Mourning and Allegory in Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile

Roberto Bolaño’s novel By Night in Chile itself is almost a parody of the “confessional narrative” style that Idelber Avelar accuses of having met its “historical limit” in his book The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction. By embodying the voice of a man who wishes to confess but cannot admit to doing wrong, Bolaño utilizes the paradox of allegorical fiction that Avelar identifies as an attempt to express topics and events that the writer does not possess the vocabulary to express, often because their nature is so unprecedentedly horrific; Avelar labels this technique the”dissolution of the signature” (Avelar, 152) or “the loss of the proper name” (Avelar, 101). In this sense it is closely tied to melancholia and mourning, the desire to grieve and remember, juxtaposed against the need to reconstruct a life beyond the defining loss. Avelar claims that allegorical fiction’s liberal use of discontinuity, paradox and fragmentation make it not only a distinctly postmodern medium, but one especially well equipped to deal with this modern sense of melancholia. Contemporary writers of fiction grapple with an entire reorganization of the very ideas of past, present, future, location, and other totalities once considered absolute. Avelar understands this version of allegory in connection with Frederick Jameson’s theory that the behemoth of late capitalism and postmodernism under globalization places the recent past in danger of being obliterated from collective memory. In By Night in Chile, Bolaño creates an unreliable narrator who represents not only one man’s personal indifference, but the destructive apathy of the entire subculture of Chilean literature in the face of true corruption and moral deficit. Bolaño exempts no one from the accountability of history, and artists (as well as those who have a powerful influence on art) are doubly guilty of the sin of complacency in the face of such an oppressive regime as the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Father Urrutia, a conservative priest and literary critic, does not consider himself a political person, though his heavily right-wing literary criticism comes to hold a great deal of influence among the upper-class circles of literati in which he moves. His reaction to the election of Allende (and Pinochet’s subsequent coup) is almost comical: as the people of Chile take to the streets in sweeping social change, Urrutia buries himself in classical Greek literature in order to avoid the messiness political chaos might bring to his personal pursuits. With the success of Pinochet and the restoration of order, Urrutia expresses relief for “peace at last.” Urrutia, Bolaño suggests, has deliberately cut himself off from humanity because it interferes with his art, just as the upper-class Chilean literati chose to do. The worst sin, perhaps, is not simply pursuing a maclicious dictatorship, but ignoring the horrific because one simply finds no personal gain in opposing it. As Urrutia refuses to recognize his complacency as nefarious, he cannot, ironically, see himself in the words Bolaño so eloquently has him speak: “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s 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. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all.” (Bolaño, 1) Urrutia’s silences are far from immaculate – they are his greatest sin – but his certainty of their purity, even to the point of challenging God himself to question them, shows how truly stubborn and self-absorbed his motives are. The most powerful and resonant image of this thorough denial is in the soiree at the salon in Maria Canales’ home. While an elite handful of Chile’s well-bred, religious and worldly poets and critics socialize and drink cocktails, one guest accidentally stumbles upon the basement in search of a bathroom and discovers a man manacled, having been tortured as an anti-Pinochet dissident by Canales’ husband, Jimmy Thompson. Urrutia reflects on the inappropriate choice of Canales to host a party with the knowledge of what was going on in her basement (though not, notably, the inappropriatness of torturing dissidents in one’s basement in the first place): “Because, normally, when she had a soiree, the basement was unoccupied. I asked myself the following quesiton: Why then, on that partiuclar night, did a guest who lost his way find that poor man? The answer was simple: Because with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine. I asked myself the following question: Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? The answer was simple: Because they were afraid. I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that had settled down after a few years?” (Bolaño, 122) Like every guest at the party who choses to ignore, dismiss, or pass around the news of the tortured man as titilating gossip, Urrutia continues to justify such atrocities to himself with a belief in some sort of greater goal of literary history. “That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it.” (Bolaño, 128) Thus Avelar’s description of allegory as “the aesthetic face of political defeat” (Avelar, 68) can be accurately applied to Bolaño’s novel. Bolaño creates Urrutia as a thoroughly pessimistic embodiment of the collaboration and moral apathy of Chilean writers under Pinochet’s regime. While the novel does not offer a vision of hope for the future of Chilean literature, its frank, unabashed acknowledgment of the failure of utopian idealism is a necessary (and the final) step in the grieving process. There are no surprises or magical resolutions of bargaining which encourage the reader to find comfort in the state of the present, rather, the defeatist attitude of a trauma that cannot be adequately named suggests that there is a problem that still has not been resolved.