By Night in Chile documents the rise and then regret of Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest and literary critic. The novel first documents Urrutia's rise through the literati of Chile. By making friends with Chile's greatest literary critic, Farewell, and then by meeting such literary greats as Neruda, Urrutia gives up most of the theological imperatives towards justice and service that his profession requires and, instead, focuses his energy on art, poetry, and literary criticism.
From his deathbed, the old and dying Urrutia recalls stories told to him by friends such as the story of one author meeting the German writer Ernst Junger and Farewell's story of the old shoemaker's attempt to build a monument to his home empire. These stories represent the collusion between art and religion and the ruling authorities of the day. Through the years Urrutia yields his priestly and literary authority to the prevailing political climate that ensures his own comfort.
On a trip to Europe, Urrutia is to study "church preservation," in which he learns that pigeon "shit" is to blame for the deterioration of European churches. To combat the pigeons, priests across the continent have taken up falconry to kill the pigeons. This violent imagery describes the nature of the relationship towards the church to those that are supposed to fall under their spiritual jurisdiction. Though Urrutia meets one old priest with regrets over his falconry, the majority of church officials are more than happy to have their birds prey on the weaker, more plentiful, mass of pigeons.
Back in Chile, political revolution takes over the country as it moves from an unstable democracy to socialism and then into the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Urrutia is drafted by government officials to teach Pinochet and his other generals the tenets of communism in order for Pinochet to understand how far his enemies are willing to go. Though he feels bad for teaching such a theory to Pinochet, he soon realizes that the government will offer him powerful protection - and material comforts.
It is only after the details of the events at Maria Canales's house come to light does Urrutia face the pangs of guilt and regret for his association. Canales, a young writer, holds parties at her house for all of Chile's great writers and critics. What he only finds out later is that in her basement, her husband, a hired government official, conducts torture and executions. Once the writers know, however, they stay silent about the affair, afraid to jeopardize their own comfort.
Through the story of Urrutia Lacroix, Bolano critiques the power of art and religion to speak truth to political power; the nature of good and evil within the psychology of one man; and the necessity of speaking up for justice as well as the guilt of not doing so. Against the backdrop of the turmoil of Chile's politics, the reader is given a sharp and biting satire and commentary on the failures of South American art and religion to provide a measure of justice to those who are suffering.