Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: "By Night in Chile" by Roberto Bolano

I feel that I should let this book rest in my mind for at least a day, but since tomorrow I will be headed to Sandusky, Ohio to spend a few days at Cedar Point, I have to do it tonight so I will not get behind. But I feel if there is any novel that needs time to gestate and settle into the readers mind for a while before they start talking about it, it is something like Roberto Bolnao’s first published work in English, By Night in Chile. Reading this book, you really get a sense of what we lost when the great Chilean author died. The way he thinks about and the way he discusses topics such as mortality, oppressive regimes, creativity and the cult of intellect is really second to none. He is a smart writer, delving deep into what characters think and feel and coming out with odd yet introspective ideas about life. But he is never an arrogant writer, having his feet firmly planted in the camp of the common folk, who are sometimes his victims and sometimes his perpetrators. When reading a Bolano novel, even one as short as this one, it is important to look at the small picture before you look at the big one. To understand a book like 2666 or The Savage Detectives as a whole will likely drive you insane. His books work best as pieces, with many of the scenes in his books being not only fun, but also part of a greater mystery that the reader may or may not solve. In this slim novel of only 130 pages, we are listening in on a long nighttime rant of dying priest Father Urrutia, whose dreams of being a world famous poet are lost when he becomes a critic to the brutal regime of dictator General Pinochet. Through this monologue, which takes place at night, he traces his regrets in a series of vignettes that might be real, or might be just another one of the crazy dreams he is being plagued with. This novel brings up a lot of questions that are not in his longer novels: are the things happening in the past, as the opening would suggest? Are they happening now in the narrator’s panicked mind? Or is the whole scenario of the dying priest something the narrator concocted to look into the future? Either way the writing is filled with regret and longing for a dream that went unmet. Through the priest interactions with a famous poet, two sketchy characters he meets who get him the bureaucratic job, and a teaching job where he may or may not have met the Pinochet himself, the unreliable priest weaves in intricate web of details where only emotions and darkness can escape. Some critics don’t like that, but I feel it sets Bolano apart as a writer who was way more ahead of his time. This is difficult, but it is short, so the patience required for finishing it is minimal, which makes this probably the best introduction into the great author’s work.

Rating: 5/5

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