Bolano, who was himself a noted leftist activist, uses "By Night in Chile" as a sustained critique of Art and Democracy as tools of capitalism and oppression. Marx's understanding of both art and democracy was that they were only tools used by capitalist nations to further the wealth of the few while the working classes suffered under their oppression. In the novel Bolano traces the effects of the willful ignorance of the literati towards the suffering of the poor. While Urrutia and Farewell could have used their positions to critique the government, they chose instead to ignore the injustice. Likewise, Bolano shows how the intellectual classes can be instrumental in supporting brutality, just as Urrutia did when teaching Pinochet classes on Marxism. Likewise, the Pinochet regime was supported by Western democracies such as the U.S. Thus, "By Night in Chile" implicates both the practice of art as well as the aims of government as complicit in the brutality and oppression towards the working class.
The Collusion of Church and State
The character of Urrutia represents, in one aspect, the entire Catholic Church and their support of the Pinochet regime. Bolano, in fact, critiques the entire church, especially the branches such as Opus Dei which actively supported other dictatorships such as those in Spain. The church's collusion was especially egregious, suggests Bolano, because they were well aware of the injustice being done, even before Pinochet came to power. The scenes in which Urrutia shows disgust for the peasant classes is symbolic of the church's own willful ignorance of the issues of poverty and class struggle that affected the country. This later turned into outright support, Bolano suggests. Historical facts back this up to a degree, symbolized by the Pope's visit to Chile in the 1980's in which he served communion to Pinochet and his generals in a stadium in which Pinochet had committed mass murders of government protestors.
The Oppression of the Church Towards the Common Masses
Not only did the church collude with the state to cause oppression, but Bolano suggests that the church itself was responsible for oppression even in countries in which dictatorship was not the mode of power. Symbolized by Urrutia's trip to Europe to study church preservation, the church might as well be a falcon killing the peasant masses, defenseless as pigeons. This imagery powerfully suggests the psychological and social impact that the church has historically had over the common people, dating back for centuries to the times of indulgences. These measures have both figuratively and literally killed the common masses.
The Impotence of Art in the Face of Power
Bolano not only suggests that art becomes willfully ignorant of power when it serves its own purposes; he also suggests that art is impotent when faced with true political power. At best, he asserts, art puts on a masquerade of protest, symbolized by Neruda's poems about the poor while he was, in fact, a part of the literary elite oppressing the same poor he wrote about.
Two scenes from the book illustrate this point: the first is Farewell's story of the shoemaker and Heroes' Hill. The story illustrates the way in which artists will willfully bow down before political power, perhaps believing that it will benefit their art. However, true power lies only with the empire and the artist suffers under their will. The second illustration involves Urrutia's communism lessons to Pinochet. Though he worries over the lessons - both that he didn't do good enough a job and that he has done something awful by simply teaching them these lessons - he bends to the will of the government when he is asked. These two examples reveal just how powerless art is in the face of politics.
The Judas Tree and the Betrayal of the Church and Art
Bolano compares the church's willful ignorance of injustice in Chile, as well as its collusion with the Pinochet government, to that of the story of Judas from the New Testament. After betraying Jesus, Judas is said to have hung himself from a tree that was forever cursed.
By using the Judas imagery, Bolano is suggesting that the church, as well as art, had within its grasp the highest of ideals: justice, human dignity, and life and liberty. Yet, they betrayed those ideals for their own personal benefit. In this way, Bolano's tale is not necessarily a harsh critique on Christianity or art, per se, but instead on the institutions and groups that form around the ideals of art and Christianity - and that inherently look out for their own interests over those of the highest ideals.
The Preservation of the Church
Bolano accuses the church of using methods of oppression and violence to secure their own preservation. This is symbolized in the novel by Urrutia's trip to Europe in which he was to learn of the European preservation methods. Though the trip is said to be about the preservation of building, Bolano slyly suggests that the real purpose is the preservation of the institution of the church through coercion and violence.
The falcon and the pigeon are the books' most potent symbols of this relationship. In order to preserve their cultural dominance, they have oppressed the common masses by taking their money and scarring them with doctrine. When it was necessary they bent to the will of the state.
Bolano does suggest that this has not always worked for the church. In the scene in which Urrutia visits Paris, he mentions that there were no pigeons around. This could be taken as a jab as French religious culture in which the church, largely because of state sponsorship, lost most of its member following the revolution of the eighteenth century.
The Impermanence of Fame
The scene in which Farewell and Urrutia see visions within the shadows of the passersby of Santiago foreshadow their own decreasing importance in the art scene of Chile. By the end of the novel, Urrutia, though he abhors the parties, cannot help but go to Maria Canales's house again and again because he feels his own importance in the cultural elite of the country declining.
Farewell mistakenly believes that he and Neruda will be the only great literary figures standing after Chile's political shifts. He is only partly right, as Neruda is the only Chilean literary great to have ever gained worldwide acceptance. And even then, Neruda's image, as well as Farewell's, is replaced by that of the tree, which we later find out is the Judas Tree. Both Neruda and Farewell jeopardized their fame and importance by ceding the demands of the cultural elites, and then, ceding to the demands of the political establishment. Fame, Bolano suggests, is a poor price to pay for selling one's soul.
The Realist South American Novel
Bolano's novel rejects the prominent South American literary form of magical realism. Magical realism, best embodied by the Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, injects moments of surreal fantasy into real situations. Often, magical realist novels focus on the internal character of the protagonists and deal with issues such as love and grief. Bolano's novel, however, stays focused on the political. It is a realist critique of the political situation in Chile and it does not shy away from the violent and brutal facts of such situations.
While magical realist novels occurs as a tension between the inner thoughts, cultures, and mythologies of a particular culture, Bolano's novel rejects this method to paint a realist portrait of Urrutia, a conflicted and tortured dying man. He does not call on the mythology of Chile to help explain his situation but instead relies on the cold reality of human interaction and political turmoil to elaborate on his inner state. The wizened youth, far from a supernatural character, is revealed to be Urratia's own conscience accusing him of the very real crimes of omission that he committed during his life.
By Night in Chile Questions and Answers
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