your son, or maybe I didn’t say Your son but The son.” At multiple points throughout the book Lacroix wonders if he should wear his cassock or go in clothes of the layman—will he present himself as a “father” or not? (He tends to present himself as a father, but always questions his decision.)
Lacroix isn’t even sure if he is the judger or the judged: he gains a large reputation as a critic under the pseudonym H. Ibacache, but he writes poetry under his own name: “Ibacache was engaged in an ongoing exercise in dispassionate analysis and rationality. . . . Ibacache’s purity would be able to illuminate far more powerfully than any other strategy the body of work taking shape verse by verse in the diamond-pure mind of his double: Urrutia Lacroix.” This schizoid personality reveals the degree to which Lacroix doesn’t know himself: Is he the rational father whose responsibility it is to instruct the future generation, or is he the irrational poet-child who is still discovering his identity?
Lacroix’s genuine confusion is key. Lacking such basic self-knowledge, he is ill-suited to act responsibly—as an adult—at moments of great personal strife. He is a ripe target for opportunists.
Lacroix’s first confrontation with terror is a literary one. While still a young man he goes through a period of “monumental boredom and exhaustion” and begins writing poetry different than any he had ever written: “the poems were full of insults and blasphemy and worse, and I had the good sense to destroy them as soon as the sun came up the next day, although at the time many would have considered it an honor to see them, poems whose deep meaning, or at least the meaning I thought I glimpsed in their depths, left me in a state of perplexity and anguish.” Here Lacroix is beginning to question his assumptions; his insults and blasphemy, perplexity and anguish are the seizures that any good artist feels as she struggles to create her own style. This is a crucial moment for Lacroix—he may be on to something, but the necessities of creation leave him in agony.
Before Lacroix completes this difficult, necessary process, he is offered the chance to escape, and he takes it. Lacroix is approached by members of the ultraconservative religious organization Opus Dei, Catholics operating in accord with Franco’s Spain. They ask him to travel to Europe and report on how priests over there are dealing with the problem of the natural decay of churches and cathedrals. Quite portentously, they want to reproduce this European solution in Chile.
In Europe Lacroix finds that the principle problem is pigeon shit and that the Europeans use falcons to “defend against the ravages of time.” After traveling through Europe observing falconers, Lacroix has a notable dream in which “thousands of falcons flying high over the Atlantic ocean [are] headed for America.” When he returns to Chile, Lacroix finds that “my country was not in a healthy state.” The thousands of flying falcons have roosted in Chile and begun to build fascism. As with the falcon-killing pigeons, fascism is an expeditious way to defend a society against the ravages of time/progress, but it is also one that gives little more thought to the people that stand in its way than a falcon does a pigeon.
This is Lacroix’s second moment of terror, not a literary one this time but a political one. Lacroix understands, in theory, what he should do: “This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. This is no time to go chasing rainbows, I said, I must be a patriot. In Chile things were not going well. For me, things had been going well, but not for my country.” Yet rather than take action at this time of great national choice, he buries his head in the Greeks, sighing with relief when Pinochet at last brings peace to Chile. Later, when called upon to teach Marxism to the Junta (to better “understand the enemy”), he complies without a fight.
Lacroix’s political failure springs from his literary one. At the crucial moment when Opus Dei co-opts him to study fascism in Europe, he might have remained true to the spirit of poetic inquiry that was then challenging him. He might have questioned the men, he might have stuck with his poetry. But he didn’t. As he would later do with Pinochet, he acquiesced to the wishes of men who could take away his inner turmoil, and as he did so he unwittingly imbibed the seeds of fascism.
By Night in Chile, then, is a tragedy, the ravings of a disgraced priest, critic, and poet who, too late, is seized with guilt for a life of acquiescence, of turning away from difficulty. It is a tale of fathers and sons told from the perspective of a father who failed to be one. With a father like this, one who was a powerful and influential critic, how could Chile’s next generation of authors hope to have proper guidance?
Bolaño leaves Lacroix to suffer in ignominy, but there is at least one member of the parent generation that Bolaño paints as suffering nobly—as being purified through difficulty instead of destroyed by it. This person is Auxilio Lacouture, the self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.” Having never published a poem, Auxilio is not the mother in any literal sense. In fact, her impact on poetry seems to be so low that she may only be the mother in her own mind. Yet, when faced with terror she shows far more courage than Lacroix, and this is the way that she earns her self-proclaimed title.
