Post-Colonial Theory in ‘By Night in Chile’ and ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’

Post-colonial theory divides the colonizer’s point of view from that of the colonized; however, literature, with its promiscuous plurality of points of view can understand, contain, and even synthesize different cultural perspectives. Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile describes members of Chile’s ruling elite under the Pinochet’s dictatorships. Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells of two young bourgeois who are sent to the mountains during China’s Cultural Revolution to be reeducated. How the Chilean and Chinese characters view Western culture depends on the class. Generally, while the educated privileged Chilean and Chinese appreciate and embrace Western culture, peasants either distrust Western culture, as in Mao’s China or are ignorant and indifferent to it, as in Pinochet’s Chile. The novelists, unlike the characters in the novel, are given access to plural visions; only the novelists can see from all points of view: western and colonized, privileged and peasant. Indeed, both Bolaño and Dai explore the complex relationship between different classes by investigating the characters’ relationship with Western Culture. By Night in Chile describes the tormented life of Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, and writer, who is telling the story of his own life throughout a deathbed confession narrative. Father Urrutia, on the verge of death, understands and admits the bad he has done throughout his life. Indeed, Bolaño uses Father Urrutia’s understanding of his faults as a criticism of the Chilean intellectuals. In By Night in Chile, the cultural elite silently accepts both US interference in Chile’s politics and Pinochet’s dictatorship because they sustain their position and privilege. Indeed, what Father Urrutia regrets more is not what he had done throughout his life, but rather what he did not do. He admits that, 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. (Bolaño 1) Indeed, Father Urrutia had a double moral obligation to act in favor of the doomed, if not as an intellectual, at least as a priest. From his confession, it becomes evident that he was more concerned about his position as an intellectual rather than his position as a priest. From the moment when he enters Farwell’s estate the first time, he becomes more and more obsessed with this new world he just entered in contact with. It is at Farwell’s estate that Father Urrutia can immerse himself into Western literature and culture. Even though he had already entered in contact with Western culture during his seminar having “read a little of Giacomino da Verona and Pietro Bescapè, Bonvesin de la Riva as well” (Bolaño 15), he is not as cultured as Farewell is. Indeed, Farewell wrong-foots Father Urrutia by asking him what he knows about “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15). From that moment on, Father Urrutia becomes obsessed with Sordello, so that the question “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15) Becomes a central motif of the story. Sordello represents Father Urrutia’s need to be recognized as an intellectual, so that the thought of “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15) Will come to his mind in the most various situations. Father Urrutia thinks of Sordello while being hosted in different churches around Europe as well as he thinks of Sordello after having taught Marxism to Pinochet and his general. At this point, Father Urrutia is completely alienated by literature. When he comes back to Chile from his long journey across Europe, he finds a complex political situation. Before coming back, he decides that once in Chile he should have started acting as a patriot and do something for his country, yet once again he will not act. This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. […] I must be a patriot. In Chile things were not going well. For me, things had been going well, but not for my country. […] When I got back to my house, I went straight to my Greek classic. [… ] I started with Homer and then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, and then a pro-Allende general was killed. […] I also read Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle ad Plato […] and then came the coup d’état […] the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place and I thought: Peace at least. (Bolaño 73-76) Father Urrutia spends his time reading Greek philosophy books while Pinochet is organizing his coup d’état. Instead of embracing his intellectual role by doing something for the society (he could have denounced the political situation in his literary works) he spends his time reading and writing reviews of other intellectuals’ books. As a consequence, Father Urrutia represents the indifference of the literary class towards the political crisis of Chile. Indeed, not only he does not act, but he also feels relieved when Allende commits suicide as if the political instability his country is going through distracts him from what he considers more important: acting as an intellectual. If up to this point Father Urrutia’s only fault is that he did not act, now he becomes an active supporter of Pinochet’s dictatorship by giving him philosophy’s lessons. It is true that Father Urrutia could not have refused a role assigned him by Pinochet, yet he could have used his knowledge in his favor. Pinochet sees himself as a member of a privileged restricted group of people, those who read and have a culture, and he counterpoises his group to those who he defines as ignorant, a category that comprehends both the common people and his political opponents. He seems to justify his political takeover by valuing culture as an essential political tool. Indeed, to gain more power, he asks Father Urrutia to teach him some basic Marxist notions. For that reason, Pinochet reveals to Father Urrutia that, If someone doesn’t read or study, he’s not an intellectual; any fool can see that. And what do you think Allende used to read? […] Magazines. All he read was magazines — summaries of books. Articles his followers used to cut out for him. I have it from a reliable source, believe me (Bolaño 89-90) Allende lack of culture becomes for Pinochet a valid justification for his coup d’état. In his opinion, to maintain power, one needs to be curios and study other forms of government too. Indeed, while talking about Marxism with Father Urrutia, Pinochet, and his generals often compered Marxist theory with “Chairman Mao’s military accomplishments […] [and] the Cuban secret services” work (Bolaño 86). Culture assumes a negative value again since it becomes