Thursday, 8 October 2009

By Night in Chile: a Brilliant Political Novel--As Well As a Literary Gem

One of the most difficult things in the world is to write a serious political novel that is not a pot boiler. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors is a good example: compulsive reading, but stoked on gossip and innuendo. Not high literature at all.

But there are stories that much be told, things that happen in the world that demand serious consideration and that cry out to be told with artistry. I’ve just finished By Night in Chile by Robert Bolaño which does just that.

The pretext are the death bed thoughts of a dying Chilean priest, who was deeply involved in the Latin American literary scene. There is much about poetry and indeed the teaser to a review in The Guardian says it is a “wonderful and beautifully written analysis of Chilean literary life.” But it is also—and far more importantly to my mind—a meditation on intellectual and spiritual responsibility.

Bolaño died at 50 in 2003, after a short and intense writing career: in the last ten years of his life he turned out more than a half dozen books. He ran afoul of the Pinochet dictatorship when he returned to his native Chile just before the overthrow of Salvador Allende. After a short imprisonment he spent a good part of his life abroad, reading widely and becoming a cult hero in literary circles. But this short novel, elegantly translated by Chris Andrews, is so much bigger than a “literary” work that even those who bristle when critics talk of style will profit from reading it.

The only other writer I can think who has combined political conscience, story telling ability and superb writing is Colm Toíbin in his novel of the Spanish Civil War and the Irish Troubles, The South, and in The Story of the Night, set in the Argentina of the Falklands War and the explosion of the AIDS epidemic. Bolaño had a reputation of reading absolutely everything so it’s probable he read the latter book. Indeed the similarity of Bolaño’s title to Toibin’s suggests this. But Bolaño is an original. 10 on 10, in my book.


lagatta à montréal said...

Also hard to produce a serious political novel that does not become a dogmatic treatise. I'll certainly be seeking out Nocturno de Chile (Nocturne du Chili in French, by the way). Sadly, the best Latin American bookshop in Montréal, Librairie Abu Yala, closed a few years back. I'll check Libreria Las Americas on St-Norbert off St-Laurent, just south of Sherbrooke.

Wasn't familiar with Roberto Bolaño - will ask my Spanish teacher/friend who is Argentine and also spent several years in exile in Barcelona after the coup there before moving here (she lives on avenue Bernard in Outremont, by the way).

Why did you read the book in English? I tend to read Latin-language books in French if I don't know the original tongue or can't find it in the original, and Germanic-language books in English for same reasons. Though perhaps the English translation is better. Happens.

Mary Soderstrom said...

The book is one on the list of a grup of English speaking friends who've been getting together twice a momth for more than 40 years, which is why I read it in English.

Certainly the French translations of Antonio Lobo Antunes work in Portuguese are much better than the English ones, and that may be true iin general. Another book group I belong to (this one Francophones who've been meeting once a month for 25 years) is currently reading a German book, Thomas Brussig's Le Comlexle de Klaus/ Heroes Like Us. I've read it in English and it will be interesting to compare with the French.

A langauges!