The scene is Mexico City in September, 1968. For months the city has been wracked by unimaginably large student protests, and revolution is a distinct possibility. Mexico’s government finally responds definitively to the threat: in October, the federal police will commit the bloodiest massacre in the nation’s post-Revolution history.
In the middle of this chaos, Auxilio is holed up in a toilet stall in Mexico City’s enormous university, which has been taken over by military. All the students already fled or beaten and arrested, she is completely alone and is terrified, but she swears that she will hold out. And then a soldier barges into the ladies’ room:
While I . . . waited for the soldier to search the cubicles one by one and prepared myself mentally and physically not to open the door, if it came to that, to defend the autonomy of the National Autonomous University of Mexico even in this last redoubt, a special kind of silence prevailed. . . . And then I saw myself and I saw the soldier who was staring entranced at his image in the mirror, our two faces embedded in a black rhombus or sunk in a lake, and a shiver ran down my spine. . . . [I knew that] our singularities, from that moment on, would be joined like the two faces of a terrible, fatal coin.
Auxilio describes this moment as “the birth,” and, indeed, it passes with her feet lifted on the toilet “like a Renoir ballerina, as if I were about to give birth.” This is when Auxilio becomes the mother of Mexican poetry, and in the following twelve days (all spent in the bathroom) Auxilio will come to understand her role by “recalling” her past, her future, and even events that did not occur.
Just as Lacroix ultimately fails to be a father by ducking down when he is beset by terror, Auxilio gains motherhood by preparing herself to stand up to terror when it comes time to defend a place of enlightenment and art from fascist elements. Democracy cannot thrive without people like Auxilio, but neither can literature. Critics and novelists like Lacroix who care only about themselves, who are prepared to debase themselves in order to shore up their reputations, are poor artists and receive thorough condemnation in Bolaño’s novels. Ultimately they make poor parents to the next generation of writers. Even someone like Auxilio, an enthusiast who cannot write poetry and has never published, is a better nurturer of the next generation because of her willingness to face terror.
Auxilio’s impotent rebuttal to UNAM’s seizure reveals the degree to which Bolaño valued an individual’s gesture. In the larger scheme of things it makes little difference that Auxilio remained in the ladies’ room, and in fact since the police didn’t even know she was on the premises she might as well have not been there. But on a personal level Auxilio’s heroism is huge: it becomes the central moment in her life, a source of pride and self-knowledge that she continually draws power from as she constructs her new identity.
Although Bolaño’s novels intersect with some of the larger moments of Latin American history, he is always working on the level of the individual. Unlike the Boom writers, the history represented in Bolaño is always subordinated to an individual’s very personal reaction to it. What interests Bolaño is how individuals react at moments of difficulty, and how this defines them throughout life. That this reaction is often something with equally large consequences for a person’s identity, politics, and art binds together these realms in Bolaño’s books.
Suffering is essential to these moments of difficulty, and, fittingly, Auxilio’s time in the ladies’ room is not pleasant. She is forced to drink from the bathroom sink. Starving, she resorts to sampling a few squares of toilet paper (the results are not good). At one point she describes herself as “half dead or half asleep.” But for all this suffering, Auxilio comes off very favorably because of who she is. As she says at the beginning of her story, “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that.” Quite clearly, Auxilio suffers in a very different way than Lacroix.
It’s essential that Bolaño describes two kinds of suffering. One might imagine that the bad guys should suffer and the good guys shouldn’t, but in Bolaño this doesn’t happen. Everybody suffers, good or bad, and the difference is in how. At one point in By Night in Chile, Lacroix condemns a bunch of yuppie Chileans as “pigs.” Moments later he reproaches himself—not for calling his fellow humans pigs but because “pigs suffer . . . and their pain purifies and ennobles them.” This is precisely the kind of noble suffering that Auxilio attains. Lacroix, by contrast, lives a life of grateful supplication. His suffering is far from noble. It is a craven kind of suffering, perpetuated by its author’s inability to come to terms with the truth.
In many ways, the members of the following generation—the generation of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima—hardly get off better than Lacroix. Lima spends large amounts of time openly weeping. Belano is exiled from Chile, his homeland. Both live in various states of poverty and bodily decay. Most poignantly, both are exiles in the deepest possible sense: they wander because no place feels like home. They don’t even have anyone the feel like they can call a true friend. Their pain is palpable, they make many errors, and yet, in The Savage Detectives they come off as undeniably noble.
