The novel begins with the narrator telling us that he is dying, but still has "many things to say." He has many things to say because "slanderous rumors" by a "wizened youth" have ruined his noble reputation. He says that he is willing to take responsibility for the things he has done wrong, but that things must be put right about the lies told about him before he dies.
The narrator introduces himself as Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest. He tells the story of how he entered seminary at the age of fourteen and just days before being ordained (or possibly after being ordained - he is confused) he meets a man named Farewell. Farewell is Chile's "greatest literary critic" and Sebastian meets him at his house where they talk in Farewell's library. Sebastian is enamored by the volumes of books on his shelves and proclaims that he wants to "follow in his footsteps" and that "nothing on earth could be more fulfilling than to read, and to present the results of my reading in good prose...." Farewell assures the young Sebastian, however, that the life is harder than he makes it out to be, that in Chile, a "barbaric country...literature is an oddity and nobody values knowing how to read."
Farewell takes a liking to the young priest and invites him to his estate for a visit. Sebastian is thrilled to be going to the country estate of such a great man and dreams of meeting the country's finest literary and academic minds. He worries over what to wear and what books to bring with him. After a train ride, Sebastian finds himself in the small village of Querquen where a farmer in a horse and cart pick him up to take him to the estate.
After sitting for a while at the house with Farewell and a young poet discussing literature, Sebastian decides to take a walk through some of the estate. He comes upon a small cabin and enters finding several of Farewell's farmhands and workers preparing a meal. They call him "Father" and kiss his hand, though this embarrasses him, and they invite him to sit down for a piece of peasant bread while they tell him about their sick child and ask him for his guidance. Sebastian is taken aback and worries that he won't have time to return to the house and change clothes, so he can barely listen to the worker's concerns and blesses their house before hurriedly leaving.
Back at the house, Sebastian leafs through books in Farewell's library and has the thought that Farewell is like the port that all literary ships, both big and small, must come through in Chile. He hears something on the veranda outside the library, a brief scuffling, and he steps out into the night to see a man with his back turned, mumbling to the moon. In a moment of shock, Sebastian realizes that this is Pablo Neruda, Chile's greatest poet. He is both shocked and excited to be in the presence of such greatness.
At the dinner conversations and moments swiftly fly past until, after too much alcohol, Sebastian feels dizzy and sick and steps out onto the veranda to get some air. Farewell approaches behind him in the shadows and asks what he thinks of Neruda. Sebastian is, of course, impressed and Farewell asks him about other great poets. When Sebastian doesn't recognize the name of Sordello, Farewell playfully mocks him for not knowing the poet who was muse to such greats as Dante and Pound. Farewell touches Sebastian's belt, a sexual advance, and tells him to turn around to look at the moon. When he does, Farewell continues his advances and Sebastian, remembering scenes from the apocalypse in Revelation, feels confused and disoriented. When Neruda joins them on the veranda, he and Farewell joke with each other about Sordello and proclaim their friendship.
The next day more guests arrive at Farewell's estate, though Sebastian does not know them so he decides instead to take a walk through the woods. He is taken by the beauty of the place and pauses on a hillside to admire the wonder of it all, put there by the "grace of God." Trying to make his way back to the estate, however, he becomes lost and exits on the wrong side of the woods. Instead of Farewell's lodge he instead stumbles upon an orchard, a "godforsaken-looking" place. He sees two children tilling the soil, naked with snot dripping down their faces. This scene disgusts and reviles him and he feels nausea. He makes his way through another part of the woods and finds more farm land and an araucaria tree where he stops to rest. He is amazed at the beauty of the tree and wonders how such a beautiful piece of God's creation could have grown in the squalor of the farm lands around him.
As he continues to walk he soon comes upon several lines of laundry hung out to dry. As he makes his way through the hanging clothes he has a vision of "two women and three men standing bolt upright in an imperfect semi-circle, with their hands covering their faces." When they try to come towards him he is frightened and backs up, almost falling into the drying laundry, until one of the farmers grabs his wrist and steadies him. He realizes he was just having a nightmare vision and that these are simply normal farm people. They recognize him as a priest because the peasants from the farmhouse yesterday told them who he was, he assumes, and he imagines that the reason Farewell did not arrange for a mass in the estate's chapel was because Neruda was a professed atheist and the point of the weekend was literary, not religious. As he walks away from the peasants he can't help but think how ugly they are, "lost souls in the desert." When one of the peasants offers "to escort" him back to the lodge, he can't help but shake with laughter at the oddity of a peasant escorting him anywhere.
