By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile Politics and the Latin American Novel in the 20th Century

Few areas of literature have been as heavily influenced by the political climate of particular times and places as has the literature of Latin America in the 20th century. Just as Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile is a rant against the powers that allowed brutality and injustice in the Pinochet regime, so too have other Latin American novelists sought to describe and embody the times and politics of their native lands through the form of the novel.

The "boom" of Latin American literature can be said to have started in the 1950's. Though literature in Latin America has long been a part of the culture of that region for hundreds of years, it was in this rising post-colonial world of the last half of the 20th century that Latin American novelists first began to be noticed outside of their home lands and to gain recognition in Europe and North America. This, of course, caused its own problems (which Bolano mocks in his own novel through the story of Don Salvador), for, as critics have noted, Latin American literature was then subjected to the tastes of Western European and North American culture and validated through that culture, a process many Latin American artists have found revolting.

The genesis for the explosion in Latin American literature, however, was in the political turmoil that embroiled the region in the 20th century. As former colonizing states such as Spain and Portugal, began their withdrawal of colonized Latin American lands, vacuums of power were often left in governments throughout that region. Suffering from dire poverty and starvation, as well as political oppression, communism and socialism began to take root in the political imaginations of many of the people of Latin America.

One of the most important of these revolutions took place in Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power and installed a communist regime. Under the new leadership, Cuba opened its doors to a multitude of left-leaning artists and writers with the hope that their work would inspire other nations to follow in the communist revolution of the time. Chile was just such a country as it elected a Socialist government in the 1960's which eventually fell to the Pinochet regime.

The most striking example of the literary boom in Latin American literature has been Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Garcia Marquez, most known in the US for writing Love in the Time of Cholera and A Thousand Years of Solitude is Latin America's premier writer of magical realism, a style that was invented by Latin American authors that combines the realism of the modern novel with the mythology of Latin America. Garcia Marquez, though he struggled for many years as a young writer, found great fame in the 1960's, having millions of his books sold and translated into numerous languages.

Roberto Bolano's novel By Night in Chile marks a shift in Latin American literature from magical realism to a modern realism that encompasses satire and a critique of power. Bolano's novel, critics have argued, belongs in the pantheon of great Latin American novels because it does not attempt to use the often farcical style of magical realism, but instead relies on a sharp political and institutional critique of the political situation of Chile. Thus, like novelists inspired towards optimism by the political revolutions of the 1950's and 60's, Bolano's novel is a darker, realistic assessment of the world that those revolutions have created. In both cases, politics has inspired the art that helps define a region.