If By Night in Chile and Amulet are versions of a story told from the parents’ perspective, then The Savage Detectives is the same story told from the perspectives of the children. As such, the book largely revolves around a quest for parents. In By Night in Chile Lacroix is given some very good advice on just this subject early in his literary career. He is taken under the wing of Chile’s great literary critic Farewell, who instructs him thus: “It’s good to love. It’s bad to be impressionable.” The meaning is clear: young artists would do well to honor their forebears, but shouldn’t set out to be like them.
This is good advice, advice that builds on Ezra Pound’s famous directive, “make it new,” and yet it can be difficult advice to follow. The Savage Detectives is the story of two young men who learn exactly how difficult. You might call it the tale of a search for the mother that goes horribly wrong.
Arturo and Ulises are in Bolaño’s words “Mexicans lost in Mexico,” but this sense of confusion is somewhat ameliorated when they discover the school of visceral realism. As can happen with young artists, they develop a dedication to visceral realism that replaces the dedication they might have shown to a parental figure. One day Arturo and Ulises head off deep into Mexico’s northern desert in order to find the school’s purported founder, Cesárea Tinajero. The quest becomes all-consuming, taking on a life of its own. When they do find her, something terrible happens and, needless to say, they are both orphans once again. Perhaps their search for Tinajero was doomed from the beginning. As one observer of Arturo and Ulises testifies: “All poets, even the most avant-garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans.”
The bulk of The Savage Detectives—roughly 400 pages—describes their wanderings as they try to transcend their orphan status. This parentless wandering is the terror that they must face, but, as with Auxilio, their suffering is unmistakably noble. In the end Belano seems to come to terms with his horrible mistake, finally figuring out how to honor his forebears without needing to be dominated by them. By enduring pain during his years of wandering he has transcended his orphan status.
In a very different way, By Night in Chile is also a failed search for a father. Multiple times Lacroix mentions his own father as a “shadow of a weasel” that slithers in between corners. Clearly, this is a man with father issues. With his blood father a seeming failure, Lacroix latches on to the literary critic Farewell as a father-figure. It is on Farewell’s estate, for instance, that Lacroix receives his “literary baptism,” and moreover, when Lacroix teaches Marxism to the Junta, it is to Farewell that he confesses it. Lacroix’s only moment of self-doubt before another person in the entire book occurs at this moment: “Farewell, I whispered, Did I do the right thing or not?”
At one point years before the coup, Lacroix and Farewell are eating dinner in a restaurant when shadows begin frantically dashing across the restaurant’s walls. It seems to be a vision of the chaos that is to eventually enshroud Chile. Farewell becomes entranced by this surreal display, but the shadows hurt Lacroix’s eyes. Nonetheless, Farewell compels him to look:
The pain persisted in my eyes, and so could easily have been overcome, since shutting them would have disposed of the problem, and I could and should have done just that, but I did not, for there was something in Farewell’s expression, something in his stillness, hardly disturbed by a slight eye movement, which, as I went on looking at him, seemed with growing force to imply an infinite terror, or rather a terror shooting towards the infinite, as terror does by its very nature, rising and rising endlessly . . . [italics mine]
Of course, the lesson does not take, as when the terror arrives in Chile and it comes time for Lacroix to look, he chooses instead to close his eyes. By Night in Chile is full of moments like these, moments between Farewell and Lacroix when it seems that the older man is trying to get the younger one to understand, to think. Unlike Belano and Lima, Lacroix is fortunate enough to have a father-figure; nonetheless, throughout he fails to receive the message.
It is at the book’s very end, when guilt has forced Lacroix to rant for an entire night, that he perhaps sees clearly. As Lacroix offers excuse after excuse, we hear distant rumblings of “the wizened youth” who has spread the “slanderous rumors” that have disturbed Lacroix’s peace. The youth has called Lacroix to take responsibility for his choices, to begin to lead the life he should have taken up ages ago. This is the teaching that Lacroix failed to receive from Farewell. Too late, Lacroix wonders “Am I the wizened youth? Is that the true, the supreme terror, to discover that I am the wizened youth whose cries no one can hear? And that the poor wizened youth is me?”