a tool useful in totalitarianism. However, in his book, Bolaño is not critiquing culture itself; he is critiquing the effect that culture has on the intellectual. Father Urrutia is the character that better symbolize intellectuals’ alienation from society. For instance, when he is going to Farewell estate, he meets some peasants that offer him foods and beverage and ask him to say a prayer for a sick child. Instead of accomplishing his priest task, Father Urrutia thought, [T]hey were all ugly. The women were ugly, and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly, and his stillness was incoherent. The men who were walking away were ugly, and their zigzag paths were incoherent. God have mercy on them and on me. Lost souls in the desert. I turned my back on them and walked away (21) He is disgusted by the peasants, and he does not want to spend his time with them. He recognizes them all as lost souls and turns his back on them. By turning his back on them, Father Urrutia is representing both the failure of the church and of the cultured people who betrayed the common people of Chile in favor of their interest. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two city boys, the unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, who during China’s Cultural Revolution have been sent on the mountain to be re-educated. Re-education aims to bring the city youth closer to the simplicity of country life and to free them from the danger of culture. However, during their stay on the mountain, the two boys influence the peasants more than the peasants influence them. From the beginning of the story, the two guys influence and surprise the peasants with their culture. However, the peasants need time to appreciate the culture of the two boys and to find a way to exploit it to their advantage. When the boys first arrive on the mountain, the peasants are intrigued by the narrator’s violin that they see as a “stupid toy […] from the city” (Dai 8). They look at it with perplexed expressions, and they become even more puzzled when Luo suggests that his friend plays a Mozart sonata since “[a]ll music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago” (Dai 9). Indeed, to be allowed to play the sonata the two boys need to say that its title was “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao” (Dai 9). The narrator admits that “the peasants’ faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart’s limpid music like parched earth under a shower” (Dai 9). Thus, music becomes an element capable of uniting different worlds and making everyone feel the same emotions. It does not matter that the two boys had to lie about the name of the sonata, what matters is that through the music they discovered that the peasants are not so different from them. However, music is also an escape from the new reality that makes the two boys feel sad; it represents a link with their past life. For instance, when Luo wake up in the middle of the night feeling depressed, he asks his friend to “play [him] something on [his] violin” (Dai 16). The peasants also seem to appreciate Luo’s talent in telling stories, a talent that seems to be, instead, underestimated in modern society. Even though they never could enter in contact with culture, they seem to appreciate it. The narrator admits that “the only man in the world who truly appreciated [Luo’s] gift, to the point of rewarding him generously, was the headman of [their] village, the last of the lordly devotees of narrative eloquence” (Dai 18). The two boys, indeed, started telling the stories of old movies they saw to the villagers, who were so enthusiastic about their performance that they decided to give the two guys four days of leave to go to the nearest city and see a film that they would then have to tell them. The boys’ culture becomes an extremely appreciated tool, so that once a month the two boys “will be paid the same as if [they] had worked in the fields” to go to the city and see a movie (Dai 19). The main objective of re-education is, therefore, failing: living in an isolated village on a mountain does not prevent the two boys from continuing to increase their culture, even if in different forms. It is precisely in the mountains that the two boys come into contact with the some almost forgotten Chinese poems as well as with Western culture. The two boys discover that their friend Four-Eyes has a suitcase full of Western books that have been banned in China for some time. To get in touch with those forbidden books, the two boys offer to help Four-Eyes in exchange for those precious manuscripts. Four Eyes asks his friends to go to the old miller, who is a guardian of local folk songs, and collect some of the poems he knows for him. Wanting to share the ancient Chinese poems with one of his Western books, Four Eyes puts the same level as the Chinese culture and Western culture, showing that despite being different from each other, neither of them is superior. The universality of culture is also demonstrated by the narrator himself. Reading those forbidden books, he can understand what he wants from his life. Although the protagonists of his beloved books are totally different from him (living in a different historical period and a different cultural context) the narrator can recognize himself in them. He discovers that his dreams are not so different from their dreams; therefore, he can project himself into those books, discovering himself. He is particularly impressed by the book Jean-Christophe, so that he admits that, “Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him, I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual” (Dai 110). The splendor of individuality is, indeed, a feature that unites all human beings, without distinction of nationality or culture.

On the whole, By Night in Chile and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress are two books that analyze the relationship between characters and culture. Culture can have different roles depending on the social class to which one belongs and the historical period in which one is living. However, culture is a fundamental element of the life of a community. It does not matter whether it is popular culture or elite culture, it should always be used to improve people’s life. Father Urrutia could have changed the lives of many ordinary people in Chile thanks to culture, just as the life of the narrator changed thanks to Western literature. Culture, therefore, should always improve people’s life.

Work Cited Dai, Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Paw Prints, 2010. Bolano, Roberto. By Night in Chile. A New Directions paperback.

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