Reader’s Guide to Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile


Book Information:

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano

New Directions

144 pages



Literature of Latin America

Other Books From Region:

Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat


Author Bio:

Roberto Bolaño, Santiago, Chile (April 28, 1953-July 15, 2003)

Roberto Bolano, whose father was a truck driver and whose mother was a teacher, led a nomadic existence from an early age. His family moved between several towns in Chile, before they moved to Mexico City in 1968, just as student protests and police retaliations were paralyzing the capital. Bolaño was intrigued by the energy and danger of these protests. The same year, at the age of sixteen, he left High School and began to write. He quickly fell in with a group of left-wing poets. In 1973, after a little seasoning among the revolutionaries of his day, and in support of the Salvador Allende government, Bolano moved back to Chile. He was quickly arrested and jailed (for eight days) during the military coup of Augusto Pinochet. Following his release, Bolaño fled to Mexico. Before his narrow escape, Bolano was witness to the mass murder of Chilean leftists. These murders forever changed Bolano. His experience of the overthrow of the Allende government informed his push for a campaign for a socially committed literature in Mexico with his founding, along with poet Mario Santiago and a handful of others, of a subversive literary group known as the Infrarealists. A kind of Dada à la Mexicana, the group–popularly known as the “Efrainites”–regularly attacked established authors and interrupted poetry readings with their heckling, even inciting a brawl at a reading headlined by Octavio Paz. The group most closely identified with French Surrealism and Dadaism. Bolaño began to attract an underground following, and collections of his poetry appeared in 1975 and 1976, chapbooks with limited runs.

In 1977 Bolano spent a year traveling France, Spain, and North Africa before settling near Barcelona. He job-jumped during those years, working as a dockworker, grape harvester, and campground watchman. He also continued to write poetry and short stories, which he would submit to contests. His switch to writing fiction – short stories and later novels – had much to do with his maturation and the birth of his son in 1990, which instilled in him a sense of responsibility to earn a living, which he knew he could barely do as a poet. Bolano was most prolific during his forties and fifties. He wrote a dozen novels during these years, poetic works that concerned themselves largely with the purpose of literature and its relationship to life. His most famous work, The Savage Detectives, concerns the life and adventures of Arturo Belano, an alter-ego who appears in other stories and novels. Written in 1989 and published posthumously, Bolano’sThe Third Reich predates The Savage Detectives and shows some of the traits that Bolano had yet to fully develop – particularly surrealism and an obsessive attention to detail.  By Night in Chile fictionalizes the subject of the Pinochet coup. The story is related in one enormously long paragraph, the unbroken monologue of a Chilean priest, Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, as he attempts to explain his failure to speak out against the political oppression he has witnessed. Through his portrayal of Lacroix, Bolaño indicts those intellectuals and artists who by their inaction silently condoned the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. Lacroix, a pillar of the Catholic Church and a prominent literary critic, confesses to teaching classes in Marxism to Pinochet and his generals. Worse, he attends a literary salon in the home of an aspiring writer whose husband systematically tortures political prisoners in the basement of the house. The parties Lacroix attends are patterned on those of an actual historical person, Mariana Callejas, the wife of Michael Townley, an agent of Pinochet’s secret police.Between Parenthesis similarly provides an excellent retrospective on Bolano’s work, collecting as it does many of the newspaper columns and articles that he wrote during the last five years of his life. But perhaps the most well known of the posthumously published Bolano ouvre is 2666, 900 apocalyptic pages of stories within stories and murder after murder. Of 2666, Jonathan Lethem said “2666 is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended as a master statement.” Bolano was posthumously awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 2666, and Time also awarded it the honor of Best Fiction Book of 2008.

Bolano loves to attack his predecessors, but his work is born from the same place as most of the great Latin American writers. These circumstances have been historically difficult. Critics have loved many of his works, and his catalog is rapidly being translated into English.

Roberto Bolano died in 2003 at the age of 50. Bolano first truly understood his mortality at the age of thirty-eight when Bolaño was told by doctors that he suffered from an incurable liver disease; many sources have speculated that Bolaño contracted hepatitis-C during his days as a heroin user, allegations his family has repeatedly denied.

Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:

1)   Bolano’s epigraph, “Take off your wig.” CHESTERTON, informs much about the book without informing us of anything at all. In order to gain insight, the reader needs to go to the Chesterton short story, The Purple Wig, and read it. Does this give us a clue into how we should be reading the rest of the book? Should we be reading the book with Google at the ready? Or, does the book live on its own without the reader exploring these historical references? How did members of the group read this book?

2)   How are the institutions of power (notably, intellectual elites & the Church) represented in this book?

3)   How does Urrutia interact with the poor? How do characters in general move between the social hierarchies?

4)   How are stories told within the story, and to what gain/loss? This is in reference mainly to the story of the shoemaker.

5)   Although Bolano’s symbolism is not subtle, it may be important. What is the author attempting to show through falconry? How is humor used in this section?

6)   How are these intellectuals interacting with History?

7)   How is the Wizened Youth used? Who/What is he?

What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:

  • We talked a lot about wigs and fear. Bolano sets up the book well with his epigraph. In fact, if you went through the entire book, and just kept asking, “Where is the wig?” you would come away with a pretty solid understanding of what is happening here.
  • Bolano’s writing is wonderful. He is able to make connections throughout the text. Example: the similarities in how Reyes and Junger interact with the Guatemalan painter, and how Urrutia interacts with the farming family during his first night at Farewell’s estate. But, above all, Bolano is funny and playful. Dark, yes, but funny and playful still. The most apparent use of this humor is with the killing of doves by the falcons.
  • The confessional nature of this work is obvious from the beginning. But, is Urrutia explaining or justifying or apologizing? And to whom is he doing these things? This, once again, brought up the concept of the angles novels create. How much can we believe when we have only one point of view?
  • We discussed the Wizened Youth for a long time. Notably, a few of us (myself included) did not properly understand the concept of wizened to be different from to make wise or to gain understanding. In fact, wizened refers more to an aging process. I believe Chris Andrews and Bolano meant this word to be dynamic, so it led to a dynamic discussion. Although we began the discussion with the typical question of who the Wizened Youth is, we quickly moved to the more interesting discussion of how the Wizened Youth works. We came to no conclusions on any of these issues, but found it useful to explore the different guesses/theories of the group.
  •  The lack of paragraph breaks and chapters was a fun way to look at how form informs plot. What did the ramblings say about the accuracy of what was being said? In a rush of language, how do you stop to take stock, or should you? How did we all read the book? Some members found that the unbroken structure nudged them forward in a pleasing way. Some got lost in all of the never-ending activity. Some (me) cheated, and added our own breaks. Whatever way we chose to take on the text, our choices altered Bolano’s choices, and changed the book drastically. It was pointed out by one member (I am paraphrasing) that Bolano’s choices to push the boundaries, whether successful or unsuccessful, all lead to a richer reading experience.
  • We talked about the vague and perplexing final line of the novel. It was pointed out that the last line is a call to start all over again, or that the book now begins to bound on itself over and over, in a sort of perpetual rehashing of Urrutia’s life as examined by himself. One thought was that the ultimate judgment has arrived, not necessarily in a religious context, in the form of a call for Urrutia to answer for his shortcomings. It was pointed out that this line contains multiple meanings, one being strictly biological.




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