By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile Summary and Analysis of Pages 31-55


Don Salvador, "by pure chance," happens to meet Junger at the Guatemalan artist's house. Junger came to admire some of the artist's work and is especially taken with a painting titled "Landscape: Mexico City an hour before dawn." The painting, as Don Salvador relates it, is "influenced by surrealism" and it portrays a particularly destitute Mexico City. When Junger asks the artist about the painting, he says that he doesn't remember much of Mexico City at all, and instead painted it while in Paris because he was in a "Mexico mood."

Junger, dressed in his military outfit, talks for a while with Don Salvador about German art. Suddenly aware that he doesn't know where the Guatemalan artist is, Don Salvador worries that he has been arrested or taken by the Gestapo. Instead, the artist is where he always is, staring out the window at Paris, ungrateful for the small bits of food and tea that Don Salvador brings for him. Junger, making up for the artist's "torpor" pulls up chairs and the two men smoke Turkish cigarettes and drink cognac while talking of "the human and the divine, war and peace, Italian painting and Nordic painting, the source of evil and the effects of evil that sometimes seem to be triggered by chance, the flora and fauna of Chile...."

Junger and Don Salvador reflect on what it was that made the artist paint Mexico City while living in Paris. Junger believes it to be like "sealed wells suddenly reopened." Don Salvador contemplates on how the artist must have sat at his window for hours, inspired by the "dead (or dying)" light of Paris. Don Salvador sees the painting as an "altar for human sacrifice," and sees both boredom and personal defeat in the work. Junger remarks that the Guatemalan probably was not going to live through the year, and Don Salvador thought that was a strange remark since "many thousands of people were not going to live" through the year on account of the war. The two men then retreat to Don Salvador's house where they share a proper meal and discuss literature and Don Salvador gives Junger the book he had been telling him about. Junger takes home one of Don Salvador's books as well, and though the "wizened youth" is telling the dying Urrutia that nobody remembers who Don Salvador was, Urrutia responds proudly that Salvador was the only Chilean writer mentioned in Junger's autobiography.

After the party at which Urrutia meets Don Salvador, he and Farewell take a walk to find a new restaurant that Farewell had heard about. On their walk Urrutia tells Farewell of a poem he had been wanting to write, inspired by Don Salvador's Junger story. Farewell remarks that "It's good to love. It's bad to be impressionable."

At dinner Farewell starts into a long winded story about a shoemaker in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The shoemaker, Farewell tells Urrutia, was known as the finest shoemaker in all of the land. Even the Emperor wore the shoemaker's shoes and so the shoemaker was often invited to important balls and social functions where the Emperor would be and where other important members of the aristocracy and military would be. The shoemaker, using his status in the Emperor's court, asks for a private audience with the Emperor where he then proposes the idea of "Heroes' Hill." Heroes' Hill was a piece of land that the shoemaker had purchased from a count which the shoemaker wanted to transform into a monument to the Heroes of the Empire. The shoemaker had paid for the land and for some of the improvements to the land, but he was asking the Emperor to pay for the statues, the church, the cemetery, and costs associated with opening it to the public as a state monument. The Emperor enthusiastically gives his blessing to the project and the shoemaker moves out of the city and into the country to pursue working on Heroes' Hill full time. He throws himself completely into the project, sinking all his money and effort, not afraid to brave the terrible weather to get his own hands dirty as hired laborers build the wrought iron fence and gate and clear the land for the monuments. The shoemaker becomes obsessed with this project, but time passes him by. Soon the Emperor dies, the Empire falls, two great wars come, and the whole world changes. The shoemaker lost all his money on the project, for the money from the state never came, and now when he would return to Vienna people did not even recognize him. The only thing that remained of the shoemaker's legacy was those who still owned pairs of his fine, "long lasting," shoes. Farewell concludes the story by telling of how when the Russian's invaded the land they found the hill. When they explored it everything was rusted and devastated, and at the top of the hill they found a crypt with the shoemaker's body in it, his"eye-sockets empty as if he were never to contemplate anything but the valley spread out below Heroes' Hill, and his jaw hanging open, as if were still laughing after having glimpsed immortality." Farewell asks Urrutia if he understand the point of the story and Urrutia sees "his father as the shadow of a weasel" in a dim house that was like his vocation.

Finishing the story, the two men sit in the restaurant and observe the shadows of the people walking past on the street. Farewell remarks that the story had depressed him and he feels void about his whole life. He tells Urrutia that Neruda is going to win the Nobel Prize and that America and Chile are both going to change forever and that he, Farewell, won't be around to see it. Trying to make him feel better, Urrutia tells him that he will be around. They discuss what the shadows mean and Farewell tells Urrutia that he sees a rural scene where "whores stop...for a fraction of a second to contemplate something important, then head... off again like meteorites." When Urrutia asks if he sees anything left of Chile in his vision, Farewell says he sees Neruda and himself, but then says it was actually only a tree. He says that "there is no comfort in books," but Urrutia tries to convince him that he live to be very old and that the entire country will love him. With a drunken mix of affection, Farewell propositions Urrutia for sex, but Urrutia declines.