He returns to the lodge where he listens to Neruda recite more poetry and his "literary baptism" ends when a car drops him back at the train station that evening to take him back home. In the ensuing weeks he has dreams and visions of his time there: he remembers a conga line and the guests inviting him to dance, though he refuses because of his vows. He has thoughts of his father, slipping away into the night like "an eel in an inadequate container," and he has a vision of his "super-I driving a refrigerated truck down the middle of a road engulfed in flames, while the id groaned and rambled on...."
It was around this time that Sebastian began working at the Catholic University. He began publishing poems and writing criticism in the same vein as his mentor, Farewell. He took on a pseudonym, H. Ibacache, who wrote the criticism while he kept his own name for the body of poetry he was slowly building. He was living the literary life and he believed it to be a "civic virtue." He is surprised when the H. Ibacache name begins to gain more fame than his real name, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix. Sebastian plans for Ibacache to be a name of "purity," a name that represented clear and concise thinking on literary and artistic matters.
"Speaking of purity," Sebastian tells the reader, then proceeds to tell a story of one night at a friend's house, Don Salvador Reyes. At the party, Don Salvador tells his guests that one of the "purest" men he had ever met was the German writer Ernst Junger, author of several books on the first World War and a war hero to boot. Don Salvador tells of how he was introduced to Junger at an embassy party in Paris during the second World War, and how he and Junger exchanged pleasantries and contact information so that Don Salvador could share with Junger one of his books which had been translated into French.
The two, Don Salvador and Junger, happen to meet one night in the attic loft of a Guatemalan painter living in Paris, who, for reasons of the war, had not left his loft in many months and to whom Don Salvador graciously brought food and books (though the artist never thanked him for the food nor read his books because he suffered from a "morbid melancholia"). Before relating the rest of the story of Junger, Sebastian goes on a rant about melancholia as being a form of the "black bile." It is the very substance that infects him on his deathbed, he says, as the words of the "wizened youth" ring through his head. When Don Salvador sees how thin the young painter has become he gets angry and wants to know how long it had been since the painter had eaten. The painter didn't know, but refused to leave his loft. And while Don Salvador passed time in the attic loft, preparing some food and watching the Paris landscape, a peculiar melancholy came over him as well, until he was disturbed by Junger, happening by the artist's loft "guided by his aesthetic flair and above all by his tireless curiosity."
Bolano's "By Night in Chile," is a multi-layered novella that explores the intersection of art, politics, religion, and culture under the auspices of the brutal Pinochet regime in Chile during the last half of the twentieth-century. The books consists of one long paragraph, a death bed confession of Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix. Urrutia is a Catholic priest (Lacroix means "the cross" in Spanish) and he complains in his dying hours of how a "wizened youth" has defamed his name, though the reader does not yet know why or how. The "wizened youth," as the reader will learn, is Urrutia's own past self, his true self that argues with him over the injustices that he has committed throughout his life. The entire book, then is a play on the ritual of confession in which a person attempts to expunge their guilt and sin in order to gain salvation, and yet the confession seems to always be half-hearted, more of an explanation than true confession. This is a tension played out through the entire work.
Bolano's novel is both a devastating critique of the excesses of the Latin American aristocracy as well as a biting satire of the South American literati and political establishments. Urrutia joins the priesthood as a boy, only fourteen, but his ambition was never directed towards serving God. Instead, from the moment that he enters society as a young man, his heart is intent on gaining status and stature among the great writers and poets of South America. This tension is first explored in the party that Urrutia attends at his friend Farewell's.
The excesses of the aristocracy are seen clearly in Farewell's estate. Bolano contrasts Farewell's lodge with the devastatingly poor tenant farmers that live on the land. Urrutia spends much of his time wandering through the woods of the estate and admiring the beautiful scene, yet he is disgusted by poor peasants who offer him what little food they have and the naked children who toil in the orchards of the estate. This contrast sets in motion the Faustian bargain that Urrutia makes - in order to become part of the literate elite, he must forsake the callings of his professions, to love others, to serve the poor, to fight for justice and peace. Even Urrutia's indecision on whether to change out of his cassock while on the estate betrays his inner vanity.
Bolano's characters are intricately described and much can be understood from his descriptions. Fellow writers and artists are described as "good people," and Neruda is described as "sublime," while the peasants of the land are painted with crude words and disturbing images of nakedness and raw physicality. In one scene the peasant children that Urrutia sees make him sick and cause him to vomit. In this way Bolano distinguishes the class and stature of his characters, drawing sharp distinctions between those of wealth and class and those without.