“That’s how literature is made,” chants Lacroix, “that’s how literature is made.” And, self-serving rationalization or not, he’s right. In Bolaño’s fiction the creation of literature is tied to facing a certain political horror. In one way or another, these horrors serve as a source of inspiration, an imperative to create, a touchstone that an artists can never completely be free from. It is a curse and a blessing, an opportunity to create oneself and one’s art, but if it’s fumbled the consequences can be disastrous. Lacroix’s wretchedness is a fine example, but even more compelling is the nightmare that is Carlos Weider, Bolaño’s modest depiction of evil from Distant Star.
In Bolaño, one never faces a political horror absent from its literary implications. Politics and literature are part and parcel of the same realm, so when you’re talking about one you’re already talking about the other. This is not in the manner of the Boom authors, whom Bolaño detested and who used literature as a tool to depict capital-H Historical themes, sometimes even reenacting moments from history. Rather, this is in the manner of, as Auxilio describes it, politics and literature being two faces of the same coin.
In both politics and literature, parents play a crucial role. As Lacroix says, “time . . . sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze, drowning writers in its whirlpools”; it is a “great meat-grinder.” Knowing that time ravages everything, how will predecessors and institutions—both political and literary—be retained if not for those who pass them on to the next generation? In this schema fascism is a horror different from all other horrors—it defeats time by means of absolute terror, encases society in a stasis, renders parents and children meaningless because the state is the only one who is fit to raise the youth.
And yet, although Bolaño’s themes of parents and children are universal, it is important to note that they are also grounded in a very specific historical moment. He is always writing about the same two generations, the parents and the children of the ’60s. North American and European authors have spilled much ink agonizing over what these generations mean, but Bolaño’s writings offer a very new, Latin American perspective.
As Auxilio sits in her bathroom stall she has crazy visions that range over the whole of her life. She recalls the old days, remembering how she worked in the university and attended to two literary lions. Strangely, she also recalls her future, “remembering” interactions with Arturo Belano and other members of the visceral realist group that have not yet taken place. While in the bathroom, the moonlight dances over every single tile as though the entire ladies’ room was a giant calendar of Auxilio’s life.
It’s notable that while Auxilio’s story ranges freely over the past and the future, Lacroix’s consists solely of the past. Auxilio is able to overcome time, to challenge the meat-grinder and participate in creating a narrative as her life happens. By contrast, Lacroix can only recall the narrative that has been given to him; moreover, he disdains free agency, insulting “the smallness of being and its ridiculous will.”
In the end, Bolaño’s orphans become parents when they attain the ability to push back against time, the maturity to create their own story. Bolaño’s books chronicle two generations in which—excluding some very important exceptions—this failed to happen. Both in terms of politics and literature, the adults grew into tyrants and the children never found their parents. Each generation remained captive to the workings of time, which is otherwise known as history. It is this personal history that we receive when we read Bolaño’s books.
Perhaps this explains America’s strange affinity for the work of Roberto Bolaño. After collectively experiencing a moment of terror, Americans are at a point where they must participate in creating the future of their country. As Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the Iraq fiasco make clear, the stakes are quite high, and Abu Ghraib in particular points us toward the consequences of acquiescence. They force us to contemplate, What will America look like for the next generation? Even beyond terrorism, looming issues like shoring up the Social Security system and the irreversible environmental deterioration caused by global warming are commonly couched in terms of bequeathing a mess to our children. To a very large degree, Americans are preoccupied with questions of what future they are passing on to the next generation. Bolaño shows us how these questions work on a personal level, and By Night in Chile especially shows us the enduring humanistic fibers that link our 9/11 to Chile’s 9/11. There is much talk about Americans writing the post-9/11 novel these days, but perhaps the post-9/11 novel has, thus far, best been written by a Chilean.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. This essay has been adapted for publication in a Spanish monograph on Bolaño.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Roberto Bolaño: A naïve introduction to the geometry of his fictions In Bolaño's novels, themes, ideas, events, and even characters constantly recur. Javier Moreno has figured out how to fit all the books together. Turns out to be a triangle. ...
- Amulet by Roberto Bolaño I. Roberto Bolaño was the type of writer most writers want to be or think they already are: stylistically bold, thematically engaging, readable and re-readable; in other words, undeniably exceptional. Bolaño, who died in 2003, was a writer whose style is deceptively simple yet whose books and characters take hold...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Scott Esposito