In these strange days in which we are living, I’m interested in what can be learned from others who have lived through oppressive nationalist regimes.
Roberto Bolano is an author who lived through the Pinochet era in Chile. His first novel translated into English, By Night in Chile, is his exploration of religion and aesthetics under that regime. The novel is the deathbed confession of Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, a poet and literary critic who shares his reflection in a fevered unbroken stream of consciousness. It’s a flooding rush of words in a style that has been used by others like Jose Saramago.
A wizened youth looks at him accusingly and Urrutia feels compelled to make his confession. He has been an aesthete who seems to prefer the world of literature to that of the church, although he wears his cassock much of the time clearly identifying himself as a priest. He is open about his association with the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement. His literary associates can praise and fawn over Neruda without ever understanding the political convictions that inspire his work. He describes the Allende years almost parenthetically in his reflections on the Greek classics and his church and literary associates breathe a sigh of relief when Pinochet’s coup is successful and Allende dead.
While Bolanos does not write as a magical realist, he edges into that territory in a fantastic section where Urrutia takes on a project with priests who have become falconers to rid their churches of pigeons. (A problem I know all too well!) There is a moment of pure beauty as Urrutia releases a flacon into the wild.
Later, he will accept an assignment to educate Pinochet and his junta on the basics of Marxism. He approaches this work as a pure teacher, while setting aside wrestling with his conscience.
As curfews are imposed, he settles in with a crowd that spends the nights together in extended salons. And then later discovers in horror that the house where he has enjoyed intellectual discussions of literature has also been used for the torture and even murder of dissidents by the husband of his host.
For Urrutia, this journey is about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, but also one’s silences…”One must be very careful with one’s silences..” He begins to see that the whole of Chile has become a “Judas tree, a leafless, dead looking tree, but still rooted in the earth, our rich black earth..” And he discovers that “…life was much more important than literature…”
Finally he begins to realize that the wizened accusing youth may be himself…
“Am I that wizened youth? Is that the true, supreme terror, to discover that i am that wizened youth whose cries no one can hear?”
By Night in Chile is a reminder that in the time we are living there can be no bystanders. There is no aesthetic without ethics, and no beauty without justice because beauty requires truth and there is no truth without justice.
All of us, artists, priests, intellectuals…are responsible, and accountable, even for our silences…