Bolano begins his satire of the South American literati by introducing the characters of Farewell and Neruda. Pablo Neruda, a real historical person and one of the world's greatest poets, comes to the estate and Urrutia is overwhelmed to be in the presence of such greatness. This betrays another fault in Urrutia's character. When he steps out onto the balcony to get some air after having too much to drink, Farewell makes sexual advances towards the young priest. Though uncomfortable, Urrutia does nothing to rebuff the great literary critic for he wants to be in Farewell's good graces in order to be invited to more parties. This, of course, not only offends the Catholic church's strict teachings against homosexuality, but offends the priest's vows of chastity. From the very moments that Urrutia leaves the seminary and enter the world, Bolano shows that he is willing to whore himself to the earthly powers of literature and politics. This is a symbol for how Bolano interpreted the actions of the entire church during this dark period of Chilean history.
Already, Urrutia's "wizened youth" is beginning to accuse Urrutia of injustice and cowardice. Two scenes illustrate this point. The first involves the visions of apocalypse that Urrutia has during the first night of revelry at Farewell's. Urrutia calls these the "woes," an allusion to the signs of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The first woe is Urrutia's inability to recall the writer Sordello, an embarrassing faux pas for someone with literary ambition. The second woe, however, is Urrutia's sexual encounter with Farewell. As he makes the conscious decision to give into Farewell, he sees visions of beasts rising from the sea and the voices of angels accusing him against God. These voices, however, are interrupted by the voice of Neruda, a voice, Bolano suggests, that has become the new voice of God for Urrutia.
The second scene which illustrates Urrutia's inner turmoil occurs when Urrutia remembers the second night at Farewell's. As the group of elites drink and party into the night, they start dancing, and encourage Urrutia to join them, though he declines because it goes against the vows he has taken. This is, of course, humorous because it was only the night before that he was willing to give his body over to the sexual desires of a man he wanted to please. As he dreams about their party, a voice also begins to insert itself into his head, a voice that he does not recognize - perhaps of an angel or a demon he thinks - but which he soon understands is his own voice. He relates the voice to the work of psychoanalysis: His Super-Ego guides his dreams while his Super-I drives "a refrigerated truck down the middle of a road engulfed in flames, while the id groaned and rambled on in a vaguely Mycenaean jargon." This passage represents the evolution of Urrutia into a part of the cultured elite. The weekend at Farewell's estate was the outer expression of this evolution, and that outer expression is now mirrored by an inner expression. "Mycenaean jargon" (from the Greek town Mycenea) is an expression that represents the move of an illiberal person to that of a liberal person, that is, an unrefined person becomes a person of culture. Farewell's retreat was the birth of Urrutia into the literary and cultured spheres of South America. The refrigerated truck represents his own insulation from a world going up in flames all around him. It is this insulation from the suffering and injustice around him that his "wizened youth" confronts him with. In a way, Bolano's book is the wizened youth to the Catholic church's insulation from the injustice they tolerated in Chile.
Besides the political, Bolano is also poking fun at the faux concern of the cultured elites towards the poor. Urrutia remarks at one point that he could have led a mass for the peasants of the estate, but Farewell didn't arrange it because this visit was literary, not religious. The literary always takes precedent over the religious, the reader quickly learns. When Urrutia first meets Neruda he is looking at the moon and the stars, gazing into space, as it were. But in his poetry, Neruda often wrote of the impoverished and the destitute of his native land. Bolano is making fun of the literary elite, holed up in their luxurious lodge, writing poetry and literature that valorizes the poor while ignoring the real conditions of the poor of their own land and estate. Literature, Bolano suggests, cannot meet the real political concerns of a nation, which makes Urrutia, Farewell, and Neruda all tragic characters in the novel.
The scene that Urrutia retells of Don Salvador's interaction with an impoverished Guatemalan artist living in Paris also offers rich material for satire of the cultured elites. Don Salvador, a respected Chilean author, has befriended this artist and attempts to bring him food and support while he is holed up. The artist represents the nihilism of the time. This particular story of Don Salvador and the artist takes place during World War II when Paris was under siege by the Germans. France would inevitably fall to the Nazis and at this point, allied victory over the Nazi regime was not guaranteed. The artist, who sits all day looking out over the Paris landscape, represents this perceptiveness of the world and the impending nihilistic threat of Nazi invasion. Don Salvador, on the other hand, represents aloofness and naivety. Don Salvador's main goal is to impress the other artists and writers he is surrounded by. Don Salvador is hurt when the artist does not read his book, which only gathers dust on the artist's table. This is, of course, a silly response, for why would anyone be concerned about literature when the world around them is burning? It is only during a brief moment of silence, as he stares out at the same Paris landscape that the artist sees, that Don Salvador slightly comprehends the world that the artist represents. But that moment is broken when Junger, the great German writer, comes to visit the artist and Don Salvador is thrown once again into the world of trying to impress the great figures of art and literature that surround him.