By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile Study Guide

Roberto Bolano's "By Night in Chile" is considered one of the great contemporary classics from South America. It is the story of Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest who, on his deathbed, confesses to his collusion and association with the brutal Pinochet dictatorship which was responsible for the killings of thousands of people.

The novel is unique in that it is composed of one long paragraph. Bolano often uses page-long sentences to describe in detail the literary and cultural world of twentieth- century Chile as seen through the eyes of a Chilean literary elite. Urrutia makes a Faustian bargain for his own soul, giving up his calling of morality for a career as a one of Chile's literati. He meets and becomes friends with Chile's literary greats, including Pablo Neruda. But this patronage comes with a price.

Urrutia is a character that both willfully ignores the political turmoil of his country, insisting instead on a return to art as a cure for the country's ills, and eventually becomes tutor and accomplice to Pinochet himself, teaching him a course in Marxism so that Pinochet will know more about his enemies. Urrutia both learns the art of literary criticism as well as the art of ignoring injustice for political and personal gain. He learns of the beauty of art and nature while at the same time preserving the church and state with tactics of violence and oppression.

The climax of the novel comes when Urrutia learns that one of his literary friends, Maria Canales, was secretly hiding a torture chamber in her basement used to torture and execute critics of the Pinochet government. Canales held parties in her house for the literary elites of Chile while in the basement acts of horror and violence were being carried out.

Bolano's novel is both a satire of art and literature as well as a bitingly sharp critique of the church and critical culture of Chile during the last half of the twentieth century. Bolano is able to humanize Urrutia even while implicating him in the horrors that the country underwent during the political turmoil and violence of the Pinochet regime.