They continue their dinner and begin to talk about Urrutia's days in seminary. Farewell begins to ask him questions about several of the Popes and Urrutia remarks that he knows all the popes and all their stories. He tells the story of Pius II who was responsible for starting one of the crusades. Pius II was also a writer, a poet and novelist, and Farewell remarks that like all writers he screwed everything up. He tells the story of Hadrian II who confronted King Lothair II over an affair he was having. The streets begin to clear as the evening grows later, which means there is less "shadow play," and so Farewell, feeling better, pays for dinner and both men go home, Urrutia walking through the streets, remembering the stories of the great popes, lost in a dream fog of the words of the great poets and the religious heroes as well as the "wizened youth." As he walks he can hear the voices of Chile's writers, dead and alive, calling out to him to "think of us" and "think of our ambitions and our hopes."


The story of Don Salvador and Ernst Junger lets Bolano critique the ability of art to speak truth to political power. Junger, a real historical figure, had been a German war hero during World War I, but had been critical of the rise of the Nazi regime and so had left for Paris before World War II where he patronized several left-wing artists including Picasso. He becomes a patron of the young Guatemalan artist (a character possibly modeled on the real Guatemalan artist Carlos Merida) and the painting that he particularly likes is a surrealist portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Mexico City, though the artist claims he was looking at Paris when he painted it. This scene in the book is meant to convey the helplessness that artists have in the face of great military and political power. Junger, a famous writer, was expelled from Germany, and both men are powerless to stop the looming destruction of the city under the weight on Nazi invasion. The absurdity of the situation is that neither men want to discuss the real weight and meaning of the war, so instead, they talk about books and art. They can only speak in the broadest of terms, talking of the origin of evil, but never speaking of the very real political evil of the time. Bolano suggests that art is meaningless in the face of real tragedy and has no real words that could ever change the world.

This story also works on another level. Don Salvador, as Urrutia tells the reader, is a forgotten figure in South American literature, yet he is eternal because his name was mentioned in Junger's autobiography. Bolano is critiquing the overwhelming repression of South American literature and art by the Euro-American centric communities of criticism and culture. The only way that this obscure South American writer feels validated is by being mentioned by an obscure European writer in an obscure biography. This, as it happens, also validates Don Salvador in the eyes of the other Chilean writers such as Urrutia. It is a situation that Bolano finds absurd.

Urrutia then recounts a story of he and Farewell eating at a restaurant. The story that Farewell tells during the dinner, of the Hungarian shoemaker and Heroes' Hill is meant to convey the idea that when art becomes the tool of political power, the art is what truly suffers. This was a very real theme in Bolano’s own life - he fought against the Pinochet regime and was imprisoned for his political action. He saw other artists of the country give into the temptations of political power and they used their art to legitimate the brutality of the regime. Throughout this story, Bolano is attempting to relay the message that the shoemaker’s artistic capabilities were put to waste through his patronage of an empire that was at first enthusiastic for his project, but who never followed through on promises of support. The shoemaker’s real art, his shoes, lasted much longer than his own legacy. When the Russians find the shoemaker’s Hill, Bolano is pessimistically suggesting that the arc of time is simply a pattern of one fallen empire being replaced by another empire who sees the ruins and follies of the previous power, but who ignores them in the quest for domination.

For the purposes of the narrative, Farewell’s story is meant as a challenge to Urrutia. The story is a moment of introspection for Farewell, who briefly understands the failures of his own life and work, and can see the same disappointments waiting for Urrutia. Though he is not explicit about it - in fact, Farewell can’t even quite place why he is telling the story - he is still suggesting to Urrutia that his pandering to power, whether it be literary or political, will ruin the purity of faith he once possessed and will ruin the purity of his art.

In a scene of foreshadowing, the two men discuss visions that Farewell is having while watching the shadows of passersby. The shadows are both symbolic of the clouded future for Chile as well as the fleeting nature of life. Farewell remarks that both Chile and the U.S. will change, foreshadowing the undercover support of the U.S. for the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Farewell also believes that he sees himself and Neruda in the shadows as the only figures that survive the great change to come, but, like the shadows, that vision is malleable and he realizes it was only a tree. The vision was prophetic, for while Neruda remained a great literary figure, no one else from Chile did survive.

The scene of watching the shadows is also meant to evoke Plato’s story of the shadows on the cave wall. It is a philosophical story about the meaning of reality, and like Plato’s cave dwellers, both Farewell and Urrutia are living in dream worlds in which their reality of art and the bourgeouis lifestyle is but a shadow of the reality of Chile.

Urrutia relates stories of past popes to Farewell. Through this portion of the narrative, Bolano turns his attention to the collusion between the Catholic Church and political power. All of Urrutia’s stories focus on the former popes’ political escapades, meant to show that what Urrutia truly values about his vocation is its ability to assume positions of power. He idolizes the popes who were able to navigate the political times and increase the power of the church. This, again, is foreshadowing, as Urrutia himself will soon be using his religious position for political gain.